Thursday, October 29, 2009

Spanking: Legal Assault

I'm probably going to upset some people with today's post, so I'll start with a caveat. I think there are several different good approaches and techniques for parenting; I don't think there is only one right way to raise a healthy and happy kid. However, spanking is not a good technique, and it shouldn't be legal.

Now most people recognize that using physical violence (especially "excessive" violence) against children as the sole means of discipline is a bad idea, and often abusive. We have laws on child abuse, the most comprehensive of which is the national Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA). CAPTA defines child abuse and neglect thus:
"Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker, which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation, or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm."
Spanking results in physical and emotional harm, therefore spanking is abuse. (Ta-da!) Spanking is also assault - the only kind of physical assault that's legal in the US. If I walked up to my middle-aged mother and smacked her on the bottom, I would be assaulting her, and could be arrested, tried, and convicted for it. If she did the same to me, as an autonomous adult, it would still be assault. And again, if it was a neighbor or stranger or even someone else's child, I could be found gulity of assault for striking my hand against someone else's flesh (through clothing or otherwise - stop acting like cotton and denim make a damn bit of difference.)

Why is it that the only person I'm legally allowed to assault is my 4-year-old, who is completely reliant on me for love, affection, physical care, food, education, and his sense of well-being? As an adult, I have several means at my disposal, legally and physically, to prevent being assaulted. Children don't. Our laws say that it's okay to hurt your children to a certain degree, but no further. Yet it's not okay to hurt another adult against their will, regardless of degreee. (Throwing a pie in Ann Coulter's face is assault too, you know.)

So why can those boys get arrested for throwing a pie at her (which didn't actually even hit her, much less cause physical harm to her, like the bruise or red mark after a spanking) but it's legal to use corporal punishment on a toddler or preschooler? (Note: I'm not actually advocating hitting anyone with a pie, just pointing out that a missed-pie to an adult gets an arrest, but a hand to a child's flesh gets called a "family matter.")

It bugs me to no end that the American Pediatric Association has as their discipline guidelines, "spanking is not the best choice". That's like saying breastmilk is better than formula - it suggests that spanking or infant formula is a perfectly acceptable second-best choice. (In reality, the best-to-worst order for infant nutrition is 1. nursing from the breast, 2. drinking mom's milk in a bottle, 3. drinking another mom's milk in a bottle/breast, 4. infant formula. I'll probably do a post on breastfeeding eventually, and why atheists can take the lead in protecting woman and children from scorn and discrimination for public nursing.) The APA statement should read, "Spanking is a bad choice" and then have the same explanations for why that they currently do. (It IS a bad choice AND it's not the best, but calling it bad really does help clarify things.)

Why do I keep insisting that even "moderate" or "appropriate" or "reasonable" spanking is bad bad bad? Here's what a recent meta-analysis of 62 studies on spanking (over the past several decades) has revealed.
(From press release section of APA website.)
While conducting the meta-analysis, which included 62 years of collected data, Gershoff looked for associations between parental use of corporal punishment and 11 child behaviors and experiences, including several in childhood (immediate compliance, moral internalization, quality of relationship with parent, and physical abuse from that parent), three in both childhood and adulthood (mental health, aggression, and criminal or antisocial behavior) and one in adulthood alone (abuse of own children or spouse).

... While the nature of the analyses prohibits causally linking corporal punishment with the child behaviors, Gershoff also summarizes a large body of literature on parenting that suggests why corporal punishment may actually cause negative outcomes for children. For one, corporal punishment on its own does not teach children right from wrong. Secondly, although it makes children afraid to disobey when parents are present, when parents are not present to administer the punishment those same children will misbehave.

In commentary published along with the Gershoff study, George W. Holden, PhD, of the University of Texas at Austin, writes that Gershoff's findings "reflect the growing body of evidence indicating that corporal punishment does no good and may even cause harm." Holden submits that the psychological community should not be advocating spanking as a discipline tool for parents.

It's amazing to me that so many parenting experts, psychiatrist, etc. stop at "should not advocate spanking" and don't go on to "we should advocate against it" or even legislate against it. And it's not such a crazy idea - 23 countries have banned all forms of corporal punishment, including within the family and home.

Dr. Alan E. Kazdin, director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic and the president of the American Psychological Association, wrote this article "Spare the Rod: Why You Shouldn't Hit Your Kids (originally written for Slate but now hosted on the site.) Here are a few quotes from it that I think are very significant for ATAT readers (who may not even have kids, much less abuse them.)
  • "More than one-third of all parents who start out with relatively mild punishments end up crossing the line drawn by the state to define child abuse: hitting with an object, harsh and cruel hitting, and so on."
  • "The negative effects on children include increased aggression and noncompliance - the very misbehaviors that most often inspire parents to hit in the first place - as well as poor academic achievement, poor quality of parent-child relationships, and increased risk of mental-health problem (depression or anxiety for instance). High level of corporal punishment are also associated with problems that crop up later in life, including diminished ability to control one's impulses an poor physical-health outcomes (cancer, heart disease, chronic respiratory disease.) Plus, there's the effect of increasing parents' aggression, and don't forget the consistent finding that physical punishment is a weak strategy for permanently changing behavior."
So, more than a third of the people who start off mild end up extreme, and of course there are those parents who begin at the extreme. We know that extreme punishment and abuse is bad for children, and we have the data to back it up. When I say we should outlaw all corporal punishment of children because even mild spanking leads to abuse, I am not making a slippery-slope logical fallacy. (If there's reliable data that supports it, it's not a fallacy, just a fact.)

And what's more - spanking doesn't work! Sure, it may lead to an immediate cessation of the problem behavior, but it does nothing to teach the child right from wrong, reasoning, healthy remorse, or empathy. Instead it teaches a child that might makes right, and physical force is an acceptable way of getting what you want. Dale McGowan, author of Parenting Beyond Belief, made this excellent point I hope my freethinking audience will find as important as I do:
Every time a parent raises a hand to a child, that parent is saying you cannot be reasoned with. In the process, the child learns that force is an acceptable substitute for reason, and that Mom and Dad have more confidence in the former than in the latter.
There is absolutely no justification for secular parents to abuse their children, and the justifications theists use amongst themselves should not inform our laws. If I can legally obtain a restraining order against a man who physically assaults me, regardless of his religion or nonreligion, then religious justifications for child abuse (which is what spanking IS people) should not be part of our laws.

I live in a low-income-low-crime neighborhood of mostly poor families. We've got a lot of ethnic/cultural diversity. I have Arabic Muslims, African Muslims, Jamaicaans, Puerto Rican Catholics, and white Protestants in a 2-building radius of my unit. Because spanking is legal and accepted (pediatricians are still acting like it's up for debate) people don't always question if it's morally and ethically wrong. And so you end up with a woman yelling at her 2 year old to "get you ass back in the fucking house" at high volume, and you have the other woman who scolded me for picking up her crying baby, telling me, "The reason my older two kids are so well-behaved is because I never picked them up when they cried." In her case specifically, I know she actually loves her kids. but she is so misinformed, that she is doing them great emotional harm. (That's just heartbreaking isn't it? Thinking that meeting a 10-month-old's need for affection and comfort will cause willfulness or disobedience - or drug abuse and gang affiliation, the things she's really scared of, as she is the only legally employed member of her family of origin.) A lot of my neighbors seem to think I'm being an unsatisfactory parent because I don't physical discipline my child.

I was spanked as a child, and what it instilled in me in place of my own moral code was an intense desire to never get caught. (I distinctly remember praying, "God, please forgive me for going out tonight and please save me from getting caught," as I climbed out my window as a teen.) I was filled with resentment towards the abuser, my grandmother, instead of remorse over my own actions and a desire to right any wrongs I'd done. I started researching spanking when Little Man was a newborn, because I knew I didn't want my son to feel abused, like I did. I don't want to be the person who hits him - I'm the person who hugs him! And it's nonsensical to think I can spank my son but then tell him when he swats a friend, "We don't hit people." It's an insult to his intelligence and it would create in him an unecessary cognitive dissonance - my words and actions would not match up.

I very much want my words and actions to line up. That's a central part of how I define "integrity" and "personhood", and is very key to helping me form and discover my post-cult identity. (People who join and leave cults as adults have "pre cult identities", whereas second-generation adults (SGAs) who were raised in cults have to figure this stuff out on our own as adults and it's a lot harder.) I want to teach my son respect for himself and others, and I specifically think that the lack of bodily-autonomy I experienced as a "Focus on the Family" kid made me more vulnerable to the sexual abuse I received from a neighbor. (My family used to also tickle me against my will, or pinch my bottom and laugh as I squealed and begged them to stop.) I had no sense that I had a RIGHT to bodily autonomy or physical safety, and no sense that adults were not allowed to touch me in ways that made me uncomfortable. At the end of the day, this is the biggest reason I personally have for not spanking my kid.

From, "Spanked children learn that their bodies are not their personal property. Spanking trains them that even their sexual areas are subject to the will of adults. The child who submits to a spanking on Monday is not likely to say no to a molester on Tuesday. It's time spankers realized that - no matter what else they are accomplishing - they are setting children up to be easy prey for predators."

I make a concerted, conscious effort to tell my son all the time, "That's your body." Now that he's a bit older, I ask his permission and consent to take off his pants for a bathroom break or pull-ups change, and 90% of the time he doesn't even need my help with wiping. When he was an infant I would mention at least once a week during changes, "These are Little Man's personal special parts. No one should touch these except when changing your diapers." I make sure he is actually enjoying himself during tickle fights and rough housing. When he shows me an ouchie, I ask if he wants me to kiss it or blow on it (feet are yucky, y'all, even if they're cute little ones, and I'm not kissing those sandy toes.) I ask if he'd like help scrubbing down in the tub, and with teethbrushing (the one where I do just have to physically restrain him) I do my best to explain that I'm trying to keep his teeth white, and I let him manipulate the brush at the start and end of it. I don't want him to ever feel like any adult has the right to put their hands on his body against his will.

Yes, I've grabbed his arm and yanked him out of the way of cars or dogs, and in moments were I utterly failed, I have spanked him. I regret it. I didn't spank him because he was bad, but because I was angry at his action and at a loss for a solution. I grew up with absolutely terrible parenting models and I can't rely on my neighbors for good direction. So here are some of the best resources I've found for gentle, loving discipline and for parenting with autonomy as the goal (instead of the evil that must be fought, as it was in my childhood home.)

Parenting Beyond Belief - There's a book, a blog, and even videos up on YouTub This is a specifically atheist parenting resource, which is awesome because it's not like we have too many of those!

How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk - This horribly named book and tape-series has been a great resource for me. I believe the authors are Christian, although I don't think there are any references to god or religion in the book, and there's nothing inherently antithetical to Christianity. This is a resource you can recommend to Christian parents you know, or a book you can give expectant parents in your family and circle of friends, without having to discuss the god-issue. The central tenant is that children behave badly when they feel badly, and that we should use moments of misbehavior to analyze the situation and make sure all of our kid/s' needs are being met. Since I have a special needs child who had severe communication delays, this has been wonderful for us, but I know (online) lots of other parents of various beleif types who find the pricniples in this book incredibly simple to apply. - A treasure trove of links and research on spanking and why we shouldn't do it, as well as activism petitions, and a support group for Christians against child abuse., while not focused on child abuse within the home, is an excellent resource of training classes and materials for self-defense and child safety. Here's the wonderful set of Halloween safety tips I got in my email. (I didn't think of the dog one or writing my cell number on Little Man's arm in case we get separated during trick-or-treating so I'm really glad I read this!) They also have specific resources for increasing safety and safety awareness for children with disabilities, including being wheelchair-bound. It's definitely a great religion-neutral child safety and child empowerment resource.

If you spanked your kids, forgive yourself. I know my mom really did think James Dobson knew what he was talking about, and had no idea he was a misogynistic child-hating creep. I'm sure the vast majority of parents who spank do so out of loving motivations and lack of knowledge (or other parenting tools.) I'm not here to blame or to make anyone feel bad - I just want us to move forward to a non-spanking future. :)

A parent's liberty to parent and discipline as they wish does not and should not trump a child's right to safety from physical, emotional, or sexual abuse.