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Parents, it's time to spike the spank



It is an unpalatable truth for many Australians: smacking your child or grandchild is increasingly termed (or seen to lead to) family and domestic violence. Post-Rosie Batty, with the death of Luke at the hands of his abusive dad, more bystanders seem inclined to intervene.

Hand image: Mark Ramsay via FlickrI have older, conservative friends and family who will be rolling their eyes at this point. 'Equating a smack on the bum with child abuse is irresponsible,' is a kneejerk retort that I hear about this subject. The retort's often flavoured with a faint whiff of anti-intellectualism and suspicion towards experts.

If you are inclined to discount expert opinion from medicos, lawyers and criminologists, you could consider the evidence of your own eyes and ears. Observe the body language around you if a parent hits their kids in a public setting. A hush descends and tension increases — because, post-Royal Commission, violence against kids is more and more on the nose.

Still, spanking continues here and elsewhere. Across the world, according to UNICEF, six in ten children aged two to 14 get smacked. And, yes, hitting kids is still culturally acceptable in some Australian circles. Back in 2012, 70 per cent of Australians thought smacking was acceptable; 39.7 per cent of us believed smacking was a useful deterrent, while 36 per cent thought it should only be used in extreme situations.

Clinical research, however, readily compares spanking with child abuse. One large study in the US Journal of Family Psychology found that spanking, defined as 'an open-handed hit on the arms, legs or backside' in response to bad behaviour, has similar effects on children as physical abuse.

Also disturbingly, a US study published last year in the Journal of Pediatrics showed that 68 per cent of adults surveyed who were smacked in childhood were more likely to be physically aggressive towards their partners as adults. That correlation between corporal punishment and 'dating violence', said senior author Jeff Temple, suggests causation.

'Parents are a child's first look at relationships and how conflicts are handled,' he said. 'Corporal punishment is communicating to children that violence is an acceptable means of changing behaviour.'


"Respect, love, and kindness are not qualities you can gain with the back of your hand."


Closer to home, a New South Wales study of child homicides committed between 1991-2005 (published online in 2009) concluded that 'more lives could be saved by measures that reduce the incidence of child abuse, including the prohibition of corporal punishment of children'.

While corporal punishment — which is, I'm suggesting, a type of family violence — is still legal in Australia, the evidence in countries where spanking is banned is that those nations have 'very low rates of child mortality associated with abuse'.

France, Germany, Scotland, Ireland, New Zealand and Norway are among 52 nations that have banned smacking. A Scottish government spokesperson, following that nation's ban on spanking last year, stated that 'we believe physical punishment can have negative effects on children which can last long after the physical pain has died away.' For 'negative effects', read neurological, emotional damage.

There are now 128 countries where children cannot be struck by teachers in schools, including Australia. Yet we Antipodean parents are still legally at liberty to vent our personal and parental frustrations against the bodies of our children. In Australia, 'corporal punishment by a parent or carer is lawful and is not considered child abuse provided that it is "reasonable"'. It should give us pause when we realise, as that government paper notes, 'there is "no consensus in the community as to what constitutes reasonable punishment"'.

For the utilitarians among us, what are the results of those 'open-handed' strikes against children's bodies, anyway? The same government source lists them as including 'antisocial behaviour, external behaviour problems, low moral internalisation, aggression, mental health problems, negative parent-child relationships, impaired cognitive ability, low self-esteem and risk of physical abuse from parents'.

To top it off, hitting your kid doesn't change behaviour: 'children who are physically punished are just as likely to defy their parents when they spank as comply with them'. One study, of 160,000 children, showed that 'the more children are smacked, the more aggressive and anti-social they become'.

Violence, be it a cuff across the ear or a whack on the bottom, is recognised by researchers as a learnt behaviour; something that can be continued or discontinued in your own parenting.

Which brings us to the 'why'. Parenting is difficult; no doubt. Exhaustion, frustration, humiliation and bewilderment can all be part of the experience. Hitting is an easy response, and a traditional answer to defiance.

But there are myriad, less harmful ways to discipline children: the withdrawing of rewards and privileges, changing the scenario, (numerous) time outs, and the setting and maintaining of clear boundaries and expectations.

We don't conceive and raise children so that we can hurt them. But it's happening. Respect, love, and kindness are not qualities you can gain with the back of your hand. To my fellow parents, or grandparents, I ask, How are the kids?



Barry GittinsBarry Gittins is a Melbourne writer.

Hand image: Mark Ramsay via Flickr


Topic tags: Barry Gittins, parenting, spanking



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Existing comments

Thank you for an interesting article Barry. Interesting the earlier Jewish scriptural statement of ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child now seems to be invalidated, or at least ‘on the nose’ or perhaps not! I have heard it said in past days that if the occasion smack on the bottom hurts the ‘smacker’ more than the ‘smackee’ then it is Ok. The real truth of the matter may yet lay in between the two extremes.

John Whitehead | 20 June 2018  

I am 70, a male. I attended boarding schools from 6 years of age until 16 . I attended a Sisters of Mercy College to year 6 then a Marist College . Corporal Punishment was metered out at a frightening rate for often very minor infringements of 'the rules' , sometimes for no offence. We lived in fear of 'the cuts'. Some Nuns and Brothers were quite brutal and should not have been in positions of power. Now they would be guilty of assault with a deadly weapon! I later taught in High Schools . Corporal Punishment at the congregational school was still in use .It was phrased out during my time. I was never comfortable using the strap. I suspect my students sensed that. I was glad when the practice ended although discipline in an all male environment was difficult as a result .Detention is not really very effective! With my own children smacking was never an option. I think my grown up children are the better. Today's parents are at least a generation removed from those days. I find it hard to understand why abuse continues in families when they did not suffer the abuse that we suffered as children. I suspect from what my married offspring tell me, raising children today is very hard indeed. Remember the old adage; "Spare the rod and spoil the child" ?

Gavin O'Brien | 20 June 2018  

Thank you for the feedback, John, Gavin. We do live in different times to leaders of the pastoral society who came up with the ‘Spoil the rod and spare the child’ ethos (Proverbs 13:24). Modern interpretations suggest that biblical reference symbolises guidance, as a shepherd, rather than a literal invitation to hit your children with a club. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/theprinciplesofspiritualliving/2014/11/the-truth-about-spare-the-rod-and-spoil-the-child/ http://www.thomashaller.com/PAbiblicalperspectivesonspanking.html If perfect love casts out fear, as the Apostle John suggests (1 John 4:18), then corporal punishment is far from an ethical ideal. I am reminded of a quote from Mohandas Gandhi, that ‘power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.’ That quote heads the reflective article I cite below: https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/towards-recovery/201711/spare-the-rod-spoil-the-child

Barry Gittins | 20 June 2018  

Child spanking should be banned everywhere. It should be classed as a criminal offence. I cannot bear to see children being smacked by their mothers. Mothers lose patience with difficult children in public sometimes. So they smack the child. I don't approve at all. I hate it.

Lynne Redknap | 22 June 2018  

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