Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Spanking Is Not Whipping (and Why It Matters)

Tempting though it is to take a simplified view, I don’t want to be the one to claim that once you’ve defined your terms you’ve found a way to understand any disagreement. However, I am quite willing to propose that clear definitions will help make constructive discussions of arguments about corporal punishment of children. Here is an effort to start the process:

Spanking is not whipping. Spanking is not paddling or beating. Spanking may or may not be the same as a smack. Spanking may or may not be equivalent to a whup, a whoop, or a tap. Spanking is not caning, belting, or flogging, or even slippering.

Spanking has been defined again and again, in the course of discussions about differences between corporal punishment of children and physical abuse of children. Spanking involves a small number of blows given with an adult’s open hand, usually to a child’s buttocks, legs, or hands. It does not include blows to the face or head or “boxing” the ears. Spanking does not employ kicking, giving blows with the closed fist, or using an object like a whip, switch, wooden spoon, belt, or razor strop to strike. Spanking does not cause bruising, bleeding, or welts, although it may leave a reddened mark for some minutes on pale skin.

This definition appears clear enough, and it is quite familiar to anyone who has read a little of the literature about child abuse and physical methods of punishment. Yet few people seem able to make the distinction. The Nov.7 Times article on children whose deaths were associated with the recommendations for corporal punishment of Michael and Debi Pearls (now at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/07/us/deaths-put-focus-on-pastors-advocacy-of-spanking.html?scp=1&sq=1&sq=Michael%20Pearls&st=cse) bore the following headline: “Preaching Virtue of Spanking, Even as Deaths Fuel Debate”. Yet the Pearls’ recommendation was not for spanking; it was for whipping with a narrow object like a willow switch or plastic plumbing supply line. Advocating for the opposite viewpoint, Project NoSpank (www.nospank.net) uses the word “spank” in its name, yet focuses primarily on corporal punishment involving blows with objects.

Why is it important to clarify whether corporal punishment involves actual spanking, as defined, or some other form of blows? To begin with, when we’re talking about important things, it’s wise to be sure exactly what’s under discussion. And, second, it really does not do to dismiss the differences on the grounds that “corporal punishment is corporal punishment” and that details like its intensity are irrelevant. Nobody would say that scolding is always the same thing, when it can range from a quiet request that a child think twice, to terrifying yelling and screaming coupled with threats of mayhem. We have every reason to think that, in corporal punishment as well as in other treatments, there is a dose-response relationship, and that more of a treatment should be expected to have a greater effect than a small amount does. We are not likely to be able to understand the influence of corporal punishment unless we are sure how intense and how lengthy the punishment is.

It’s obvious how a clear definition of spanking is necessary for understanding of ordinary claims about physical punishment. Is it also important for the understanding of research on outcomes of corporal punishment, or can we expect researchers and discussants to insist on definitions of terms? As it turns out, published research reports are not always cautious about definitions. For example, two papers by Elizabeth Gershoff conclude that corporal punishment may have short-term benefits, but may also cause long-term harm by increasing aggression and aggravating mental health problems (Gershoff, E.T. [2002]. Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Psychological Bulletin, 128, 539-579; Gersgoff, E.T. [2010]. More harm than good: A summary of scientific research on the intended and unintended effects of corporal punishment on children. Law & Contemprary Problems, 73, 31-56). Criticizing these papers, however, other authors pointed out that Gershoff’s work had combined studies of spanking with studies of other forms of corporal punishment (Larzelere, R.E., & Baumrind, D. [2010]. Are spanking injunctions scientifically supported? Law & Contemporary Problems, 73, 57-87). Examining research on spanking alone, as defined above, did not show an association with long-term problems.

By the way, there’s a distinct possibility that neither spanking nor other forms of corporal punishment have long-term influences of their own. Instead, it might well be that the kinds of parents who choose to spank, and the other kinds who choose other corporal punishment, have other ways of influencing their children, through the behavior they model and through the specific instructions or messages they communicate. In addition, the kinds of children who do things that their parents believe require physical punishment (like taking dangerous risks or harming other people) may be different in personality to begin with, and retain their differences as they grow older-- rather than being “shaped” by their parents’ child-rearing methods.

If people want to claim that God wants children to be punished physically, it’s pointless to argue with their belief system, nor does it matter much whether they advocate spanking or blows with objects. Those people don’t need or want specific definitions. However, if the argument is about the outcome-- whether children who are spanked develop well or poorly, and whether the effects of other physical punishments are the same or different-- we need to avoid the Times' headline-writer’s blurring of distinctions and be sure we all know what we’re talking about.

11 comments:

  1. You say,

    "Why is it important to clarify whether corporal punishment involves actual spanking, as defined, or some other form of blows? To begin with, when we’re talking about important things, it’s wise to be sure exactly what’s under discussion. And, second, it really does not do to dismiss the differences on the grounds that “corporal punishment is corporal punishment” and that details like its intensity are irrelevant. Nobody would say that scolding is always the same thing, when it can range from a quiet request that a child think twice, to terrifying yelling and screaming coupled with threats of mayhem. We have every reason to think that, in corporal punishment as well as in other treatments, there is a dose-response relationship, and that more of a treatment should be expected to have a greater effect than a small amount does. We are not likely to be able to understand the influence of corporal punishment unless we are sure how intense and how lengthy the punishment is."

    I am sorry Jean but what you are suggesting here and throughout your commentary is entirely and unequivocally part of a diseased child-rearing mentality. ANY kind of corporal
    punishment under the inter-generational lens without fail, "For Your Own Good" is a form of violence and leaves unarguable and systemic emotional wounds. The common retort was well, "Look how I turned out, and to be honest with you without it my behavior would have escalated, I would have not known boundaries and turned out much worse, a little smack on the tukus doesn't hurt anyone." (and other such centuries long pedagogical BS myths).

    I am quite sorry but ANY type of thinking that would even remotely intimate,"Now, let's weigh the evidence put things in perspective (i.e., look at degree intensity and dosages and times administered)" is fundamentally advocating(without necessarily consciously intending)a perpetuation of child abusive practices under the farcical coinage of "Good measured child-rearing practices." Please for one of the more enlightened psychoanalytical literature in the field I would strongly suggest taking at least a peek at the voluminous work of one of the most brilliant psychoanalysts on this subject, the late Dr Alice Miller, "For Your Own Good" the hidden cruelty of childhood rearing..Banished Knowledge, The Body Never lies, etc....

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  2. Well, Neil, I can't agree with your position. As the Alice Miller belief system keeps cropping up, I think I will do a separate post on these issues in the near future.

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  3. Jean, I am very curious as to what you mean by the "Alice Miller belief system keeps cropping up." I look very much forward to that and related posts.

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  4. Well, Jean, I won't go as far as Neil here, but you know my issue is with the concept of punishment generally. Jail for kidnapping, lethal injection for murder, seems ironic and illogical. The good people confine and kill the bad people for confining and . . . I think you get it. Point is, the GOOD people are using pain to teach, seems to me that places a clear upper limit on how good people, society are going to be. So from here, where any sort of punishment is completely illogical, drawing distinctions between spanking and whipping seems like . . . haggling.
    Also, I'll give you another analogy. When I hear "just a few pats on the butt", it sounds to me very like some guy telling me "so I like to have a few beers!"
    I don't know if your work puts you in contact with extremely troubled families, and maybe you think most families are not so bad, but I've got a message for you from working class suburbia: they pretty much are. Many regular people are not so different from the ones who get their kids taken away from them, and often, the difference is not in degree of abuse, but in degree of intimidation and organization. Like a lot of crime, it's often the less dangerous, less organized ones who get caught.
    Sorry, dramatic and anecdotal again. I'll trust you to sort the good from the crap.

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  5. Jeff, I know that many or even most families are pretty awful. Read my work about Holding Therapy or about the Pearls' methods if you think I'm not aware.

    I also know that people minimize their physical punishment by special language. To call a spank a "pat" is obviously deceptive. I'm sure you've heard of "just a tap", too.

    Nevertheless, there are clearly differences between two smacks on the bottom with a bare hand and other forms of physical punishment. I recently read an account of a "deliverance" (exorcism of the Pentacostal type) in which the mother was told to "spank" her child; she said she couldn't because she didn't have a paddle (!), so the exorcist told her to use her shoe (!!). That "spank" is different from the one I mean. Striking with an object is a different matter from striking with the bare hand, in part because the spanker feels the blow too, as the weapon-wielder does not.

    In addition, I'd argue that punishing children by withholding food (see the Jackson case in Voorhees, NJ several years ago) or providing only inappropriate food like uncooked beans (see the Viktor Matthey case), making them stay in cold places without coverings, "hot-saucing" them or putting alum on their tongues (see Pittsburgh news reports of day care punishment several years ago), keeping them in cages (see Vasquez case, Santa Barbara CA), etc., are all more dangerous physically than bare-hand spanking, and because they are unusual are also psychologically more damaging. That's why I would like to see all of those methods, as well as whipping, wiped out, before we start worrying about bare-hand spanking. And I would especially like therapists of different ilks to stop using those methods and encouraging parents to do so. ( Saying as much got me sued for defamation last year-- fortunately, the case was dismissed.)

    I don't say people OUGHT to spank their children. I don't believe that most children's development will suffer because they are deprived of spanking. But I do consider that for some families, in some circumstances, one or two bare-hand smacks (and I do mean one or two) can have a positive outcome that those families may not manage to achieve in any other way. (N.B. I don't say the outcome cannot be achieved otherwise, just that those families are unlikely to achieve it.)Without any good evidence that their practice is harmful, why should we tell those people not to use a method that works for them?

    I also want to point out that the impact of any childhood experience depends to some extent on context. If no one else gets spanked, and you do, that will be a disturbing situation. If everyone else gets spanked, and you do too--- probably not disturbing. To take an extreme example--Although I'm far from supporting "female circumcision", I'd say that the psychological effects of this experience on girls whose friends, sisters, and mothers all share it are quite different from those for a girl who never heard of such a thing before or after but was grabbed by some maniac and mutilated.

    Daniel Siegel has said something along these lines: "It isn't what happens to you when you're a child that matters, it's what you make of it later." What you make of spanking may depend on context, your community, other things your parents do or say. It doesn't operate just by itself.

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  6. Thank you for your post. I was "spanked" as a child, but usually it was with a belt and I was bare naked. That to me is a whipping. It just hurt too much and was so humiliating.

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    1. No,I would say that definitely isn't spanking, and is neither necessary or all right.

      What we sometimes forget is that even other children who observe this kind of thing are
      negatively influenced by it.

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  7. I totally agree with you, as you state in another post, that the whole context is more important than the actual spanking. A loved and spanked child will obviously do better than an unloved and unspanked child.

    But I do find spanking particularly humiliating, not because of the potential pain, but of the position of the child that is undressed, flipped upside down, and then handled (with more or less violence) in his intimate area. I have read that face slaps are worse than buttock spanks, and I strongly disagree: when slapped in the face, child and parent are on the same level, almost like two adults, and the child can even slap back his parent, which of course he cannot when he is spanked.

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    1. Hmm! You raise a couple of questions about how to define spanking. I have generally thought of it as done through clothes, with the child more or less upright. Do you suppose the "two smacks, max" proponents are using your definition? Really, I've never seen any discussion of this, even by those who are trying to define spanking.

      As to face slaps, I think there are several issues. One is that blows to the head can do serious damage-- the old British "box on the ear" custom caused deafness in some cases. Culturally, slapping the face is regarded as an especially humiliating and dominating act. And surely we don't want an exchange of fisticuffs between parent and child!

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  8. I don't necessarily think there's anything wrong with spanking a child on bare skin with an implement. It's actually safer - you can see what you're doing and are able to create more of a sting with less force. I've found that a light leather strap is perfect. As for "handling" a child in intimate areas, well you're probably bathing and dressing them too. The area covered by underpants is the most sensitive place on the body, which makes it the ideal place to spank. Never hard enough to injure, but enough to sting and get their attention.

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    1. You may not think there's anything wrong with it, but you should be aware that striking a child with an implement is usually considered abuse, for both legal and research purposes. Spanking is defined as striking with the open hand.

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