Hitting Children

I am so sickened by all of the “good old days” posts I see on social media these days. There is so much that is, in fact, sick here, but, as an educator, child development specialist and child advocate, I have to react to the “wooden spoon” sickness. We can start with the fact that hitting children with an object of any kind is illegal, but discussing legality is not the priority when you have morality and practicality.

There is no question, I repeat, NO QUESTION, that hitting children does damage, not just physically, but psychologically, socially and mentally. The research is clear and unequivocal. Deniers are just that, in denial. Sure, some are affected less than others, and there are all sorts of reasons for that, from temperament to culture to prevalence to other aspects of the parent-child relationship. It can, and to one degree or another does, cause fear (which is NOT the same thing as respect), anxiety, anger, guilt, humiliation, low self-esteem, corruption of social and sexual development, poor school performance, lower IQ’s, desensitization to violence, either over-passivity or hostile aggression (two sides of the coin), and cycles of abuse in parenting.

Consider the message given to the daughter that hitting is an expression of love and the consequences when she grows up and chooses and lives with a partner. Consider the message to the son, who will one day be that partner. Consider the sheer illogic of the message that hitting a child teaches that child not to hit. Rather, it teacher the child that hitting is perfectly fine as long as you’re bigger, more powerful and think you’re right. The message should be that one should never consider putting one’s hands on anyone, not a child, not a spouse, not a pet, unless in necessary self-defense.

Sure, people who were beaten/abused (whatever name you want to give to it, just don’t call it “discipline,” because it’s not) have a psychological need to justify it. To not do so requires confronting the possibility that maybe it was damaging, maybe their parents weren’t so wise and effective and honorable, maybe they really weren’t “bad” and deserving but were just kids. So you have to pretend it was okay, you have to forget how it made you feel, you have to ridicule those (including virtually every psychological and medical expert) who threaten to burst your self-protective bubble, and you probably have to hit your own kids to prove its legitimacy.

Hitting children does not work. It doesn’t teach anything generally, except perhaps either blind obedience or sneakiness. It doesn’t teach what was wrong about the behavior, it’s perceived by the child as purely arbitrary, certainly nothing that can be applied when the spoon is no longer hanging over the child like the Sword of Damocles. In one of my classes, when we came to this subject one of my students responded with the typical, “My father hit me and it didn’t do me any harm.” So we played a game. I asked him what his father might have hit him for. “Taking some candy” was his answer. So I told him to imagine there he was, eight years old, there’s the candy, and your father will never know. What would you do? “Then I’d probably take the candy.”

“Discipline” comes from the root word “disciple,” which means “learner.” Discipline is about teaching, not hurting, not punishing, but consequences that are logical and consistent and teach.  A parent teaches by example. Hitting a child is a disgusting example. And when parents assume the power to hit, they are opening the door to their rage or frustration, to alcohol or drugs, or to emotional problems, perhaps triggered by their having been hit themselves as children, to cross the line into even more serious abuse. I never hit my child… nor either of my wives… nor my dog. It must be instilled as a line not to cross. It isn’t funny, it isn’t nostalgic, it’s dangerous.

I know some people reading this are ready with the ridicule and hostility and defensiveness and counter-arguments, if they’ve gotten this far. That’s on them. They have to deal with this, because it’s not debatable. I could attach dozens of articles, from medical journals and psychological journals and university journals, but if one needs to dismiss this then no volume will matter. But if one person is impacted by this and stops hitting his or her child, or even takes a deeper and more loving look at themselves, then all of this writing and whatever reaction it will get are more than worth it.