Does Corporal Punishment work?

This sickening story involves a Texas Judge, William Adams, and a recently unearthed video of him repeatedly beating his sixteen year old, cerebral palsy-afflicted daughter. The video itself is painful to watch for a number of reasons, even if you are one of the majority of Americans who believes that corporal punishment is an effective parental tool.

Three observations about this particular case:

* Judge Adams is in a state of heightened emotional stress that is totally inappropriate for the administration of any sort of physical punishment.

* The direct catalyst for the punishment was her downloading music to her computer.

* The shocking verbal abuse during the physical punishment and the relentless violence of the beating itself - he hits her twenty times - is nauseatingly brutal. She covers her head and torso to defend herself throughout, and he continues to whip her with the belt, pelting her with curses and threats.

The American Psychological Association offers this overview on studies done on the practice of Corporal Punishment. I encourage you to read it, but here is a summary of their findings:

The conclusions reached are in response to a meta-analysis of 88 different studies conducted over a 62 year period.

It seems clear that corporal punishment does not necessarily always result in measurable psychological problems for the child, either while experiencing the punishment or later in life. While the effects of corporal punishment do differ wildly across the spectrum, the severity and frequency of the administered punishment matters a lot, as does the overall psychological state of the parent(s).

What also matters is how corporal punishment is linked to other parental behavior and other patterns of abuse. Verbal and psychological abuse are often linked to physical punishment, and when that happens, the line between discipline and abuse is often crossed.

As any trained expert in the field of child advocacy and psychology tell you, each case is different. That said, make no mistake: corporal punishment is a quick fix tool for gaining a child's compliance and a poor substitute for normative parent/child communication. This sort of punishment, while teaching fear and compliance, does not establish a moral boundary. It does not teach right from wrong. It does not teach respect; it teaches fear. Fear and respect are not the same, and while fear is a great motivator, it does not lead to great discipline and success in the long term.

One result of the data collected from this meta-study was a series of links between corporal punishment and about ten related behaviors and experiences, from childhood to adulthood. Those are generally related to getting immediate compliance, establishing moral internalization, developing quality of relationship with parent. Later in life, those associations can determine mental health, aggression, criminal/antisocial behavior. Finally, and most profoundly, the one association determined later in life is for the continued abuse of one's own children or spouse.

Of these eleven child experiences and behaviors linked to corporal punishment, only one has a demonstrably positive effect, and that's in gaining a child's immediate compliance. The reverberations, or cracks, branching out from this sole (seemingly) effective tool appear to be unanimously negative, and yet this sole positive indicator seems to be enough for many parents to continue disciplining through corporal punishment.

The meta-analysis and its overall findings conclude that corporal punishment is linked to multiple risk factors and inadvisable under many circumstances.

Physical punishment is still a really taboo subject, and for good reason. All parents will tell you that until you have kids, you cannot fathom the sorts of disciplinary requirements that emerge from raising children. Non-parents can judge what they would or would not do, but until they are in that situation themselves, it's impossible to gauge 'what they would do.' As a non-parent, I concede that this is a hard one to argue with.

Additionally, the subject is taboo because many families feel that what happens under their roof is their business and no one else's. It's the 'I raise my kids my way, and you raise yours your way, and we'll leave it at that.' Again, here is a defense that it's hard to argue with. At what point does a parent's behavior become socially unacceptable enough for society to step in and start drawing boundaries?

At what point does systematic, rigorous corporal punishment become abuse? My personal feelings aside - my interpretation of the various studies concludes that when physical discipline becomes a regular occurrence and associates with a pattern of negative reinforcement, threats, a relationship built on fear, and the absence of any sort of consistent moral dimension, then there is a problem.

My personal feelings are tough to put aside. I feel that corporal punishment is a slippery slope. Once it becomes a consistent tool for disciplining, its propensity for overuse and abuse increases. Semi-regular spanking and slapping and hitting can lead to a systematic devolution of a parent / child relationship. Threats, yelling, and invasive touching leads to a bond, albeit an unhealthy bond increasingly divorced from positive associations. Little good can come of this.

I've seen the results of child abuse, and other kinds of abuse, first-hand. It's a testament to the strength of the abuse survivors in my life that they have managed to, despite their considerable emotional handicaps, find the strength to move beyond it. This is not to say that the abuse 'did them a favor' or 'compelled them to succeed,' as some might assert.

In this day and age, I hear a lot of complaining about how some kids aren't disciplined at all. It's as if my generation, and the generation after it, all whom are having children right now, are afraid to administer discipline for fear of beginning an abusive pattern. In other cases, certain cultures believe that childhood is the time for kids to live 'without filters' before they enter their respective disciplines. Does letting a child run amok through somehow 'exorcise' their demons in time for a solid, mature adult to emerge from the cocoon? I think the other extreme - doing nothing at all to administer consistent discipline or teach respect to your children - can be extremely harmful as well.

In either case, I feel corporal punishment doesn't work. I don't think many people understand its true effects, and the limits and side effects of its so-called 'positive' results. The studies don't necessarily come to that conclusion, and the majority of Americans definitely don't feel the way I do, but my own ethical inclinations and my personal, empirical observations have led me there. It doesn't mean I don't believe in discipline (particularly when it's properly administered and consistent), but there is no doubt in my mind that people like Judge William Adams need to serve as an example of exactly how not to be a parent.


Popular Posts