I have learned that the best way to start a heated argument at a dinner party in the U.S. is to argue that parents should not be allowed to spank their children. Approximately 70 percent of Americans agree that "it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking," according to data gathered from the University of Chicago's General Social Survey. However, many Americans will be surprised to learn that corporal punishment of children is illegal in 39 countries, according to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. Sweden became the first nation to do so in 1979, and all of the Nordic countries have followed.
In the U.S., we often witness a predictable news cycle that goes something like this:
A high profile child abuse story hits the news, and Americans are outraged that parents are capable of physically abusing their young child (e.g., the recent story of NFL player Adrian Peterson, who spanked his 4-year-old with a tree branch). Next, op-eds are written deploring the physical abuse of children, with many offering a range of policy solutions that could help us better address the social problem of violence in the home. Finally, a series of articles is written to defend the practice of spanking, making the case that spanking does not equal abuse; this is the familiar, "I was spanked as a child, and I turned out just fine" argument.
The U.S. has a long history of children being considered the property of their parents, who have the right to discipline them as they see fit. Religion has often been used to justify corporal punishment of children — "spare the rod, spoil the child." We also have a long history of corporal punishment being used in schools. Somehow the U.S. had a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) before a Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC). Americans remained largely in denial of child physical abuse until "battered child syndrome" was diagnosed by medical physicians in the early 1960s.
The problem of child physical abuse in the U.S. is strongly related to the status of children and a culture that does not promote the idea that human rights include children's rights. The U.S. is one of only three United Nations member states to fail to ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, the most widely ratified U.N. treaty in history; the others two are Somalia and South Sudan. We are the only advanced nation that allows children to go without health insurance, and we rank among the very highest of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) nations when it comes to child poverty, with 1 in 5 U.S. children living below the poverty line, according to the latest Census data.
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U.S. policy makers (and parents) should rely on important evidence that has been produced by social scientists who study the effects of spanking. According to Dr. Murray Straus, founder and co-director of the Family Research Lab and professor emeritus of sociology at the University of New Hampshire, spanking is not more effective than other discipline techniques and there are harmful effects. According to Straus: "(T)he research clearly shows that the gains from spanking come at a big cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a dating or marital partner. Spanking also slows down mental development and lowers the probability of a child doing well in school. ... More than 100 studies have detailed these side effects of spanking, with more than 90 percent agreement among them. There is probably no other aspect of parenting and child behavior where the results are so consistent."
Additionally, a 2009 study found that harsh corporal punishment can actually alter children's brains, which can have negative effects on their brain development. These researchers found that children who were regularly spanked had less gray matter in certain areas of the prefrontal cortex.
Respected columnist Leonard Pitts says that he does not believe in "spanking in anger" or in "spanking to excess." However, there is a fine line between spanking and physical abuse, and how often do parents spank when they are not angry and frustrated.
I am not here to argue that all spanking is equal to abuse. However, I am arguing that it is time for the United States to take a step forward in addressing our culture of violence by acknowledging that it is not healthy for a civilized society to allow children to be hit by their caregivers as a form of punishment.
Jon Stewart made a salient point on The Daily Show recently when he commented on allegations of child abuse by NFL running back Adrian Peterson: "You can't do something to a four-year old that you're not allowed to do to a 300-pound lineman in a helmet and pads."