[content warning: this whole article is about corporal punishment.]
The only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child.
Hit your partner, and you’ll be arrested for domestic violence. Hit another adult, and you’ll be arrested for assault. But hit a 4-year-old, and you can call yourself a “loving father”. That’s completely screwed up.
It should be against the law for a fully grown adult to slap, hit, spank, punch, switch, whoop, whip, paddle, kick or belt a defenseless child in the name of discipline. But it is legal, and new research in the Journal of Family Psychology suggests that the average 4-year-old is hit 936 times a year.
If study after study conclusively proves that hitting your kids doesn’t work as a disciplinary method, and worse, it has long-term damaging impact to their psychology and makes your kids more aggressive, why do we as a society allow it?
And while I find corporal punishment appalling, 936 times as an average amount of violence per year seemed astronomical to me. That’s very, very frequent, or a series of very long spankings. I assumed something had gone wrong. (In my defense, people on tumblr get research wrong a lot.)
So, I tracked down the study. I sort of assumed it would be some issue of inaccurate self-report by children being extrapolated out to how many times a child was hit a year. But….actually this was a pilot study using audio recorders. (It’s worth noting that it was a small study, averaging only 12.95 hours of recording per family.) This was going to be much more accurate data then I’d have expected from spanking research at all.
Even more confusingly, each time I poked about at methods and sample, I found things that made me wonder if a larger, longer sample wouldn’t find even more instances of corporal punishment (CP in the research). The only part that might indicate a sample skewed towards higher physical punishment was that it selected for parents of 2-to-5 year olds who admitted they yelled in anger at least twice a week. Perhaps someone with a two-to-five-year-old can chime in if this seems excessively frequent? I imagine that between the Terrible Twos and still having someone dependent on you for everything, this isn’t more than one standard deviation above average.
But at the same time, consider this: the parents had some inkling that this was research about child discipline. They were interviewed over the phone prior to the research study, as well as possibly given a series of questionnaires prior to beginning the data collection. (I’m hoping the researchers waited until after, but the wording did not specify.) This makes me expect lower amounts of CP, with parents assuming that the weird psych people giving them audio recorders weren’t going to be enthusiastic about parents hitting their children.* Additionally, spanking publicly is socially frowned upon (hence, spanking in bathrooms or promising a spanking at home) and I expect that adding in audio recorders made the home seem less private. Further, the mothers were more educated than the population at large, which makes me wonder if they’re a sample with higher impulse control than average.
So, all in all, I’m leaning towards this being a fair, but possibly skewed lower than reality sample. But, a quibble in terms of reporting: the number, which is reported at Raw Story and CNN as the average number of times a four year old child is hit per year isn’t an average at all. The median number of times a child in the study was hit per week was 18, which when multiplied out, to 52 weeks, is 936 per year. (I’m unclear if in this section of the research, the writers were describing the subset of data for parents using corporal punishment, or the numbers on all parents in the study. The answer to that question would further clarify.)
The researchers noted that most parents who did use CP also failed to follow proponents’ guidelines about how to use spanking/hitting. Approximately half the time the punishment was given while audibly angry (advised against) and the vast majority—more than 90%—of the punishments were for non-serious offenses, mainly violating social norms. Most advice for parents who are going to use spanking is to use it very selectively, and only for serious offenses. (Here’s a well-respected psychologist explaining use of ‘effective’ physical punishment, for comparison.)
But most interestingly to me, 73% of children were back to misbehaving after ten minutes. This isn’t the reason I object to hitting your kids, but you can even make a fairly strong argument that it doesn’t work as a behavioral modifier, violence aside. I don’t pretend to be an expert, but on the simple end, time-outs seem like they would do better behavior-modification, if only because they remove the child from their current trajectory in a way hitting a child does not. It’s much harder to go back to bothering your sister or making a mess after you’ve been left alone in a different place for five or ten minutes.
*I mostly assume this as a result of the meme that spanking-approval is a more common conservative standpoint than liberal one, and psychologists seem to generally be assumed to be liberal.