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eJOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK (CYC-Net) ISSN 1605-7406

ISSUE 6 JULY 1999   CONTENTS   HOME PAGE

PHYSICAL PUNISHMENT

But children are people too

EPOCH (End Physical Punishment of Children) is an organisation which has advocated for positive discipline to replace physical punishment. In many countries physical punishment has now been outlawed, but in others the debate continues. From an EPOCH factsheet, some questions and answers ....

What do you mean by 'physical punishment'?
We mean any action which is meant to cause pain to a child, such as hitting, slapping, smacking, with a hand or with a slipper, strap, stick or other implement. We also include violent shaking and any kind of forcible imprisonment, such as being locked in a room or cupboard or tied in a cot.

What's so wrong with hitting children?
Better to ask 'what's right about it?' Everybody agrees it is morally wrong to settle arguments between adult people with blows. But children are people too. Why should they of all people lack equal protection from all forms of violence, particularly when they are among the most vulnerable physically?

Physical punishments are not only morally wrong, they don't work either. A whack on the bottom may stop children for that moment. But it won't stop them doing the same thing later on because being hit does not teach them anything useful. It doesn't teach them how you want them to behave, and it doesn't teach them to try to please you. Research evidence shows that children who have been slapped or hit are usually so overwhelmed with anger and hurt feelings that they cannot remember what they were punished for.

But surely you need to use physical force to keep children safe?
There is all the difference in the world between using your strength to snatch a child away from a hot stove or prevent them running into a busy road, and intentionally inflicting pain as punishment.

Surely a tap on the legs doesn't count?
Yes it does. Lots of parents 'tap' babies, but many, many more smack four-year-olds. That's because hitting doesn't work except to relieve parents' feelings. If you let yourself smack your toddler for fiddling with the TV, what can you do when the toddler fiddles again except smack again harder? And what can you do with the five-year-old who refuses to stay in his room to "cool off" except lock the door ...?

But is the ordinary kind of smacking that goes on in loving homes worth all the fuss?
Yes it is because violence really does breed violence, and violence is a major problem in today's society. We are not saying that hitting at home is the only cause of that violence, but we are saying that ending hitting at home would help to reduce it. Children model a lot of their behaviour on their parents. Parents who use physical punishment are directly teaching their children that physical force is an acceptable way to get what you want. If we want fewer violent adults we have to bring them up believing that physical force is not acceptable.

But aren't ordinary physical punishment and child abuse two quite different things?
When serious cases of child abuse are investigated, they are frequently shown to have started with occasional smacks given in the name of discipline which gradually escalated into tragedies. Current acceptance of physical punishment causes a dangerous confusion. Most of those responsible for seriously injuring children are found to have been physically punished in their childhood.

And even light blows can accidentally cause serious injury to small children, for example, a 'clip on the ear' can burst an eardrum and permanently damage hearing, and smacks catching a child off balance have led to falls and head injuries.

But children need discipline; what should replace physical punishment?
EPOCH certainly doesn't argue against discipline, or against consistent limits for children. The best responses to bad behaviour are always directly linked to parents' disapproval, irritation or anger, the removal of the toy or playmate the child is hurting, or the ending of the game or meal which is being ruined for everyone else. But rewards work better than punishments for children, just as they do for adults. There are already many parents who don't hit their children in any circumstances, but certainly believe in discipline and limits. You don't spoil a child by not hitting them.

How can you expect parents under stress, suffering from family poverty, unemployment and lack of proper child care support not to hit their children?
EPOCH agrees that our society needs to do much more for those who bear the burden of child-rearing and it will support those campaigning for reforms. But there are no clear links between such social factors and the frequency or severity of hitting children. The fact is that while there continues to be confusion over what is acceptable, hitting children is likely of itself to increase stress and violence within any family. In any case, why should children and only children wait for equal protection from violence until we've sorted out these other major social ills?

If you stop parents hitting their children, they'll resort to even worse forms of punishment and what about emotional abuse anyway?
Obviously other kinds of punishment can be harmful too. We concentrate on physical punishment because its harmful effects have been clearly demonstrated, because it is very frequently used, it is clearly defined, and because children are the only people in our society who are not protected from it. Changing attitudes to physical punishment, and hence to children, will discourage other harmful forms of punishment.

Won't every parent sometimes lose his or her temper and hit their child?
While hitting children remains acceptable, the answer is probably 'yes'. But do all adults sometimes lose their temper and hit their partner? No, because hitting other adults (or even pets) is beyond the pale. If hitting children was equally unacceptable, most parents would never do it and the few who sometimes did would regret it and try not to. That is all it would take to shift social attitudes towards a new respect for children as people.