By Jennifer Lansford
The new NBC miniseries The Slap, which debuted Feb. 12, opens with an adult slapping a misbehaving child, shining a spotlight on a parenting topic that is still hotly debated in America: corporal punishment.
Many Americans try to distinguish between "acceptable" forms of corporal punishment and physical abuse. Increasingly, though, the rest of the world takes a different view. Indeed, the United Nations holds that all forms of corporal punishment violate children's rights, and 44 countries have outlawed all forms of adults' corporal punishment of children, including in the home. It's time for the United States to join them.
My awareness of this issue is informed by my years of research on the topic, as well as by being a mother myself. For the last seven years, my colleagues in nine countries and I have been interviewing mothers, fathers, and children in China, Colombia, Italy, Jordan, Kenya, the Philippines, Sweden, Thailand, and the United States about different forms of discipline and children's adjustment. In each country, more frequent and more severe corporal punishment predicts more aggression and anxiety in children. That's true even when one takes into account that more aggressive children are more likely to be corporally punished in the first place.
Our international research meshes with findings from a large number of scientific studies conducted over several decades using thousands of children. Those studies demonstrated that mild forms of corporal punishment such as spanking and harsher forms such as paddling with an object are risk factors for a wide range of child-adjustment problems. Of course, not all children who are spanked turn out to be aggressive and anxious, just as not all people who smoke develop lung cancer. These are risk factors, not fait accompli.
Many parents who spank their children argue, "My parents spanked me, and I turned out fine. So I will continue to spank my child." This reasoning ignores the fact that as we gain knowledge over time, it is important to adjust our behavior accordingly.
For example, in the past, parents were advised to put their infants to sleep on their stomachs, but as scientific evidence demonstrated that putting infants to sleep on their backs reduced the risk of sudden infant death syndrome, parents changed their behavior. It wasn't that parents in the past did not love their children; they simply didn't know that their behavior was putting their children at risk. The same can be said of corporal punishment. In previous generations, conventional wisdom supported corporal punishment and parents acted accordingly. But, as scientific evidence regarding its harmful effects mounts, parents should find alternate ways to manage their children's behavior.
As a country, we've taken stands against other forms of interpersonal aggression, but not yet against corporal punishment. We do not tolerate adults hitting other adults, children hitting children, or children hitting adults. We make an exception just in the case of adults hitting children, which is paradoxical given that adults are more powerful than children, making children more physically and psychologically vulnerable when adults strike them.
Difficult children are more likely to elicit punishment than those who are well-behaved. Advocates of corporal punishment often juxtapose the use of corporal punishment with having unruly, undisciplined children. There are effective ways to manage children's behavior that do not involve the use of physical force, however, including simple distraction for toddlers, time-out for preschoolers, and withdrawal of privileges for teenagers.
However, parenting should not be just reactive. The point of discipline is to teach children right from wrong and to promote desired behavior in the future, including by proactively setting clear expectations and modeling desired behaviors. The irony of a parent hitting a child to punish her for hitting another child is surely not lost on the child. Through experiencing corporal punishment, children learn that hitting is an acceptable way to handle interpersonal problems.
In The Slap, the adult slapping the child is fictional. But corporal punishment remains a very real fixture of American life. The time is ripe to question our tolerance for this practice. The evidence is clear regarding its harmful effects on children. It's time we paid attention, and ceased a practice that causes lasting harm to children's development.