Is Corporal Punishment Child Abuse?

September 25, 2014 Abuse and Neglect Attorney

Spanking: is it “Reasonable Discipline”?

Few parenting issues cause quite as much consternation as the issue of corporal punishment. Whether to spank a child or not? And if so, for which infractions? And for long? And until what age? These are questions that have been debated for years

On a recent episode of ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Dr. Alan Kazden, a psychologist at Yale University, spoke about a study that he had conducted in 2003, which found that 85% of American children had been spanked at some point in their childhood prior to adolescence.

But Kazden defines spanking as using an open hand to hit a child for the purpose of punishment, which does not leave bruises, cuts or visible marks. While he doesn’t classify spanking as child abuse, he does state that spanking is, in his opinion, ineffective and detrimental to a child’s development.

Stacey Walsh-Hoobler, the clinical director for the Women’s Resource Center of Northern Michigan, agrees. “Spanking can cause trust issues — I can’t trust you’re going to protect me,” she says. “It can make children more aggressive toward siblings and other children because that’s how they learn to handle conflict. The whole thing about corporal punishment is that it is instilling fear when we want to instill cooperation.”

According to Michigan’s Department of Human Services, spanking a child is not against the law, but it is illegal to use an object to hit a child, like a switch, a paddle or a belt, which could leave a mark. The law states that a parent may use “reasonable discipline”, which is very vague.  It is generally interpreted to mean that only an open hand is used, and never above the shoulders, as even the slightest blow to the head can cause serious damage to a child’s developing brain.

However, according to Walsh-Hoobler, the difference between spanking and abuse is a gray area.  And because the line between the two is so thin, it is easy to escalate from one to the other if the child is being disciplined during a time of extreme stress or uncontrollable anger.

But according to Leonard Pitts Jr., the celebrated American commentator, journalist and novelist, in a recent article that addresses the issue of what is and what isn’t child abuse, he says, ” I don’t believe in spanking reflexively. Not every offense merits it. Indeed, most don’t.

I don’t believe in spanking to excess, the idea is to sting, not hurt. I don’t believe in spanking in anger. Anger leads to loss of control. But I don’t believe that all spanking is abuse.”

He goes on to quote a 2001 study conducted by Dr. Diana Baumrind, a psychologist who openly opposes spanking children, but which found that mild to moderate corporal punishment causes no lasting harm to a child.

So the truth is that, while the law doesn’t provide a cut and dried answer for what is child abuse and what is simply an attempt at discipline when it comes to spanking, logic would suggest that if you choose to use corporal punishment as a method of discipline for your children, remember these few guidelines:

  • Never hit a child in anger. If you need to take some time to calm down first before disciplining them, then do so. You will be glad of it later.
  • Only ever hit a child with your open hand. Never use an object, and never use your closed fist.
  • Never strike a child anywhere on their head or neck. Try to confine any spankings to their bottom.
  • Make sure the punishment fits the crime. For those who choose to use spanking as a method of discipline, don’t use it for every infraction. Rather, because it tends to be more harsh than time outs and confiscation of toys or privileges, employ it only when the action is serious and merits a more severe punishment.
  • The word “discipline” comes from the Latin word “disciplina”, which means knowledge or instruction. To discipline a child is to teach them. So when disciplining your children, know that this is a method of instruction, and use it wisely.