Friday, June 13, 2014

Corporal Punishment is Wrong: Why Spanking = Child Abuse: Or Why Dr.James Dobson is a Crank and an Immoral Quack



A topic which hit close to home (no pun intended) arose after a Facebook friend tagged me in a post. Now, this friend happens to be of a highly religious sort, and so I was extremely polite in my response to the post, since this friend wanted my atheistic opinion on some things regarding science and evolution, and--naturally--I am more than happy to wax on at length about such subjects.

But what really caught my interest was a post immediately afterward in which she linked to a Dr. James Dobson, of Focus on the Family fame, article about corporal punishment. Here is the full article, since I think it's worth responding to, if only to reveal every single fallacy here--and to explicitly and emphatically state, contrary to what "Dr." James Dobson may think, spanking or otherwise beating, whipping, abusing, or harming helpless children for any reason--any reason whatsovever--is always, without a doubt, WRONG. W-R-O-N-G.

Corporal punishment, when used lovingly and properly, is beneficial to a child because it is in harmony with nature itself. Consider the purpose of minor pain in a child's life and how he learns from it. Suppose two-year-old Peter pulls on a tablecloth and with it comes a vase of roses that cracks him between the eyes. From this pain, he learns that it is dangerous to pull on the tablecloth unless he knows what sits on it. When he touches a hot stove, he quickly learns that heat must be respected. If he lives to be a hundred years old, he will never again reach out and touch the red-hot coils of a stove. The same lesson is learned when he pulls the doggy's tail and promptly gets a neat row of teeth marks across the back of his hand, or when he climbs out of his high chair when Mom isn't looking and discovers all about gravity.

During the childhood years, he typically accumulates minor bumps, bruises, scratches, and burns, each one teaching him about life's boundaries. Do these experiences make him a violent person? No! The pain associated with these events teaches him to avoid making the same mistakes again. God created this mechanism as a valuable vehicle for instruction.

When a parent administers a reasonable spanking in response to willful disobedience, a similar nonverbal message is being given to the child. He must understand that there are not only dangers in the physical world to be avoided. He should also be wary of dangers in his social world, such as defiance, sassiness, selfishness, temper tantrums, behavior that puts his life in danger, that which hurts others, etc. The minor pain associated with this deliberate misbehavior tends to inhibit it, just as discomfort works to shape behavior in the physical world. Neither conveys hatred. Neither results in rejection. Neither makes the child more violent.

In fact, children who have experienced corporal punishment from loving parents do not have trouble understanding its meaning. I recall my good friends Art and Ginger Shingler, who had four beautiful children whom I loved. One of them went through a testy period where he was just "asking for it." The conflict came to a head in a restaurant, when the boy continued doing everything he could to be bratty. Finally, Art took him to the parking lot for an overdue spanking. A woman passerby observed the event and became irate. She chided the father for "abusing" his son and said she intended to call the police. With that, the child stopped crying and said to his father, "What's wrong with that woman, Dad?" He understood the discipline even if his rescuer did not. A boy or girl who knows that love abounds at home will not resent a well-deserved spanking. One who is unloved or ignored will hate any form of discipline!

Before we begin deconstructing what Dr. Dobson has to say, it's worth prefacing this essay with a point that was made clear by Psychologist George W. Holden, of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, when he stated that, “Parental use of corporal punishment is the single most controversial and emotionally charged topic in parent—child relationships.”

This is true. In fact, I think this sensitivity extends well beyond just the parent and child relationships and goes on to affect other parent to parent relationships as well.

Earlier this year, in an October Sky moment, I pealed off a father abusing his son in the bathroom of the local mall. The kid had taken his soda into the restroom and had spilled it and his father reacted poorly. I watched as two hard swats on the child's butt turned into hits in the face. At that time, I rushed over and got in between the child and the father and pushed that dad back. After informing to knock it off or take it up with me outside, he grabbed his child by the arm and dragged him out of the restroom.

My point in bringing it up, as sensitive as the topic may be, is that often times the children who are on the receiving end of the abuse of violent adults have no say in the matter. So, apologies in advance if it seems that I am overstepping my bounds in presuming to know how to be a better parent than those parents who willfully inflict pain on children with fists, belts, sticks and canes--all in the name of "love."

Now, it seems to me that "Dr." Dobson's appalling position with regard to corporal punishment is wholly misguided, in part, because Dr. Dobson is holy ignorant of the research in the field of child psychology and development. The reason I say this is because, if you browse both the American Psychoanalytic Association and the American Psychological Association's webpages, both explicitly hold that corporal punishment is a form of child abuse. The APsaA states:

The American Psychoanalytic Association (APsaA) condemns the use of physical punishment (corporal punishment) in the discipline of children and recommends alternative methods that enhance children's capacities to develop healthy emotional lives, tolerate frustration, regulate internal tensions, and behave in socially acceptable ways.

Meanwhile, the American Psychological Association has this to say with regard to corporal punishment:

Whereas the resort to corporal punishment tends to reduce the likelihood of employing more effective, humane, and creative ways of interacting with children;

Whereas it is evident that socially acceptable goals of education, training, and socialization can be achieved without the use of physical violence against children, and that children so raised, grow to moral and competent adulthood;

Whereas corporal punishment intended to influence "undesirable responses" may create in the child the impression that he or she is an "undesirable person"; and an impression that lowers self-esteem and may have chronic consequences;

Whereas research has shown that to a considerable extent children learn by imitating the behavior of adults, especially those they are dependent upon; and the use of corporal punishment by adults having authority over children is likely to train children to use physical violence to control behavior rather than rational persuasion, education, and intelligent forms of both positive and negative reinforcement;

Whereas research has shown that the effective use of punishment in eliminating undesirable behavior requires precision in timing, duration, intensity, and specificity, as well as considerable sophistication in controlling a variety of relevant environmental and cognitive factors, such that punishment administered in institutional settings, without attention to all these factors, is likely to instill hostility, rage, and a sense of powerlessness without reducing the undesirable behavior;

Therefore, be it resolved that the American Psychological Association opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools, juvenile facilities, child care nurseries, and all other institutions, public or private, where children are cared for or educated (Conger, 1975).


This is the position of health care professionals, psychiatrists, psychologists, and special needs educators. This is the STANDARD position toward corporal punishment for all relevant fields related to child, child psychology, and child development. Accordingly, "Dr." James Dobson is just flat out wrong when it comes to his position that corporal punishment is at all an effective measure or can be administered "lovingly" because it's not and it can't.

Notice that "Dr." Dobson stresses that:

Corporal punishment, when used lovingly and properly, is beneficial to a child because it is in harmony with nature itself. 

I have to question Dobson's reasoning here, for several reasons. 

Corporal punishment is the deliberate act of an intentional agent, for example, the child's parents. In this case, it's an intentional act of intentionally inflicting harm. 

Nature simply is *not an intentional agent. Furthermore, nature is not seeking out the child to punish them, or cause them any harm, for any perceived wrong doing. Rather, the pain a child may face in the real world is part of everyday growing pains. 

It's true that a child will, through trial and error, learn what things hurt and in developing skills, muscle coordination, foresight to predict hazardous situations, and eventually discover the ability to avoid these painful experiences on their own in the future.

Not so with corporal punishment. 

There are two reasons for this. 

One is the arbitrary nature of what the parents, or arbiters of social rules and regulations, set for the child. Because these rules and regulations are highly subjective, and there is no way to see which rules and regulations the parent values above others, the child doesn't always know why they are being inflicted with pain, and cannot reason a way to avoid such pain except to try to obey the parents / arbiters of the social rules even more. 

As such, this form of punishment only teaches the child to fear the parents and those who should have the child's best interest in mind. 

The second reason corporal punishment is wrong is simply that is has not ever demonstrated positive effects through its implementation. That is, it has zero net results. Parents might contend this point, saying that it worked for them, or when they were young it worked on them, but this only seeks to reinforce the first objection. That there is no standard for what constitutes moral discipline, and the child cannot always determine when the parent is trying to teach them something or when the parent is just an emotional wreck and has flown off the handle bars.

In a large-scale meta-analysis of 88 studies, psychologist Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, PhD, of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University, looked at both positive and negative behaviors in children that were associated with corporal punishment. Her research and commentaries on her work are published in the July issue of Psychological Bulletin, published by the American Psychological Association. As to the effectiveness of corporal punishment, Gershoff informs:
"Until researchers, clinicians, and parents can definitively demonstrate the presence of positive effects of corporal punishment, including effectiveness in halting future misbehavior, not just the absence of negative effects, we as psychologists can not responsibly recommend its use..."

There are more problems with "Dr." Dobson reasoning as well. Take this passage for example:

When a parent administers a reasonable spanking in response to willful disobedience, a similar nonverbal message is being given to the child. He must understand that there are not only dangers in the physical world to be avoided. ... In fact, children who have experienced corporal punishment from loving parents do not have trouble understanding its meaning. 

When spanking is being administered to a child, it is not always clear what the nonverbal message is supposed to be.

In fact, more often than not, the message is UNCLEAR to the child. Worse still, it was unclear to the adult who administered the spanking. This was made evident in this appalling results of a 2014 study done by Southern Methodist University.

In real-time audio recordings of children being spanked, psychologists and child experts found that parents responded impulsively or emotionally, rather than being intentional with their discipline. Furthermore, researchers discovered that spanking was more common than parents admit, that children were hit for trivial misdeeds, and that children misbehaved within ten minutes of punishment.

Punishment is the correct term her, because what these studies have shown is that there is zero effective disciplinary learning. Unlike "Dr." Dobson's example of nature, which children can learn not to do something in response to the painful stimuli they have received, thereby learning how to avoid similar experiences in the future, no such learning can be gained via corporal punishment.

So it is evident that when "Dr." Dobson claims parents administer reasonable spankings which, in turn, the children do not have trouble understanding--he is speaking out of his hat. That is, he is wrong, as all the research shows the opposite is true. Parents usually do not apply reasonable spankings within reason and the message is hardly ever clear, if at all.

Also see these articles on corporal punishment:


Finally, the think that bothers me about "Dr." Dobson is that in his mind the physical abuse of children can be equated with love.

"In fact, children who have experienced corporal punishment from loving parents..."

No, I have to strongly disagree. Hitting a child when you have more than 70% the body mass of that child is not a loving act. It's a terrible, horrifying act that has proved to emotionally scar children. It's a grotesque act. To think that violence inflicted on a hapless child as a way of shaping that child could at all be a loving act is a grotesque and vile misconception. 

As the psychologist Dr. Holden has expressed:

"Psychologists who are concerned with children’s development promoting effective parenting would be remiss were they to advocate or justify spanking in the face of the evidence… This review reflected the growing body of evidence indicating that corporal punishment does no good and may even cause harm."

I'm afraid Dr. Dobson's position is immoral and unjustifiable given what we do know about corporal punishment. The fact that Dobson advises parents to take this line of "discipline" with their own children is just shockingly grotesque. I cannot abide by such ignorance and malice toward children. Especially when both the American Psychoanalytic Association and the American Psychological Association advise us in other ways to discipline (see here and here) that do not involve corporal punishment.

Subsequently, as defined by both the American Psychoanalytic Association and the American Psychological Association, corporal punishment is undeniably a form of unwarranted child abuse.

In closing, I feel the monologue by the comedian, and father, Louis C.K. expresses it best, when he says:

"I really think it's crazy that we hit our kids. It really is. Here's the crazy part about it. Kids are the only people in the world that you're allowed to hit. Do you realize that? They're the most vulnerable and they're the most destroyed by being hit, but it's totally OK to hit them. And they're the only ones! If you hit a dog, you go to jail for that!"


Advocatus Atheist

Advocatus Atheist