I keep a bumper sticker on the shelf in my office that reads: “It’s NEVER OK to HIT A CHILD.” A few weeks ago, a colleague – a wonderful, kind woman with an Ivy League education who is the mother of three boys – was in my office. She read the bumper sticker out loud and then took issue with its message.
Children can be so frustrating, she said. Sometimes it might be okay to spank a child, she suggested.
Hitting children is deeply ingrained in our Judeo-Christian ethic. Many parents rely on the biblical admonition “spare the rod and spoil the child” to justify hitting their children, usually in a well-intended effort to discipline them. In most states it’s legal for a parent to hit a child for disciplinary purposes.
But when does hitting a child – euphemistically referred to as “spanking” – constitute child abuse?
Some years ago, I was appointed by the court to represent a 7-year-old girl whose father, a Deputy Sheriff, “spanked” her with the heavy leather belt he wore with his uniform, because she rather obviously and ham-handedly changed a grade on her report card. She needed more than a dozen stiches to close the cuts he caused on her buttocks, the backs of her legs and her lower back. He was indignant that children’s protective services had intervened in his parenting choices and sought legal protection for his daughter. After all, he said, he’d been spanked as a child and turned out fine.
These memories rushed back to me last when I saw reports of an article that summarizes five decades of research about the long-term effects of corporal punishment on children. The bottom line: they are not good.
Ironically, children who are spanked are more likely to defy their parents than to comply with their directives. The new report, which reviews research on the outcomes of more than 160,000 children makes clear that spanking is linked to a number of poor life outcomes including: “increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties.”
That sentence, from the University of Texas news release announcing the study, caused me to think of a Flint, Michigan boy I represented in a delinquency case a few years ago. He was charged with assaulting another boy and taking some money from his wallet. As we talked in the detention center, he said, “nobody puts their hands on me but my people.”
That is the kind of statement I’ve heard literally hundreds of times in more than 25 years of representing children in Michigan’s juvenile courts. As we talked, he explained that his father had been in and out of prison most of his life – mostly in. His mother had been addicted to crack cocaine for as long as he could remember. So he had bounced from relative to relative. He told of how his Uncle Tony had repeatedly “whooped” him with an extension cord. I asked if he had any marks from these “whoopings.” He showed me one on his wrist, then one higher up on his arm. Then he stopped.
“Do you have other marks?” I asked. He said he did, on his back. I asked him to show me. He hiked up his shirt to reveal a dozen or more loop shaped scars where Uncle Tony had hit him. Beneath his beautiful smile and charming exterior was a hurt, angry and rageful abused child.
The court sent the boy to live with his aunt and ordered that he receive counseling. But he was too angry and too taken in by the street culture. He got hold of a gun and, with several other boys, broke into a house, assaulted an elderly woman and robbed her. At 15, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Now, some will say these are extreme cases. That’s a fair point. There will, no doubt, be debates and disagreement about the point where discipline ends and child abuse begins. I’m sure that like the Sheriff’s Deputy, Uncle Tony was well-intended. But we should not be surprised when the children we teach to hit, hit us – or others – back.
Frank Vandervort is a clinical professor of law at the University of Michigan. He cofounded the Juvenile Justice Clinic in 2009, is the president of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children and serves as a consultant to Trauma Informed Child Welfare Systems, a federally funded training and technical assistance program.