January 12, 2014
I once spent a snowy Saturday at a 5-year-old's birthday party in one of those indoor play spaces that resembles an asylum. Toward the end, one of the guests melted down: tears, screaming, stomping.
I know the little boy's mom, and she is a skilled keeper of the peace. She can often be found soothing her son in a quiet corner or hugging him tightly or unwrapping a gluten-free treat she packed to ward off the behavioral changes triggered by hunks of birthday cake.
I can say, with confidence, she is doing her absolute best. She pours her soul into that little boy, and he is a bright, wonderful, hilarious sparkplug. I often wonder, if her son were mine, what my absolute best would look like.
That day, at the party, another parent drew a different conclusion.
"That kid needs a good spanking," he said, loudly, to no one in particular.
I cringed, hoping the mom hadn't heard, knowing she had — if not this time, on countless other occasions. All her best efforts and research and loving gestures dismissed. Just hit him.
I thought of this mom the past few weeks, as letters rolled in telling me to spank my 4-year-old. I wrote a column about his meltdowns ("Some better ways to deal with toddler's tantrums," Nov. 17) and admitted to laughing, out of surprise, when he kicked me once.
"Spare the rod, spoil the child," wrote one. "A parent who refuses to properly punish her child truly hates her child because she raises him with no sense of right from wrong."
I have never hit my kids and I never plan to, but I understand frustration. I understand losing your cool and your wits and grasping for something, anything, to get your kid's attention.
This is different. Grown-ups who advocate corporal punishment — for other people's children — are not at the ends of their ropes.
They aren't desperate to stop a tantrum so they can get the family to the airport on time, nor are they living out some value system they've crafted for their cherished offspring.
They're advocating violence in someone else's family. They're agitating for a harsher, more hurtful culture toward kids. It's about the least conscionable thing I can conceive.
"I love paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, 'If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,'" says psychiatrist Paul Holinger. "If hitting a child is not wrong, nothing is wrong."
I called Holinger to ask why adults are moved to tell other adults to hit children. I've never heard someone suggest that hitting loved ones — the grown ones, that is —will lead to a more peaceful home. No one ever counseled me that smacking my husband around might have saved my first marriage.
The evidence against physical punishment is unequivocal, says Holinger, dean of the Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis. "It's associated with increased depression, delinquency, violence, future abuse to one's spouse and a host of psychopathologies," he says.
He pointed me to the American Psychoanalytic Association position statement, which calls physical punishment "a serious public health problem" in the U.S.
"Hitting a child elicits precisely the feelings one does not want to generate in a child: distress, anger, fear, shame and disgust," reads the statement, pointing out that 30-plus countries ban it in every setting (school, home, etc.). The United States is not among them. What gives?
"It's the belief that children are property, combined with a misunderstanding of child development," Holinger says. "There's a sense that hitting will extinguish the behavior, when in fact it just teaches children to identify with violence. It doesn't work, it makes things worse, and there are better alternatives."
If we want a less violent society, he says, we should start by eliminating violence at home. "If one spouse hits another, it's assault and battery," Holinger says. "How in the world is it OK for an adult to hit a smaller, more vulnerable child?"
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