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Spanking children perpetuates the cycle of violence

Published Jul. 21, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

"Mommy, why does Daddy spank you? Is Daddy mad at you? Were you a bad girl?" asks a 4-year-old child who witnesses her father beat her mother. The child's point of reference is the spanking she receives when she misbehaves. The messages she learned from spanking were that big people (like parents or fathers) have the right to hit smaller people (like children and mothers). People believe hitting a small child for the purpose of discipline is acceptable, even expected. We rationalize the violence by quoting the familiar axiom, "Spare the rod and spoil the child," incorrectly attributing it to the Bible. We prettify the beating and call it spanking.

Most of us really want our children to learn self-discipline. That means the ability to decide between right and wrong, say no to drugs, practice our music or our basketball, persist with that algebra until we understand, finish high school, get a job, save money. But does corporal punishment teach self-discipline? It seems to me that spanking teaches violence.

How does a child feel when he or she is spanked? I do not necessarily consider myself an abused child, but I remember dad's belt and many strong feelings. Fear. Pain. Hurt. Embarrassment. Degradation. Humiliation. Anger. Resentment. Powerlessness. Helplessness. Revenge.

The parent feels self-justifying anger. Power courses through his body as he lashes out again and again at the cowering child.

What messages are we giving to children when we use any form of corporal punishment? What example are we setting? The schools recently voted to ban corporal punishment on campus, a hotly contested decision. Imagine the debate over legislation that would prevent corporal punishment at home! It would never pass. Too many parents believe spanking is required to properly raise a child.

We base our beliefs mostly on our experiences of being spanked by our parents. We base our fears on losing control of our children and being considered a failure as a parent.

But if spanking really was an effective form of discipline, why do we have so many undisciplined adults? Most of us were spanked as children. Could it be possible that this time-honored behavior has been ineffective for all these years?

What are the consequences of corporal punishment? The boy-child reasons that if a big adult can spank him, then why can't he hit a smaller friend? When the child tries out the behavior he has experienced, and hits a friend, he is scolded and perhaps spanked. Very confusing! So the child learns that he needs to grow bigger before he has the right to be violent. He also learns that dad's rules don't have to be consistent. He learns to mistrust dad. Dad's love is too often painful. He looks forward to growing up so he can be just like dad. Mean. Tough. Big.

The girl-child learns a different message. Hitting isn't for girls and she'll never grow up to be bigger than dad. So it's better to try to please dad instead. That's what mom does.

When the young man finally meets the right "little woman," he marries her. When she disobeys, he hits her because he's bigger now. He's stronger, too. He has experienced violence. Maybe he has even fought a war. Power courses through his body as he lashes out at the woman. His violence worked on his wife, just like a parent's violence works on a child. He has earned this right. Finally, it's his turn to have control. Finally he has the privilege of power.

Another woman is battered by a child/man seeking revenge. Another woman bides her time, taking the abuse, trying to make sense out of her marriage vows. Wondering where she will go to keep her children safe from the violence. Wondering if the next time he beats her will be the last. She contemplates suicide, but she could never do that to the children. She finally finds a shelter for battered women at CASA (898-3671).

She signs a paper that says she cannot use corporal punishment to discipline her children. No violence in the shelter! Staff promises to teach her another way to discipline her children. But the damage may be done. Her son secretly promises to himself that when he grows bigger, he will kill his father. The cycle of violence is complete.

. . . Visiting the inequity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.

Linda A. Osmundson is the executive director of the Center Against Spouse Abuse Inc.

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