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By Joan Durrant, PhD
As many of us will remember,
forty years ago most children were spanked at one time or
another for their behavioural transgressions. A strap hung
in most school principals’ offices and, as children, we lived
with the constant threat of its use should we step out of
line. In fact, most of those who are reading this article
were physically punished at some time in their lives – some
more frequently than others, some more severely than others,
but almost all have had the experience of being punished through
the use of physical force.
environment of many of today’s children is different from
the one we knew. Many schools have abolished the strap, although
not all. Many parents have committed themselves to finding
ways of teaching their children to follow the rules other
than through physical pain, although others still believe
in its necessity. Many more children are now growing up without
having had the experience of being struck by their parents
or teachers than was the case one generation ago.
has begun to redefine physical punishment as an act of violence
and its rejection is becoming increasingly normative. This
social change may constitute one of the most important contributions
that could be made to the primary prevention of child abuse.
In this article,
I will summarize the research that demonstrates how the social
approval of physical punishment contributes to the physical
abuse of children. There are two primary mechanisms by which
it perpetuates abuse: 1) as a belief system that increases
the likelihood of abuse in frustrating situations; and 2)
as a reference point that raises thresholds of tolerance for
violence in the next generation. Each of these mechanisms
will be described in the following sections.
Approval of Physical Punishment
as a Precipitant of Physical Abuse
child abuse was first identified in the 1960’s, it was believed
to be the result of psychiatric disturbance. Today, we know
that most parents who harm their children do not demonstrate
psychopathology, but have chosen to use physical force as
a means of controlling or correcting a child’s behaviour.
When we consider the incidence of child physical abuse in
Canada – 15,553 substantiated investigations in 1998 alone
(Trocmé, 2001) – we no longer can view it as an aberration.
Rather, it is often the logical end-point of a predictable
pattern of parent-child interaction that includes the use
of physical punishment.
In 1981, Kadushin
and Martin published a study of substantiated cases of nonsexual
abuse by parents in the United States. They found that the
abuse "almost invariably" (p. 249) occurred within
the context of a disciplinary interaction.
most instances, parents had a deliberate, explicit disciplinary
objective in mind in involving themselves in the interaction
culminating in abuse. Their instrumental intent was to obtain
a modification of the child’s behavior which they perceived
as needing changing" (pp. 250).
conducted a national study of all cases of child physical
abuse reported during a two-year period in the United States.
He found that the most common type of abuse (63% of cases)
involved "incidents developing out of disciplinary action
taken by caretakers" (pp. 126).
the recent Canadian Incidence Study of Reported Child Abuse
and Neglect (CIS: Trocmé et al, 2001) revealed that
69% of substantiated cases of child physical abuse "occurred
as a result of inappropriate punishment (e.g., hitting with
hand or object) that led to physical harm, or put the child
at substantial risk of harm" (pp. 30-31). In contrast,
only 1% of substantiated physical abuse cases were attributable
to Shaken Baby Syndrome, a social problem that has been the
subject of extensive public education campaigns.
How does intended
discipline become an injurious act? This transformation takes
place through a process that is all-too-familiar to most parents.
Typically, individuals become parents with minimal levels
of education about child development, little knowledge of
normative behaviour at various developmental stages, and inappropriate
expectations regarding children’s capacities for self-control.
When a child demonstrates a desire for autonomy (e.g., "No!"),
a drive for exploration and experimentation (e.g., touching
Grandma’s vase), and difficulty in exerting self-control (e.g.,
tantrums), such a parent is likely to become frustrated and
angry, attributing the child’s behaviour to defiance or malicious
intent (Bugental, Mantyla, & Lewis, 1989; Dix & Grusec,
1985). If that parent believes that physical punishment is
an appropriate disciplinary response (Holden et al., 1993;
Moore & Straus, 1987), spanking is a likely outcome.
now physically hurt and distressed, will stop performing the
behaviour, thereby reinforcing the parent for using physical
punishment (Walters, 1991). However, the child’s mastery motivation
and limited understanding of the world are likely to result
in another act objectionable to the parent. The parent, now
believing that physical punishment was effective in the past,
spanks again. And, again, the child’s behaviour ceases, further
reinforcing the parent’s belief about the effectiveness of
As the spanking
increases in frequency, the child’s behaviour worsens. Numerous
studies (Gershoff, 2001, in press) have demonstrated that
the frequency of spanking is positively related to deviant
child behaviour, such as aggression (27 studies) and antisocial
behaviour (12 studies) (e.g., Straus, Sugarman, & Giles-Sims,
1999; Travillion & Snyder, 1993). Therefore, as the parent
becomes increasingly reliant on physical punishment, the child
becomes increasingly aggressive and defiant. The parent, in
turn, becomes increasingly angry (Reid, Patterson, & Lorber,
1981) and, believing that physical punishment is effective
and appropriate, increases the intensity of the punishment
until injury is sustained by the child (Burgess & Draper,
(1982) reviewed the literatures on instrumental aggression
and child abuse and developed an empirically based model of
abuse. He argues that while parents may have an instrumental
goal (learned through previous patterns of reinforcement,
not intended to be harmful, expected to produce positive results)
when they decide to use physical punishment, their heightened
arousal levels (due to their frustration, anger, stress, irritability)
"independently act on the intended degree of physical
punishment to produce responses involving a dangerous or injurious
level of force. What begins as an act of physical discipline,
thus, becomes an act of interpersonal violence" (p. 135).
acceptance of physical punishment plays an important role
in this escalation process. Moore and Straus (1987) demonstrated
that the more strongly parents approve of corporal punishment,
the more likely they are to use it and the more harshly they
administer it; parents who approve of physical punishment
have a child abuse rate 4 times higher than that of parents
who do not approve of it (Moore & Straus, 1987). Indeed,
the likelihood of maternal use of violent discipline increases
with a belief in the "necessity, normalcy and goodness
of physical punishment" (Lenton, 1990, pp. 173). Therefore,
societal messages that convey the appropriateness of physical
punishment increase the likelihood of its use and, thereby,
set the stage for physical abuse.
Physical Punishment and Thresholds
for Tolerance of Violence
One of the
difficulties we may have in confronting the issue of physical
punishment is the absence of a clear distinction between punishment
and abuse. Some would argue that no such distinction can be
made; any use of physical force against a child is abusive
by definition. Others would argue that labeling a tap on a
toddler’s hand an abusive act inflames the debate and trivializes
injurious abuse. I would argue that our positions on this
question are largely informed by our own personal experience,
which has established our thresholds for tolerance of violence.
predictor of one’s level of approval of physical punishment
is the degree to which one was physically punished as a child
even when age, gender, race, education, and income are controlled
(Buntain-Ricklefs, Kemper, Bell, & Babonis, 1994). The
rate of approval of common punishments (e.g., hitting with
a belt, pulling hair) is 2 to 3 times greater among those
who have experienced such punishments than among those who
have not. The rate of approval of severe physical punishments
(e.g., being burned, having teeth knocked out) is 2.5 times
greater for those who have experienced such punishments than
among those who have not (Buntain-Ricklefs et al., 1994).
Therefore, the acts of violence that we experienced as children
may become our cutoff points for defining "discipline"
was demonstrated dramatically in a 10-year study of 11,660
adults in the United States who were asked about the kinds
of punishments they received as children, and whether they
considered themselves to have been physically abused (Knutson
& Selner, 1994). Of those participants who reported having
received severe physical punishment (e.g., punching, kicking,
choking), 74% did not label themselves as having been abused.
Of those who had been hit with more than 5 different types
of objects, 49% did not label themselves as having been abused.
Of those who had received more than 2 different types of disciplinary
injuries, 44% did not label themselves as having been abused.
And of those who had required 2 different types of medical
services for their injuries, 38% did not label themselves
as having been abused. Therefore, even seriously abusive behaviour
can be defined as normative if it is part of one’s personal
We carry our
definitions of discipline and violence into the parenting
situation, where they influence the likelihood that abuse
will occur. It has been demonstrated that abusive parents
are more likely to have received physical punishment as children
than are non-abusive parents (Straus & Smith, 1992) and
mothers raised in abusive circumstances are three times more
likely to use physical punishment than mothers who were not
abused (Berger, 2001). Therefore, childhood experience of
physical force as a means of discipline can raise one’s threshold
for tolerance of violence such that behaviour viewed by one
parent as seriously abusive may constitute "normative
discipline" to another. By redefining physical punishment
clearly as an act of violence, we may shift the reference
points of individuals who are at risk of abusing their children
by virtue of the thresholds that were established in their
Re-Defining Physical Punishment
Over the past
twenty years, an historical shift has begun to take place
in the definition of physical punishment. While even one generation
ago, it was considered to be an expected – even necessary
– item in the parental toolkit, today it is becoming a socially
undesirable act. In a recent Canadian study of mothers of
preschoolers (Durrant, Rose-Krasnor, & Broberg, under
review), a majority reported a belief that it is ineffective,
unnecessary, and harmful.
In an increasing
number of nations, this shift has been even more dramatic.
Since 1979, ten nations have redefined physical punishment
as an act of violence that is no longer permitted by law.
These nations are: Israel (2000), Germany (2000), Croatia
(1999), Latvia (1998), Cyprus (1994), Austria (1989), Norway
(1987), Denmark (1986), Finland (1984), and Sweden (1979).
These laws serve as important symbols that set a standard
for non-violent childrearing and render moot the question
of whether striking a child is an act of discipline or abuse.
Their purpose is not to wield the mighty power of the State
against a frustrated, well-intentioned parent. Rather, their
purpose is to make it clear that parental use of violence
of any kind against a child is not condoned by the State.
reforms are of an historical and international significance
on a par with those that redefined husbands’ use of physical
punishment with their wives as violence, rather than as a
marital right. Today, that process of redefinition is so complete
that any expression of support for the use of physical force
between partners is a shocking rarity. In nations like Sweden,
the same process has occurred with respect to parental use
of physical discipline with children. Whereas, in 1965, half
of the Swedish population believed that physical punishment
is necessary in childrearing, only 6% of Swedes born since
that time support its use today (SIFO, 1981; SCB, 1996). The
implications of such a societal shift for reducing child physical
abuse may be revealed in the following statistic: between
1975 and 1996, only four children died in Sweden from the
effects of physical abuse (see Durrant, 2000).
It has been
demonstrated in a number of large studies across time and
samples that a majority of cases of child physical abuse occur
within the context of a disciplinary incident. Societal acceptance,
even if not support, of parental use of physical punishment
contributes to this problem. Clear societal messages that
reject the use of violence as a means of conflict resolution
help to put into place inhibitory controls that are necessary
in the face of frustration, and set a behavioural standard.
In Canada, we have made this message clear with regard to
partners, peers, and strangers. If a clear message rejecting
the use of physical punishment of children prevented even
10% of physical child abuse cases, we would see 1,555 fewer
incidents of child physical abuse each year (estimated on
the basis of Trocmé et al’s (2001) findings regarding
the incidence of child physical abuse in Canada). Is this
not reason enough to make the message clear?
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