A giant step backward

October 13, 2013

The Sixth District Court of Appeal in California on Tuesday that parental corporal punishment of a twelve-year old girl with a wooden spoon hard enough to cause bruising should not have automatically been labeled child abuse by the social worker in the case, remanding the matter to the trial court for an evidentiary hearing on intent to cause injury. The Court of Appeal stated that corporal punishment can amount to reasonable discipline, even when it causes physical injury, so long as the parents did not intend the injury.

I find this ruling terrible, a huge step backwards for society, and contrary to recent studies on the effects of corporal punishment on the human mind and human development. Other child welfare professionals with whom I attended a conference on the medical effects of child abuse on Friday agreed.

Recent studies have shown the following concerning corporal punishment:

  • It leads to increased aggression.
  • It lowers IQ scores.
  • It leads to problematic social behaviors, including lower peer status, less positive reciprocity with peers chosen as friends, ratings by peers as more aggressive and less cooperative, by parents as more disturbed, and participation in social networks with more insularity, negativity and atypicality.
  • It leads to school behavior problems.

Research has also disproven the potential analysis that it is the most difficult children that become subjected to corporal punishment by parents. In one study, researchers trained parents in more than 500 families to eliminate or reduce their use of corporal punishment, and child behavior improved.

Additionally, it has been shown that parents frequently cover up their behaviors toward children that might be socially unacceptable, and that children frequently deny them as well. Thus, it appears to me that in the Sixth District California case, the parents’ claim that they had not previously physically disciplined their twelve-year-old daughter who was exhibiting problematic and negative behaviors was likely a fabrication.

The United States is one of the hold-outs on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, in contrast with many countries that have outlawed corporal punishment in the home – and seen positive results. Sweden banned all corporal punishment of children in the home in 1979. Americans are strongly attached to their beliefs in the parental right to hit children, having passed it down through the generations. However, statistics show this attachment is irrational and harmful to our society.

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