The case against spanking

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We now know that the parents of Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler never hesitated to use corporal punishment to teach their delicate offspring the difference between right and wrong. This is the fundamental objection to slapping, smacking and caning: it helps to perpetuate a culture of violence.

Fear may be effective in suppressing tendencies to misbehave, but what are children learning when their parents hit them? Dads who are about to beat their kids often say, as they roll up their sleeves, "I'll teach you a lesson." In that lesson kids don't just learn that they have been naughty, they also learn that it is permissible to use violence to impose your idea of what is right. Some children will be forever shocked by their parents' brutality, but many others will harden themselves and grow up ready to beat their own children. The same people are likely to support oppressive policing practices and military invasions overseas.

Parents who have hit their children and are honest with themselves will admit that the violent outburst was probably not part of a carefully thought out strategy to educate their offspring. More than likely, it was an instinctive reaction providing a momentary feeling of satisfaction for the parent. The kids don't do what you say, they start winding you up, your pride is hurt, they are being too noisy and happy and full of themselves, you hit them, they sit down and shut up and you feel better.

There are alternatives to this approach. Admittedly, they require more patience, thought and understanding, but it is surely better to take the trouble to find ways to encourage kids to behave well rather than rely on inflicting pain when they behave badly.

Children don't learn right from wrong by being beaten. They simply learn how to avoid pain by doing what they are told. That's not morality, that's just survival. Children learn about morality and ethics from those they respect, love and trust, not those they fear. Children who grow up in relationships in which they feel valued will quite naturally want to maintain those relationships and will regret doing anything that damages them - and preserving relationships like those is precisely what ethics and morality are all about.

When children are beaten they may well learn to abide by the rules but something will be lost. Particularly for young children, the attitudes of parents towards them can be internalised so that they become formative for the child's relationship to him or herself. Parental aggression can in some cases lead to children being overly severe with themselves. Outwardly these children may be very well-behaved, but inwardly they may feel repressed and be troubled by tendencies to self-abuse - tendencies that in later life can be almost impossible to overcome. There are lots of examples of self-destructive behaviours, from minor ones like biting your nails to major problems like bulimia and anorexia.

In a world dominated by unneccesary violence wouldn't it be better for parents to demonstrate unambiguously that violence is wrong? And in a society which will expose individuals to tremendously high levels of stress and instability wouldn't it be better for the home to be a haven of security, free from violent outbursts? The political philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously said in the eighteenth century that life is nasty, brutish and short. Shouldn't we try to shield children from that brutality in the home? They will experience it soon enough beyond the garden gate.


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