Corporeal punishment: Should we spank our kids?

Should corporal punishment (spanking) ever be one of the disciplinary tools parents use?

Well, No. Although, there are times when I jokingly say to my friends, “that kid needs a good spankin.” What I am referring to is the child’s lack of respect for parental authority. My own interest in parenting approaches to discipline stems from the mentorship that I received from Dr. Phillip Squires (a pediatrician in Stratford, Ontario) who introduced me to Dr. Gordon Neufeld, author of “Hold on to your kids.” Their basic philosophy regarding discipline is based on the research done around Attachment Theory pioneered by Bowlby and Ainsworth. I’ll briefly explore my understanding of Attachment theory before drawing conclusions about corporal punishment as a disciplinary tool.

Attachment theory began with the work of John Bowlby. His research demonstrated that early child-parent (caregiver) attachment relationships act as a “secure base” from which a child can confidently explore their environments, engage others, and have an overall positive worldview. Bowlby believed that these attachment relationships were the result of evolutionary processes, and that what happened in early childhood would determine future adult behaviors.

Mary Ainsworth took Bowlby’s work a step further by introducing children to the “strange situation.” What she found was that children fall into four categories of attachment (actually 3, but we won’t get into that): Secure attachment, anxious-resistant (insecure) attachment, anxious-avoidant (insecure) attachment, and disorganized attachment. Secure attachment is the ideal form of attachment in that it implies the child is confident that a secure base is available to them from which they can safely explore their environments.

Unrelated to the work of Ainsworth and Bowlby, Diana Baumrind demonstrated with her research around corporeal punishment that there are three styles of parenting: Authoritative, authoritarian, and indulgent. A fourth, neglectful, was later added to this list. I don’t think that it is just by mere coincidence that Ainsworth and Baumrind came to very similar conclusions: a balanced level of responsiveness and firm expectations (without being overly rigid) is required for normal development to occur.

Of course, I don’t believe we should be reductionists in our approach and think that everything boils down to these simple conclusions. However, the research around attachment parenting demonstrates that any parenting style that is overly responsive, overly rigid, overly indulgent, or neglectful will result in negative outcomes. On the other hand, Baumrind’s research around corporeal punishment did not conclude that spanking WILL have detrimental effects; on the contrary, her results indicated that corporeal punishment within the context of an authoritative parenting environment will be “unlikely to have significant detrimental effects” (Wikipedia – hey, I couldn’t remember everything! Give me a break). However, in such a context, it is also very likely that a parent would use alternatives such as contingencies, routines, consistency, and positive reinforcement. Subsequently, her research didn’t indicate any beneficial effects.

The point?! Well the gist of Dr. Neufeld’s argument is that children are naturally predisposed to being dependent on their parents for guidance, direction, and feedback. He argues that, especially in North America, parents have become afraid to parent, and we indulge and neglect so much that we’re often caught off guard when our children have successfully taken our authority away from us. As a result, we resort to corporeal punishment as a means of restoring our authority as parents.

What’s the difference between corporeal punishment and abuse?

Well, simply put, for corporeal punishment to be effective it has to effect an immediate change in behavior. Otherwise, what’s the point? Just like any type of positive punishment (introduction of an aversive stimulus to change a target behvaior), the physical touch has to be aversive. A tap on the child’s bum that causes no pain will not be an effective stimulus. Therefore, although corporeal punishment is painful, it should not be lasting (as far as physical damage goes). I think this is where the difference is between abuse and corporeal punishment.

Check out this fact sheet from the Canadian Department of Justice on Section 43 of the Criminal Code (Corporeal Punishment): Code 43

Should corporal punishment be made illegal?

Hmmm, I’m really not sure about this. When it comes to domestic behavior and the law I always get a little nervous. It’s extremely difficult to regulate and enforce parental behavior even if we’re ABSOLUTELY sure of its effects. I think that abuse is abuse and harassment is harassment. If I see a parent give their child a little tap in the butt and a verbal reprimand to adjust some not-so-good behavior, hey, whatever. It’s nice to see parents involved at any level! But if I see a parent throw their tot over their knees and pull out the whip because little Tommy threw dirt at Darla, well, I’m probably going to go over there and pull my own whip.

I’m sure someone will pull the “freedom of speech/infringement of rights” card on this one, but I really don’t care much for that argument. People are always quick to argue freedom of speech and less government, but not so quick to act responsibly and to make a conscious effort to adjust their own behaviors. So if we were living in a society where I could trust that people were to act responsibly, than I would say corporeal punishment shouldn’t be made illegal because society can regulate itself. However, people generally don’t act responsibly or conscientiously (I’m generalizing because it’s appropriate, not because it’s true); therefore, a law may be necessary to keep folks from beating their kids in public and to give bystanders a justification to intervene (though why a person would need a law to stop abuse from happening is beyond me).

Now, if laws were to be implemented it should not be in the absence of proper public education, and this education should be focused mainly on alternative disciplinary approaches.

The following studies may be of interest to those wanting to study the research on corporeal punishment bans:

Bussmann, K. (2004). Evaluating the Subtle Impact of a Ban on Corporal Punishment of Children in Germany. Child Abuse Review, 13(5), 292-311. doi:10.1002/car.866.

Durrant, J., & Janson, S. (2005). Law reform, corporal punishment and child abuse: The case of Sweden. International Review of Victimology,12(2), 139-158. Retrieved from PsycINFO database.

Gershoff, E., & Bitensky, S. (2007). The case against corporal punishment of children: Converging evidence from social science research and international human rights law and implications for U.S. public policy. Psychology, Public Policy, and Law, 13(4), 231-272. doi:10.1037/1076-8971.13.4.231.

Janson, S. (2005). Response to Beckett, C. (2005) ‘The Swedish Myth: The corporal punishment ban and child death statistics’, British Journal of Social Work, 35(1), pp. 125-38. British Journal of Social Work, 35(8), 1411-1415. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bch369.

Larzelere, R., & Johnson, B. (1999). Evaluations of the effects if Sweden’s spanking ban on physical child abuse rates: A literature review.Psychological Reports, 85(2), 381-392. doi:10.2466/PR0.85.6.381-392.

Of particular contention seems to be Sweden’s ban of corporeal punishment in 1979. The debate includes arguments that the ban led to the decrease in corporeal punishment, that the decrease was occuring before the ban was even put into place, and that the ban alone was not the cause of the decrease; rather, a combination of policies and cultural changes took place that ultimately facilitated a decrease in corporeal punishment and its corollaries.

Jump in with your thoughts! Please make sure you do your research though. Anecdotes are pretty much useless on this site unless you’re clear that it’s simply an anecdote and not a means of supporting your position.

Comments from Christopher McLeod (June 1st 2010)

Good Article. One of the major issues surrounding parenting and corporeal punishment for me as been in the application of positive reinforcement to extinguish undesired behaviour. In order for behavioural modification to be successful the positive reinforcer must be applied at the same level every time the undesired behaviour is exhibited, at least at the beginning of the behavioural modification cycle. This can be incredibly difficult to accomplish. Considering variations within caregivers (between parents, babysitters, daycare workers) and environmental considerations (some setting may not be conducive to applying the reinforcing mechanism).

Also add to that the difficulty of divorcing the emotional response on the part of the person applying the reinforcing mechanism. Frustration, anger, value judgement, etc…should not be present when applying the reinforcing mechanism. It becomes counter-productive the behavioural modification program.

It is my belief that if you are going to use the application of an adverse stimuli (a spank) to change behaviour then you are evoking a response centred around avoiding that adverse stimuli (fear) and not directly exhibiting the desired behaviour. It seems intuitive to instead reward the desired behaviour and remove rewards when the undesired behaviour is evident. This approach, of course, needs to be applied with full disclosure of expectations and outcomes so that the child is aware of what is desired of herself.

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