Family and Parenting

Beating Some Sense Into Domestic Corporal Punishment

Corporal punishment in the home draws a lot of flak from both ends of the spectrum, its controversy able to invoke strong reactions as much as provoke strong emotions; one reader here raised a very thoughtful debate in the comment thread of an article I wrote touching on physical aggression as a means of serving justice). In fact, according to the Wikipedia article that she pointed to me lists 34 countries that have outlawed the practice.

Yet the article also spends a substantial amount of space to detail why some countries (namely, Australia, Canada, the UK and the US) do allow domestic corporal punishment. Similarly, arguments are presented from religious, cultural, psychological and even political viewpoints, taking the controversial topic into a dauntingly expansive arena of debate and a slippery, deep divide, and making this blog post all the more difficult to write.

All for hitting a child.

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Rationalising Punishment

To understand why corporal punishment continues to be accepted, we need to look at the rationale behind punishment in general. Legislators may view punishment as a stop-gap for repeat offenders, and a warning message against other offenders; impose a fine for bad parking, or deal out the death penalty for drug trafficking or murder. It’s also a means of rehabilitation and restoring damage from the offence; here we have corrective work order for litterbugs, and everywhere, there are prisons. It’s even regularly used to educate offenders and potentially the general public on appropriate behaviour and social rules through denunciation and public shaming, and can even serve as a means to appease societal outrage; the NTUC’s sacking of Amy Cheong for her online remarks is one such example.

Punishment in this context has well-formulated over centuries of lawmaking and diplomacy, systematically enforced and accepted by any and all forms of society big and small. It’s quick, can be very painful if not deadly — and it can most certainly be misused.

Two Sides To Every Story

The rationale for domestic corporal punishment ends with a single distinction; are you disciplining your child, or are you angry? Arguably, you can be both, but as anger becomes the stronger counterweight to rational application, the differentiation between corporal punishment and child abuse becomes extremely clear, but also makes one’s intrinsic definition of corporal punishment extremely muddled.

Anger clouds judgment. Corporal punishment in any scenario stems from countering an incident of inconvenience or annoyance, precursors to what we know of as anger. And thus the whole idea of corporal punishment as a rational disciplinary approach is placed in jeopardy.

Rachel hit the point home when she said to me, “I have no doubt you are a good dad, but not many people are. (…) Many parents don’t know where to draw the line between spanking out of anger and spanking in control.”

Fighting Fear With More Fear

Rachel adds on to the debate with proposing legal action against the spankers, slappers, caners and whippers. “It takes laws to change people’s mindsets; Sweden, for example, has outlawed corporal punishment in schools and homes (since 1979). And once people’s mindsets are changed, they then realise that hey, actually this can work. Unfortunately if there are no laws about this, then people remain steadfastly stubborn and loyal to whatever parenting techniques they were brought up under when they were children themselves. People are very resistant to changes in paradigm shifts unless they are forced into it somehow — in Sweden’s case, the government.”

I can imagine the government of any nation on any given day will have trouble grappling with an extreme paradigm shift that might potentially sacrifice an entire generation of the nation’s population to a social experiment. In order to understand why, you need to know what happened to Sweden in the first place.

Yeah, So What Happened To Sweden?

Sweden’s pioneering law against physical punishment of any kind on children was passed out of necessity, not out of idealism. Professor Adrienne A. Haeuser took an exploratory look at how Sweden managed to get so far in its anti-spanking stance. Prior to the law being passed, child abuse was widespread in the country, prompting the authorities to take legislative action to stop home beatings and educate their masses in alternative childcare approaches.

Following the passing of the anti-spanking law, the next decade saw an effective parental education campaign in permissive parenting, non-violent childrearing — and a proliferation of spoilt brats. Professor Haueser remarked, ” By 1988, the picture had changed markedly. Child guidance professionals were admitting that permissive childrearing was a failed experiment, and parent educators were telling parents to ‘dare to be parents.'”

Okay, so now parents in Sweden are being told they need to be forceful in disciplining their children, but because the law is still in place, they can’t use force. So what do they do instead? It’s an alternative disciplinary approach called “verbal conflict resolution”.

In other words, they scream at their kids.

As Professor Haueser notes, “Parents insist that discussions involve constant eye contact, even if this means taking firm hold of young children to engage their attention. Parents and professionals agree that discussions may escalate into yelling, or that yelling may be a necessary trigger for discussion. Still, many point out that while yelling may be humiliating, it is better than ignoring the problem or containing the anger, and it is usually less humiliating than physical punishment.”

Apparently, it’s worked out okay for IKEA-land. Sweden’s now the de facto example used by anti-child abuse organisations to lobby for similar laws to be implemented across other nations like the UK and the US.

But will it work for everyone? The Blogfather needs to take a serious think on this one.


  • Rachel

    It is worth reading also the gradual embracement of the concept of “Children’s Rights” across Europe since the 70s… which drives the whole development of this anti-spanking legislation. There is also no denying though that once it becomes illegal for spanking to occur, parents shout more… but I know which I would rather – getting shouted at rather than getting beaten up. And this is no more true today as an adult than as a child of the 80s growing up in Singapore. Also there is no evidence to say that parents who do spank don’t shout at their children as well. In fact what I have seen and experienced is that parents who do spank their kids also shout at them (at other times when they are not spanking, or whilst they are spanking). I still feel it’s a step towards civility in society when you take one form of abuse out so there’s no room for it to be abused by abusive parents. Actually one should be careful these days when shouting because you can overdo it and if you don’t watch your words it can degenerate into more than just shouting and falls under the category of “Emotional Abuse”… and emotional abuse *is* classified as abuse nowadays under the legislation frameworks here (in England at least).

    But in England corporal punishment is not banned in homes yet, only in schools… it’s widely debatable and there have been many calls from parents to ban it completely as per EU countries which have done, as corporal punishment today is such a social stigma in England that people will assume only lowly-educated scum or fucked up parents who will do it… Also as the law stands here, spanking is only legal if it does not leave any marks, so any child caught coming to school with marks will be questioned by teachers how they got it and then social workers will be notified if it is thought that the parents have been hitting the child.

    Nowadays the debate here on whether spanking should be banned in England in homes rests on the topic of… is a light swat on the bum or limbs (that does not leave a mark) an effective disciplinary strategy? (Since that is almost all a parent is legally permitted do do now… because anything that isn’t a light swat or involves impediments such as canes or belts will definitely leave marks and thus leave the parent open to a court case) If that is not an effective disciplinary strategy, then why not just ban corporal punishment outright in homes as well? What’s stopping the ministers from doing it? Or are those few parents who are pro-spanking (even if it’s only allowed in this country in this very narrowly-defined scope) actually guilty of spanking harder than that but are trying to keep the legislation unchanged to save their own ass?

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