Beating the Devil Out of Them:...

The following review, written by Martha Woodall, appeared in the January 8, 1995 issue of the National Inquirer. The book, by author Dr. Murray Straus, is entitled Beating The Devil Out Of Them: Corporal Punishment In American Families.


For more than 22 years, Murray S. Straus, founder and director of the University of New Hampshire's Family Research Lab, has waged a sometimes lonely campaign against domestic violence.

His thesis is simple and provocative: The family itself is "the cradle of violence" and "a reduction in the largely taken for granted family violence called spanking is one of the most important steps we can make toward achieving a less violent world."

With his latest work, Beating The Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families, Straus makes a passionate plea for the end of spanking and extrapolates from a slender - but growing - body of research to support his contention that corporal punishment is damaging to children and is an ineffective method of disciplining them.

"The research reported in this book supports the idea that ending corporal punishment is one of the most important steps to achieving a less violent world," he asserts. "I am not saying that the evidence is definitive. I believe future research will confirm the conclusion that the violence we so abhor and fear has part of its origins in the actions of loving parents who, by spanking children, unintentionally teach violence along with responsibility, honesty, cleanliness and Godliness."

He reminds us that beating wives, children and employees was once acceptable. Although battering children is no longer tolerated, Straus looks forward to the day when spanking - what he terms "the virtuous violence" - will also be taboo.

Straus acknowledges that such a dramatic turnabout in public opinion will be difficult. But he is cheered by a few glimmers of enlightenment. Many Scandinavian and Western European nations have banned corporal punishment. And, several U.S. groups, including the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, have adopted statements opposing corporal punishment.

Straus delineates the legal distinction between child abuse and corporal punishment, and defines the latter as "the use of physical force with the intention of causing the child pain, but not injury, for the purpose of correction or control of the child's behavior." He notes that every state of the union permits parents to administer corporal punishment to their children. And he points out what many social workers and emergency-room physicians know all too well: Many child-abuse injuries are the result of corporal punishment.

Working with Denise A. Donnelly and others who coauthored some of the chapters, Straus maintains that the link between corporal punishment and child abuse - and later connections with domestic violence, depression and even lowered earnings and masochistic sex - have not been explored adequately because spanking is such an ingrained part of American life. And he implicates the overwhelming majority of childrearing books in the creation of a culture that believes spanking is sometimes necessary.

"The universal and chronic use of corporal punishment and its potentially harmful effects on children is the best-kept secret of American child psychology," Straus writes. "It is almost as though there were a conspiracy of silence among those who do research on children or write about child rearing."

"Hitting a child to stop misbehavior may the the easy way in the short run, by in the slightly longer run, it makes the job of being a parent more difficult," he says. "This is because spanking reduces the ability of parents to influence their children, especially in adolescence when they are too big to control with physical force."

And, he notes, the more a parent relies on striking to control a child, the more likely the parent is to face escalating problems later because spanking does not help a child to "develop an internalized conscience" to regulate his own behavior and "leads to more physically aggressive behavior by the child."

According to research cited by Straus, the paddled child is also more likely to try to get away with things when the parent isn't looking.

Throughout his book, Straus cites numerous studies to deflate the notion that corporal punishment works, including three separate projects whose conclusions are bound to startle even die-hard proponents of spanking. While studying children with serious conduct problems, those researchers found that the children's behavior improved AFTER their parents stopped spanking.

Non-spanking parents, Straus notes, rely on a variety of strategies, including setting clear standards, providing lots of love and affection, explaining things to the child, and recognizing and rewarding good behavior.

"There is no magic charm," he reminds his readers. "It takes many interactions and many repetitions to bring up children."

Spanking, even when parents employ it "as the last resort," Straus says, is often a manifestation of their own frustration. "Much hitting of children occurs because the parents are angry and out of control," Straus writes. "That is why almost all parents hit toddlers, regardless of whether the parent believes that corporal punishment is appropriate."

What are the consequences of all this spanking? For one thing, Straus reports that research convincingly shows a connection between corporal punishment and sibling violence, as well as other acts of physical aggression. By striking a child, he says, a parent unwittingly is communicating that "when someone does something outrageous and won't listen to reason, it is morally correct to physically attack the offender."

To illustrate how pervasive spanking is, Straus relies heavily on the National Family Violence Surveys of 1975 and 1985, both of which found that more than 90 percent of parent-participants reported using corporal punishment with 3-year-old children. And parents who spank tend to do so often. Two-thirds of the mothers with children under the age of 6 questioned for the National Longitudinal Study of Youth in 1988 said they had hit their child an average of three times a week.

And 40 percent of the parents told the national Family violence Survey that they still hit their 14-year-olds.

Most adults spank, Straus says, because that is the way they were reared and because they have been told that spanking is an effective method of changing children's behavior. Actually, Straus says, spanking does not even work.

And to those adults who scratch their heads and say they were spanked but turned out fine, Straus replies that for one thing, the lasting trauma is lessened when corporal punishment is administered by loving parents who explain why the child is being spanked. But more important, he argues, the consequences are subtle and may not be visible for years.

"The injury from corporal punishment, like the injury from heavy smoking, is in the form of harmful side-effects that, fortunately, most people escape," Straus writes. "But the risk of side-effects is there. Just as smokers have no way of seeing the harm they are doing to their bodies, parents have no way of seeing the harm they are unknowingly doing to their children."

Beating the Devil Out of Them is sometimes repetitive, and while it is replete with descriptions of Straus's statistical methodology and theoretical models, the paucity of the research hampers his ability to support some of his more far-reaching claims, such as linking spanking with later depression, suicide, lower earnings potential, and masochistic sex.

But in this important work, Straus offers such compelling evidence for other damage wrought by corporal punishment that parents, psychologists and educators will no longer be able to pretend that spanking children is harmless. At the very least, Straus's work shows that social scientists need to begin giving corporal punishment far more serious scrutiny. Beating the Devil Out of Them should provide the catalyst.