Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Child Abuse vs. Discipline

When my wife and I tell people that we'll never hit our kids, we're told that we're naive. It's easy to say we won't hit our kids when we don't have any, but once we do, we'll change our opinion. I personally find this insulting. I agree that there are many aspects of parenthood we won't fully realize until we have our own kids, but if you think every parent across the country hits their kids, you're the one who's being naive. In fact, 6 out of 10 parents either don't hit their children at all, or do so less than once a year. (Prevent Child Abuse America. Public Opinion and Behaviors Regarding Child Abuse Prevention: 1999 Survey)

If I were to say that I'd never sexually abuse a child, nobody would call me naive, except perhaps a parent who does it. Should I bow before the molester and accept their word as fact simply because, as a parent, they have experience I do not? Of course not. If a parent who sexually abuses their kids claims it's normal and all parents do it, I wouldn't believe them for a second. Just because someone happens to be a parent doesn't make them an expert on parenting. I'll take the advice of a parent who is a trained child psychologist over the opinion of a parent without training any day.

I'm just as sure that I would never hit a child as I am that I would never sexually abuse a child. How can I know this? I know myself. Nobody in the world knows me better than I do. I would never even consider hitting a child. For me, it's not even an option. Don't tell me I have to be a parent first to know this. When you tell me how I'm going to behave as a parent, you assume that you know my personality better than I do. You don't. I don't have to own a dog to know I'd never beat one. I knew before I got married that I would never hit my wife, and I know that I will never hit a child even though I'm not a parent yet.

My wife and I are told that until we become parents ourselves, we can't possibly imagine how frustrated we will get. We aren't so naive as to believe that parenthood will be a cakewalk. We know it will be hard. We know that children will push us to our wit's end. There'll be times we'll want to strangle our children a la Homer Simpson. We know that we'll get angry, but being angry is never an excuse to hit a child. Hitting a child for instructional reasons is discipline, but hitting a child out of anger is just abuse.

My parents never hit me. I know that corporal punishment used to be common in previous generations when less was known about child development, but in this day and age, it's less clear whether hitting has a positive effect. If violence is such a great teacher, why don't we beat criminals instead of putting them in jail? I want to be clear before I continue that I'm not condemning parents who do hit their kids. Many good parents hit their children because they believe it's what's best. The decision to hit or not hit is every parent's own decision, and I won't tell you how to raise your kids. I just don't want anybody telling me how to raise mine and I've recently felt the need to defend my decision.

80% of young adults who had been abused met the diagnostic criteria for at least 1 psychiatric disorder at the age of 21 (including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, & post-traumatic stress disorder) (National Clearinghouse on Child Abuse & Neglect Information. Long-term Consequences of Child Abuse & Neglect 2005 )

Everyone agrees that children need discipline, but should not be abused. What everyone disagrees on is how to define abuse. Canadian law states that hitting a child in any way except for spanking by hand is abuse, while Utah law (the state in which I live) requires broken bones or significant bruising to take place before an act can be considered abuse.

I find it slightly ironic that in Utah, a parent can legally beat their child to the point of bruising, but something as simple as slapping another adult is considered assault. The reason for this, of course, is the question of discipline. Hitting a fellow adult is wrong, but hitting your own child is okay because it's assumed that the reason for hitting the child was to discipline them. However, intent doesn't factor into the law. Hitting a child out of frustration or anger or just because you had a bad day is just as legal as hitting a child to teach them that what they did is wrong.

My wife and I have been told that children who don't get hit by their parents grow up to be delinquents. There's no evidence of this, and actually, it appears that the opposite is true. While there aren't really any statistics that take non-abusive hitting into account, children who do experience child abuse & neglect are 59% more likely to be arrested as a juvenile, 28% more likely to be arrested as an adult, and 30% more likely to commit violent crime than those who are not abused. (US Department of Justice Reports)

My parents hit me all the time and I turned out okay.

I don't doubt it. However, consider that many children who were sexually abused also turn out okay. Does this mean we should all start sexually abusing our kids? Of course not. They turn out okay in spite of the abuse, not because of it. Besides, not everyone who gets hit as a child turns out okay, many develop mental disorders and wind up in prison.

It works.

Physical abuse may work at first because it shocks a child. But it becomes less effective as it is repeated or if it comes with anger and rejection. The abuse a child suffers can cause unresolved feelings of anger that carry over into adulthood. A child who is abused repeatedly is more likely to physically punish their own child or spouse. Physical discipline can escalate into abuse if a parent loses control.

What does hitting teach a child? It teaches children not to get caught rather than helping them internalize the value or rule you are trying to teach them. Very young children often don't understand why they're being hit in the first place. They will remember the abuse, but not the lesson being taught. Abuse teaches a child that hitting is a way to solve problems. It's the height of irony to see a child hit another on the playground, then to see their parent hit them to teach them that hitting is wrong. Children often can't understand this conflicting and hypocritical message. Children learn by imitation. Monkey see, monkey do. If you don't want your child to be the one hitting and bullying other children on the playground, don't teach them that hitting is okay by doing it to them.

I myself have witnessed a child, after being hit by his mother, immediately hit another child in order to get a toy. The child has learned that hitting is how you get what you want. It's far better to reason with a child, to teach them the value or lesson you want them to learn. Explain to them why hitting another child is bad, and teach them empathy. The goal of parenting is for your child to do the right thing, not out of fear of punishment, but because the values and morals you taught them have become internalized. They should do the right thing because it's the right thing to do, not because they're afraid of reprisal.

Every problem looks like a nail when the only tool you have is a hammer.

If the only parenting skill you possess is hitting, you'll be unable to solve the wide variety of problems a child may have. There are a wide variety of tools a parent can use to deal with a disobedient child including time outs, positive reinforcement for doing the right thing, withholding privledges, talking to your child so that he understands what he did was wrong, and even a simple look of reproach. Unfortunately, many parents never learn to use non-violent methods of discipline. You need a license to drive a car, or go fishing, but not to become a parent. Perhaps if effective parenting techniques were taught at the high school level, we'd see better parents with a wider range of parenting tools.

Every child is different. Your children will likely have a different personality than you, just as you had a different personality from your parents. The same approach doesn't work on every child. You can't fix an autistic child, or a child with a less noticeable mental disability, by hitting them. Some children are naturally more disobedient and troublesome than others for a variety of reasons, including genetics. Those parents who hit their children instead of trying to understand them will never succeed in fixing a problem child.

There are circumstances when hitting a child is a good instructional tool, such as swatting a child's hand when they're reaching for a hot stove. If you've tried everything else and you think that hitting your child is the only option, make sure you do so only occasionally, since the more often hitting is repeated, the less effective it becomes. There are certain situations where spanking a child will help teach them a valuable lesson, but if you have to spank them repeatedly, it obviously isn't working.

Many cultures in our world's history and even some today believe it's a husband's right to beat his wife so that she'll submit to him. If you find this idea disgusting, you should find the idea of beating a child into submission equally ugly. Children learn by imitation. Being a good example is a better way to teach your child than making them fear you.

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