On Hitting Children

Much local outrage (again) at the news that the government is considering a ban on the use of corporal punishment in the home. I suspect we’ll see one (or more) open letters written this week on the subject.


The furore has, once again, ignited the fires of indignation at alleged government interference in our private lives, and with it, brought out a bewildering defensive pride in some parents, unapologetically crowing that they hit their kids and no-one was going to stop them.

This post is not here to agree or disagree with the proposed legislation. In addition, in writing it, I’m not intending to pass comment on your choice of parenting methods either. Although, I think some of these examples are going a bit far and I was unpleasantly surprised to find the Bible thinks corporal punishment is just fine (but apparently only cos it’s preferable to Hell):

The rod is the family’s symbol of authority: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.” Proverbs 23:13-14.

Whole. Different. Argument.

So let’s not go there.

No, I just wanted to point out the strange (to me, at least) differences in the way we regard physical action against kids compared to physical action against other members of society.
To that end, I’ve taken some of the comments I saw on the subject this morning and I’ve removed any reference to kids and replaced it with a reference to women.

So now, they look like this:

My wife knows if she does something wrong, I’ll give her a hiding.

My dad used to beat my Mum, and it never did her any harm.

Sometimes, my girlfriend just won’t listen, and it’s the only way to get the message across.

My wife needs to know that when she doesn’t do as she’s told, she’ll get a good, hard smack.

It’s part of womanhood. It’s the only way they learn right from wrong.

Suddenly, it doesn’t seem quite so acceptable. Does it?

And before some idiot suggests it, I’m not accusing you of child abuse (the accepted legal definition thereof, anyway) or perpetrating domestic violence. So let’s be clear on that.

Mischievous? Sure.
Disingenuous? I don’t know so much.

It’s a dichotomy I’ve never understood – the social acceptability of corporal punishment in kids versus the disgust at domestic violence. There’s obviously a difference between the two, but at the end of the day, it comes down to using physicality to exploit or demonstrate one’s superior power over a vulnerable individual.

There will be those who argue that the rules for adults and kids need to be different. And they’re absolutely right, but those differences should then be in favour of protecting children, not vice versa.
And then there’s the other way of looking at it: that rather than comparing adults and children, we’re actually comparing humans with humans. So what makes it right to physically punish one group, when it’s plainly not ok to physically punish another?

So where do we draw the line? And why and how exactly did we choose to draw it there?

15 thoughts on “On Hitting Children

  1. Personally I find the difference to be that a child cannot understand or rationalise the risks, dangers or consequences of doing something.

    Asking them to not stick their finger in the socket is all good and well but they will do it anyway, getting a smack on the bum when they nearly do it registers.

    I believe in smacking but only in a very limited form.

  2. I’ve got to agree 100% with Gavin here. Giving your child a hiding is a way of communicating that something is wrong. When your child is at an age where they can understand right and wrong, other measures can be taken, but how do I explain to my 18mo child that something is wrong? What harm does a light smack on the hand do or even a tap on their bum (they’re wearing diapers!?!?)?

    Beating a 15yo is another story. But then again, if you have to, I feel you’ve failed as a parent.

  3. Gavin > I suspect you speak for a number of parents. But if you are going to smack at all, then when and where and how do we choose what’s acceptable and what’s not? And why is it still acceptable? A dog doesn’t understand or rationalise risk either, but you don’t hit your dog. Or do you?

    Dom > Actually, the law at the moment says that you can hit your 15 year old without fear of persecution. Of course, if they’re 16, then it’s not alright. What harm does a light smack on the hand do? Well, what good does it do?

    You’re (and here I’m meaning all parents, not just you) supposed to be the adult here. You’re supposed to be able to communicate without the need for physical contact. You learn to express yourself through words – this is what you should be teaching your child, not that when words fail, then it’s time move on to physical action.

  4. David Benatar advocates a limited kind of punishment aimed at scaring – not hurting – the child. Thus, instead of a physical hurt, it’s aimed to conveying fear. Pavlovian, kind of. (Link: http://www.corpun.com/benatar.htm) I could be misremembering slightly, though.

    I think your comparison is shocking and that’s a good thing: I had not myself considered it in a such a way.

    If the point is to get a child to behave in a certain way that benefits her, then there’s no reason to think physically harming her is the best option. However, not every child is the same and perhaps different methods are required. That still, I think, doesn’t mean we resort to corporal punishment. We just need to look wider instead of resorting to what’s “always been done”.

    (My major problem is that assumption that “government” mustn’t interfere in the private lives of parents: parents don’t get automatic knowledge of knowing what’s best for their child, as seen with praying parents over sick children who die. They certainly have greater knowledge, but not in every way, all the time. But anyway, that’s a different discussion)

  5. Well put. I find it horrifying that almost all of the comments we ever see on our discipline-related content at P24 (including the social media accounts) are massively in favour of smacking. Also, the carefree repetition of the “spare the rod” etc. is done without context or thought. It would appear that believers (whom I don’t wish to disparage generally) are tweezing sentences out of the Bible and repeating them without considering the origins of those words or their place within a wider theology. Your switching of words in those sentences is very effective. Thank you.

  6. Yes many countries have a no physical discipline rule, and their kids are very well behaved, Norway for example. I watched a Malawian mother just discipline her toddler with sounds, it worked perfectly well

  7. ‘Loving’ the News24 comment rants. A repeated refrain is along the lines of “who are you to tell me how to raise my kids?” (albeit with more – unnecessary – punctuation). But you never hear that complaint when parents are told they can’t pimp their kids out, or what have you.

    In other words, either be a libertarian about raising kids (while being entirely paternalistic, of course), or accept that the state has some legitimate interests. If the latter, then you need to deal with the arguments on their merits, rather than claim unlimited rights to do what you like to your kids.

    Yet another example of how consistency is the last thing some folk think about with regard to moral issues. On this issue in particular, I’d be inclined to think that a angry tone of voice would be as effective – if used tactically/sparingly – as any beating. As someone who was regularly smacked, my reaction to it (once I was old enough to know what was going on, of course) was to alienate me from the smacker, and also to give me decreased confidence in her authority. But hey – maybe she simply didn’t hit me hard enough.

    Anyway – avoiding the responsibility of figuring this stuff out is one reason why I’ll not have kids.

  8. Not going to come out on either side of this debate as I haven’t made up my mind either way (not a parent yet). But two counter-points:

    1. Unless you’re of the opinion that any form of discipline is bad, replacing ‘kids’ with ‘women’/’your wife’ is not quite like-for-like. The reason those sentences would seem unacceptable is because the idea of disciplining your wife itself seems unacceptable (well, to me at least). Does “My wife knows if she does something wrong, I’ll ground her for a month” or “My wife needs to know that when she doesn’t do as she’s told, she won’t be allowed to watch her favourite TV shows” seem any more acceptable?

    2. “it comes down to using physicality to exploit or demonstrate one’s superior power over a vulnerable individual” – in many cases this is indeed the reason a parent beats their child and that is unacceptable, but in many cases it’s simply used as a method of discipline – to associate bad behaviour with bad consequences – in the same sense as the grounding/TV-privileges examples above.

  9. It’s even more of an emotional issue when parents share different opinions about corporal punishment. It gets worse when others interfere or edict what is supposedly best for your child. Bible or no Bible, I think instilling discipline is not necessarily a bad thing. I would like to believe it can be done without the rod.

  10. Dom > It’s tough, no two ways. Just like a lot of parenting is tough.
    I think it depends where you start from though. I start with a quiet warning – gives me plenty of scope for raising my voice and informing them of what’s going to happen (time out, no TV etc) if they don’t behave well.
    If you start by shouting – as many parents do – then where else have you got to go?

    Tauriq Moosa > I’m not sure I want my kids to be afraid of me for any reason. But there’s the same issue as I’m about to highlight with ScottD below: where do we draw the line? There’s a fine line between respect and fear. For me, it’s very important that we (parents) don’t stray over to the wrong side of that.
    As for the governmental interference thing, this is virtually unenforceable anyway, isn’t it? So once again, people are whining for the sake of whining.

    ScottD > The problem for some people (as I mentioned above) is that fine line. I know where I stand on it – no physical contact. But some others will go completely the other way and use the opportunity they are given (“you are allowed to physically discipline your child”) to use it to abuse their child. Not everyone, of course, but enough people to make it worth closing the loophole.
    No-one can get shot if there’s no gun in the house.

    Paul > Yep. Precedent for this elsewhere in the world. Do the same rules apply here? I don’t know.

    Jacques > heh heh @ “news24 comments” – it was worse on twitter. People are annoyed and they want to hurt me. Christ alone knows what they’re doing to their kids.
    “Yet another example of how consistency is the last thing some folk think about with regard to moral issues.”
    Yes. And that’s what I don’t get here. If we’re in the business of protecting the vulnerable (and we really should be), then this is surely a no-brainer.

    John > 1. Fair point, and no, as I said, it’s not an exact analogy. Just a bit of thought-provoking. I think the 6000 household would all benefit from a bit less Grey’s Anatomy though, so while I would never hit my wife, I may well consider the withdrawal of tv rights for the evening. Thanks for the idea.
    2. You can choose other “bad consequences” which will work equally well (maybe better) than striking your child. I don’t think that there’s ever any need to hit your child.

    Emil > Yeah, there’s a toughie right there. Good luck with that one.
    But on your discipline point, there are other ways to do it without resorting to hitting your child. Discipline doesn’t have to mean physical contact.

  11. I think there are many ways to skin a cat (figuratively speaking, before someone accuses me of using social media to brag about animal abuse). And not everything works with every child. My youngest almost never gets a hiding. A stern word has the desired effect. About the only way to get a reaction from my oldest is to give her a hiding. They’re different. And therein lies the issues. There is no one system that will work in all situations.

    The part that always confused me about this issue, is at what point does non-physical discipline become psychological abuse? And which is worse? A smack, which reinforces the point pretty quickly, but also is then over, or being sent from the parents presence for a period of time, and the feelings of rejection those can create?

    Bottom line, I feel parents should be free to discipline their kids as they see fit (obvioulsy within limits – a flat hand smack on the bottom when naughty never turned any child into a serial killer), and that to limit the tools at the parents disposal through legislation merely creates the scenario where in some cases any kind of discipline that might be provided is not going to be effective.

    One thing is for sure, negotiating with kids to get them to do what you want (the psycho-babblers would call it “positive reinforcement”, providing a reward for doing good rather than a punishment for not doing good) results in more spoilt kids than well disciplined ones.

    Don’t ever underestimate the ability of kids to manipulate the situation for their best interests.

  12. gmross > “within limits” – there’s the issue. Who decides what the limit is. And why is ok to go to “that limit” on your child, but not on (say) your girlfriend? Why should children be subjected to unwelcome physical contact?

  13. Congrats on being brave enough to broach this subject and even more brave to ‘brave’ the comments that were sure to come…

    I was hit as a child and I agree with Jacques, you kind of grow up either having no respect for that person and the way they deal with problems; you develop a mistrust of them in general (hello the people that are meant to keep you safe from harm are harming you…. DURRR); or even worse – you follow in their footsteps, because ‘hey, I was smacked and I turned ok…’ (‘ok’ is in the eye of the beholder).

    The reason smacking children is defended so heatedly by those who do it… hmmmm

    And hey, what about the punishment fitting the crime. Is it better to learn the consequences of your action, ie if you don’t listen to me and continue to put your finger in the plug socket, you will get electrocuted; or is it better to learn that hitting (no matter how light) is the consequence of testing your boundaries. Oh ya, there is such a thing as plug covers – there is always a way to teach children and ‘protect’ them without hurting them.

  14. Oh wee! I’d taken a nice long break from my blog and reading blogs for that matter….but I log back in and bam! You hit me with this! I’m smiling right now! (Not because corporal punishment makes me happy in any way!) but because you immediately get my fingers flowing across the keyboard and the wheels turning in this spider webbed head of mine! It is a very VERY touchy subject….as a mother of TWO (count them TWO) Afrikaans boys…hmm lets just say that I’ve had my run ins with both sides of that argument! Personally, a smack on the bum is okay…now and then! If used constantly as a way of every form of punishment it starts to mean nothing to the child. If reserved for when absolutely necessary…you’ll achieve that wide eyed look of registration from your child as both realization and the question WTF processes in their minds! In conjunction with other forms of discipline, removal of privileges/ grounding, time out, and discussion (depending on age) then I think it is quite effective.
    As far as disciplining an adult or spouse for that matter, our position over our children is much different than our position over our spouses! Simply put….I would not allow myself to be put on the same level as my children in the eyes of my husband nor would I ever consider that being allowed to be done to him. Although my husband is the head of our house, he does not have position over me in which I must be commanded nor disciplined.
    Okay…this is turning into a blog post all on it’s own! JEEZE! Thank you! (I’ve missed it!)

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