Sunday, February 5, 2012
Puzzlement About Punishment
A kind reader called my attention to further evidence on our confused beliefs and assumptions about corporal punishment. The Toronto Globe and Mail (www.globeandmail.com/life/parenting/young-children/discipline/spanking-your-kid-does-it-help-or-hurt/article2324686/ has quoted the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, as speculating that parents feel anxious about discipline because of anti-spanking laws. He was speaking in support of other politicians’ claims that British riots were the long-term result of lax parental discipline – an interesting counterpoint to the suggestions of some that riots and other violence result from excessive parental punishment.
According to the Globe and Mail, surveys of Canadians suggest that parents simultaneously use physical punishment and believe that it’s not a good thing to do. This would also seem to be the case in the United States, and I would guess that one of the reasons for this apparent paradox is that parents feel under social and internal pressure to Do Something, and they see physical punishment as the “gold standard” for Doing Something. Sally Provence, one of the doyennes of the early childhood movement, used to say, “Don’t just do something. Stand there and watch.” She felt it was easy to follow impulses to interfere with what a child was doing, but both harder and more constructive to observe the situation and the child.
Parents rarely hear Provence’s maxim, though, and if they watch and reflect on what’s happening, they’re likely to have friends, neighbors, teachers, and grandparents tell them that they are lax and creating trouble. One mother was telling me a few days ago that her young daughter very occasionally talked back to her teacher, and the teacher would send home a note demanding to be told what the mother had “done about it”-- the message was that some punishment at home was required, whether physical punishment, loss of privileges, whatever. When a note describing the punishment was sent back to the school, the teacher was satisfied-- until, of course, the next time this unsolved problem became apparent.
Multiple sources tell parents to Do Something. Whatever they do, other voices will tell them it was the wrong thing-- some that physical punishment causes anger and violence, the others that lack of physical punishment causes anger and violence. And whatever capacity parents have for reflection and considering the best approach to take with their children, that capacity will be diminished by the social and emotional pressure they experience both inside and outside their families.
All that confusion is worsened by our apparent inability to even agree on the terms we use. I think I’m in line with some authors when I define spanking as one or two smacks on the bottom or legs (clothed or unclothed) with the adult’s bare and open hand. But a recent off-blog correspondent has said that she thought of “spanking” not as a smack, but “serious authoritarian whopping”. I recently read an account of a religious ritual in which a mother was told she should now spank her uncooperative child, and she said she couldn’t, she didn’t have a paddle-- so the clergyman suggested her shoe, and she used that. (What ritual?? I’ll save that for another time.) We just don’t seem to have any shared language, understood by everybody, that discriminates between a mildly painful and physically safe event at one extreme, and clobbering the child with a large object at the other extreme. When someone says “I gave him a tap”, we can’t tell whether that was a quick smack on the hand, or the belt or razor strop (if anyone besides me is old enough to remember those thick leather straps).
For anyone who wants to think seriously about physical punishment, it’s important to be aware of how punishment is differentiated from abuse for research purposes and in law. The fourth national incidence study of child maltreatment in 2010 listed specific actions that would be considered abusive; these are discussed at www.acf.hhs.gov/programs/opre/abuse_neglect/natl_incid/.
The Toronto Globe and Mail article cited earlier described a 2004 ruling of Canada’s Supreme Court about the “justification” of physical punishment (I am not sure but what this might have been better stated as “acceptability”). Here are the circumstances in which physical punishment of a child is legally acceptable under the Canadian criminal code:
The punisher is a parent, not a teacher.
The child is between 2 and 12 years of age.
The child is capable of learning from the physical punishment.
It involves “minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature”.
It does not involve blows with objects or blows to the head.
It is not “degrading, inhuman, or harmful” (and I would appreciate any glosses on those words that any readers can provide, because I am really unsure what would be “inhuman”.)
It is corrective rather than due to the caregiver’s “frustration, loss of temper, or abusive personality”. (This too is unclear-- does it mean that a person who is frustrated cannot also seek to correct a child’s behavior?)
The Canadian list seems to cover a number of the points that discriminate between what I call spanking and what I’d call beating. There are still some issues that I would think need to be established, though. For example, how often does such punishment occur? Is it possible for a simple spanking to move to the abuse category if it occurs ten times a day, and no other corrective measures are used?
Well, we can’t really depend on the law to answer these questions. Nor, I submit, are psychologists ready to answer almost any specific questions about the safety (in emotional terms) or effectiveness of physical punishment. It does seem that all answers will have to come from looking at punishment in context: what happened before the punishment? What happened afterward? How are the cultural differences in attitudes toward physical punishment played out in outcomes for children of different groups? Yes, it’s complicated -- not like Doing Something. But we do seem to have made enough progress to begin to ask what the “gold standard” for discipline really is.