Hitting People Is Wrong -
And Children Are People Too

The following is exerpted from a Rädda Barnen (Swedish Save the Children) pamphlet, Hitting People Is Wrong - And Children Are People Too, published by EPOCH-Worldwide. EPOCH-Worldwide is an informal alliance of organizations which share the aim of ending all physical punishment of children by education and legal reform. It is coordinated by EPOCH - End Physical Punishment of Children - a national campaign launched in 1989 in the UK.
Their address is:

77 Holloway Road
London N7 8JZ

phone: (44) 071 700 0627
fax: (44) 071 700 1105


ARGUMENT #1: Parents' right to do as they think best with their children is sacred: any interference or legal restriction will destroy family privacy.

The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child recasts the concept of parents' rights as a concept of parental responsibility which includes responsibility to protect the rights of the children themselves. Although the assertion of children's rights seems an unwarranted intrusion to people accustomed to thinking of them as parents' possessions, other aspects of inter-personal violence within families - including behavior between husbands and wives - is already subject to social control and/or law almost everywhere.

ARGUMENT #2: In many societies, almost all parents sometimes hit their children and always have done. Generations of parents cannot be wrong.

Parents hit children because they were hit as children Children identify with their parents or parent figures - that is the basis of all family bonds - so they cannot afford to believe that what those parents do is 'wrong.' Even cruelly abused children seldom see themselves as victims, but as wrongdoers who merited hose punishments. Many grow up expressing gratitude to punitive parents. Most will repeat the pattern of their own childhoods when the become parents.

ARGUMENT #3: Children must be taught to obey and physical punishment is necessary to accomplish this.

The assumption that physical punishment is effective in modifying children's behavior is based on a misreading of everyday experiences and a misunderstanding of popularised psychological research. The idea that children will stop doing wrong if they are hit for it has been wrongly ascribed a pedigree going back to the great figures in behaviorism and learning theory. When a child keeps getting into danger, both professionals and parents may feel that a smack will 'teach her a lesson' and the fact that the child stops exploring to cry seems to prove the point. But that 'lesson' is only a real contribution to discipline if the child's FUTURE behavior is altered.

To change behavior we have to do several things that punishment cannot do: motivate children to do something different from what impulse or inclination suggests; ensure that they understand what that different and desirable behavior is and that it is open to them, and make sure that choosing to behave that way brings some reward. The slapped child is hurt, angry and humiliated. She knows she has done wrong but she neither knows nor cares what she should have done instead and should do in the future. When she stops crying she will start exploring again and the cycle will repeat.

ARGUMENT #4: Even if physical punishment is not effective it should not be outlawed because little smacks and spankings are in no way dangerous, do not cause real pain and are entirely unrelated to abuse.

Physical punishment that does not cause pain or discomfort is a tautology. If it does not hurt it is not punishment. If such blows are not really intended to cause pain, why are they not directed at the punisher's thigh instead of the child's?

In the large body of international research concerning physical punishment no single study suggests that it does good, numerous studies suggest that it does harm. The following are some of the points made again and again:

* Hitting children is physically dangerous because children are small and fragile relative to punishing adults. Misplaced or dodged blows that are intended to be light sometimes cause ruptured eardrums or falls. Shaking babies or toddlers can cause concussion, brain damage and death.

* Mild punishments in infancy are so ineffective that they tend to escalate as children grow. The 'little slap' of babyhood often becomes a real spanking by four years and a belting by seven.

* While not all physical abuse of children is a simple escalation of physical punishment, parents convicted of cruelty frequently explain that their ill-treatment of the child began with disciplinary intent.

* Physical punishment can be emotionally harmful to children. Research especially indicts messages confusing love with pain, anger with submission: 'I punish you FOR YOUR OWN SAKE'; 'I hurt you BECAUSE I LOVE YOU'; 'My punishments make you feel angry and humiliated but you must bottle up your anger, submit, pretend remorse.'

* An enormous body of research shows that aggression breeds aggression. Children subjected to physical punishment are more likely than others to be aggressive to siblings; to bully other children at school; to take part in aggressively anti-social behavior in adolescence; to be violent to their spouses and children and to commit violent crimes. National commissions or committees in the United States, the Council of Europe, Germany, and Australia have all recommended ending the physical punishment of children as the most effective single way of reducing all violence in society.

ARGUMENT #5: Even if physical punishment does not prevent aggressive behavior, it is still the best way to punish it; children who bite should be bitten; older children who bully others should be beaten.

Psychological research shows that where there is a contradiction between an adult's words and actions, children pay more attention to what is done than to what is said. If there is one circumstance above all others in which physical punishment is most likely to produce aggression it is the use of physical punishment FOR aggressive behavior. Even while the punishing parent's words say 'you are not to hit other people,' his hitting hand demonstrates the opposite.

ARGUMENT #6: Many parents are under stress from difficult socio-economic conditions. Forbidding physical punishment would add to that stress and should await better standards of living.

This argument is a tacit admission of an obvious truth: physical punishment is often an outlet for the pent-up feelings of adults rather than an attempt to educate children. In most parts of the world parents urgently need more social and economic support than they get, but however real adults' problems may be, venting them on children cannot be justifiable, nor is there any reason why children's protection from physical punishment should await improvements in their parents' lives.

In any case, hitting children is seldom an effective stress-reliever. Most parents who hit out in temper feel guilty; most who discipline by painful punishment wish that they could find other ways; few find pleasure in the company of angry, crying children. Life in families that eschew physical punishment in favor of more positive discipline is generally less stressful for all.

ARGUMENT #6: If adults are not to hit children, what alternatives will ensure good discipline?

Alternatives to physical punishments are not different punishments but an approach to 'discipline' which is positive rather than punitive. Research clearly shows that effective control of children's behavior does not depend upon punishment for wrong-doing but on clear and consistent limits that prevent it. Thereafter good discipline - which must ultimately be self-discipline - depends on adults modelling and explaining the behavior they prefer; having high expectations of children's willingness, and realistic expectations of their developmental ability, to achieve it, and rewarding their efforts with praise, companionship and respect.

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