Why isn’t corporal punishment considered domestic abuse?

Yesterday, while bantering with a DSS attorney I really like during a lull in a mediation I was conducting, she mentioned that she used corporal punishment as discipline when her child “needed correction.”  I facetiously responded that I believed I should be able to exercise corporal punishment on my wife when she too “needed correction.” I am fascinated by the use of, and justification for, corporal punishment by women who would never countenance domestic violence in their own intimate relationships. Both of us noted the “rule of thumb,” a belief [now discredited] “that the term originally referred to a law that limited the maximum thickness of a stick with which it was permissible for a man to beat his wife.” While a husband’s use of some force to correct his wife was considered normal a century ago, and was even somewhat tolerated twenty years ago, now it is more often treated as the serious crime that it actually is.  If there is any area of life in which freedom from the fear of violence is most vital it is within one’s home.  While the law increasingly recognizes this, and affords women protection within the home, it refuses, at least in the United States, to afford this protection to children, who remain even more vulnerable than adult women.

Numerous European countries have abolished corporal punishment.  Why do most American parents continue to believe that physical correction of their children is a vital component of discipline?  I never used corporal punishment on my older daughter and have only used it a few times on my younger daughter–feeling vile and hypocritical each time I did.  My wife–to my great admiration–has never resorted to corporal punishment.  We wouldn’t tolerate domestic violence in our own marriage and don’t believe that violence towards our children is acceptable.

While I acknowledge that the dynamic between parent and child is not the same as the dynamic between husband and wife, how does this distinction justify violence (a/k/a physical correction) in the former relationship but not in the latter?  If it because a parent is responsible for a child in a different manner than one spouse is responsible for another spouse, does this mean that physical correction of a spouse is acceptable whenever one spouse has some responsibility over the other?  Does it further mean that physical correction is permissible whenever one person has responsibility over another?  I don’t think so.

Given recent history, being a feminist–and, in my mind, anyone who demands the equal dignity of women and men is a feminist whether they accept that label or not–strikes me as inconsistent with accepting corporal punishment.  I see Western history since the Enlightenment as a movement–perhaps halting at times–towards a civic culture that relies less upon fear and violence and more upon reason and dignity.  It was intolerable that women were expected to live in constant fear of domestic violence within their homes and it should be equally intolerable that we allow our children to live with this same fear.

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