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   "Hitting a child is wrong and a child never, ever, under any circumstances, except literal physical self-defense, should be hit."

                                              Murray A. Straus

Hitting is wrong. To hit someone is a violent thing to do.  Violence is a thing one person does to make another person hurt.  With children we do not want to do things that hurt or harm them.  We want to be firm and consistent, yet kind and gentle...   not harsh.  We want to be tender, merciful and compassionate

There is no situation that changes the act of hitting someone from a wrong thing into a right thing.  There is no excuse that magically turns hurting someone on purpose into a kind or merciful thing.  This is confusing, though, isn't it?  A law can say that it is all right to do something that is normally wrong in order to stop a wrong thing.  Still, hitting someone is almost never a better 'wrong' thing to do or the 'lesser of two bad things'.  Defending ourselves from physical attack (one of few examples) might be less wrong than the physical attack itself.  But the law sets a limit for this rare sort of situation.  The law limits a physical defense that involves hitting someone to interrupting only or ending only the attack upon the physical safety of a person. 

The laws that also allow the physical punishment of children do not magically make hitting a child a better 'wrong' thing to do or the 'lesser of two bad things'.  They only allow it.  They state that parental physical aggression is not illegal.  But hitting children is not tender or compassionate treatment.  Hitting children is not better than treating them in ways that do not hurt.  It does not model the way we want our children to act.  Some day our society will be kinder, gentler and less violent when we all stop hitting children.  To stop hitting children will mean, by the very extermination of the practice, that we will be less violent.

Of course, most of us do not say to our children, "hitting is right" or "hitting is a good thing to do."  We do not really believe that it is a good thing to hit people.  Most of us deny that we are 'in favor' of hitting children.  However, most of us also behave as if it is a good thing to do.  Most of us are in favor of spanking and physical punishment.  And the law attempts to make a physical attack on a child's body a thing that is all right to do.

The way a spanking looks and feels must be confusing for children.  How can they tell what it means?  Parents are their example of what is right and good.  Parents' behavior is their example of what love looks and feels like.  Hitting a child seems to say that it is all right to hit people... even loved ones.  When a person wants to control others, it must be okay to hit them, spanking seems to say.  For children whose parents tell them that hitting is wrong, hitting might also seem to say that it is all right to do something that is wrong.  It certainly does not show or say to the child what behavior is wanted.

There is no obligation or duty to hit children.  No one of us can show that anything bad happens if we do not hit children.  No one can show that children become less well behaved if we do not hit them.  When people think of not hitting children, however, they often feel afraid and uncertain.  What do they fear?  Are they just uncomfortable with the unknown or the untried?  Do they just doubt what they have not yet experienced?  They do not really know that anything bad will happen.  It is enough for them, it seems, that they believe that something bad will happen.  Since people usually do not really think about many of their beliefs, it is hard to use reason to help them to be unafraid.  But there is no evidence that a child whose parents model appropriate behavior, clearly and unambiguously love and nurture that child, diligently encourage and positively reinforce desired behavior, using reason and persuasion while consistently communicating and enforcing limits, and demonstrating a rational process for problem solving, will not "turn out" as well, if not better, than any child held up as the supposed example of the benefit of spanking her or him.

So we have no duty, contract or promise to hit.  There is no other social, legal or moral rule that makes us spank our children.  We can, however, certainly count upon our friends and family to say that there is a need for a 'good spanking'.  They will tell us that spanking people during their childhood is the cure for society's ills. They carry tradition and myth, as humans always have, but that does not mean that they know the truth.

Social, legal and moral ties bind us to feed, clothe and shelter our dependent children.  We should teach them to behave well in public and to contribute according to their capacity.  We should help them to find happiness doing these things.  If we do our job well, they become willing and able to give their best to society.  There is no need to hit children in order to do our social, legal and moral duty.  For example, accepting the responsibilities for a dependent adult might become our social and moral duty.  But, we would have no legal right to hit that adult in order to do this duty.  As fully human as any adult of our species, children, therefore, should be entitled to the same special care and protection any adult enjoys.

Nothing good forces us to act aggressively toward our minor children.  Yet, there seems to be some mistaken, unfounded 'sense of duty' to do it.  I believe that this 'sense' may be the result of a self-conscious feeling that other parents in our family or social group know better than we what we should do.  As children, we saw our parents and other adults do things that we remember as right and good.  Spanking children is one of those things that we memorized.   We copy that behavior with our own children.  We think, therefore, that we are surely being a good and proper parent.  We are following tradition.  However, tradition and morality are separate standards.

Hitting children does not make it easier for us to do our social, legal or moral duty as parents.  Hitting them may only offer us a sort of shortcut when speed is a higher priority.  But it is ironic that hitting them may actually make it easier, instead, for our children to realize dreadful outcomes; the literal opposites of our goals.  The result of spanking is our children's fear and resentment of us.  Research indicates that several, serious negative side effects may be associated with its use.  So, parents' satisfaction with spanking could be related to some other need, independent of the child.

Murray Straus is author of Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families.   He wrote, "The most basic step in eliminating corporal punishment is for parent educators, psychologists, and pediatricians to make a simple and unambiguous statement..."  That is the statement I have quoted at the top of this page.  I agree with it.  I like the statement.   Most people think that it is too strong.  Some have felt that the phrase "except literal physical self-defense" seems to give permission to spanking parents.  Professor Straus also suggests that we say, without qualification, "A child should never be hit."  I believe that after the briefer proscription, though, one must prepare to respond to the certain question, "Well, what about the circumstance: self-defense?"  But, self-defense is not at all common among the routine responses to our children's behavior.  Defense of self indeed!

Professor Straus explained to me that he too could recognize that there is a certain danger in adding "except for self-defense."   He thought that it was, in part, his training in criminology that led to his writing it the way he did.  He explained that many people misunderstand the legal concept of self defense and think that retaliation is self defense.  Of course, self defense becomes a legal justification for assault only if the person is in danger of serious injury or death and cannot get away.  He said, "If a child hits a parent, the parent can and should restrain the child if it continues, but she or he should never hit back."   In his own opinion, the parents should make a big deal out of any instance of a child hitting.  It should be treated as a moral outrage and something to never be done again.  He said, "Hitting back is not self defense."  Legally, an adult who is attacked and hits back may also be guilty of assault.

It concerns me that the quotation risks deafening listeners so that they hear nothing that follows it.  I live and write, and 'mingle' among the people of Arkansas, USA.  It is a spank-happy place where it is "open season" on children--in their homes as well as in their schools.  Our children stand a one-in-ten chance of being hit by an adult at school, so Arkansas ranks second only to Mississippi as the "worst" among the ten worst school-paddling states.

Still, "never hit" is the phrase to which most of the provoked readers respond.  Realistically, the people I engage all want to know "What if you're attacked or assaulted by a juvenile delinquent?"  I believe that there has to be an exception.  There almost always is.  Perhaps 'except' is permissive.  This exception, of course, is always some extreme, bizarre and unlikely occurrence.  In such a crisis, however, people do what they are going to do for no certain reason.  Anticipation rarely has anything to do with the outcome.  Besides, most parents really are not parenting armed juveniles.  How realistic is it to expect to have to hit your child to save your life or to protect yourself from serious physical threat -- literal, physical, self-defense?

LITERAL, PHYSICAL, SELF-DEFENSE ...  This exception only barely warrants noting.  So, suppose my inconsistency is that I also agree with the "too soft" critics.  I have been around a lot of violence, threats of serious harm to my family, our property and myself.  I do not hit any children.  I worked in child welfare (child protective services, foster care, adoptions, interstate transfers) in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area; that is, nearly all of Maricopa County, Arizona.  I worked the pediatric outpatient clinic at the indigent care hospital in Phoenix and conducted interviews with child abusers (some suicidal and homicidal).  I worked nearly ten years in the pediatric department and the ER of a large hospital here in Little Rock.

I am not through with living so it would be disingenuous to make a statement so absolute that I could not realistically expect to live by it.  But I can state, unambiguously, that hitting a child is wrong and a child never, ever, under any circumstances should be hit.

                                             Randy Cox, ACSW, LCSW


                                             Little Rock, AR

Reference: Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families, Lexington Books, 1994, Murray A. Straus with Denise A. Donnelly, ISBN 0-02-931730-4

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