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Ghosts in the Nursery

Can the past shed some light on current behaviors?

Key points

  • There really are "ghosts in the nursery"—the past makes a difference.
  • The past casts a shadow—how we were raised does influence how we raise our children.
  • What do we know about the childhood and past of the police accused of killing Tyre Nichols?
  • Why do people still hit their children?

To understand what is happening currently, perhaps we should take a look at the past.

I am sure you are aware of the death of Tyre Nichols at the hands of the Scorpion unit of the Memphis police.

Did you happen to watch the video? One of the many stunning things about this event was the yelling and swearing and ordering and beatings of Nichols. It reminded me of videos and tapes I have seen and heard of parents hitting and beating and yelling at their children.

Is it possible that the past is casting a shadow? Might it be that this is how some of these men were themselves treated as youngsters?

We know that physical punishment is contagious, from one generation to the next—the beaten children often turn out to be beaters of others. It will be interesting to learn about the childhood backgrounds of these police officers.

I sometimes call physical punishment “the other plague.” In some ways, it is as deadly, or even more so, than COVID-19.

  • Physical punishment is damaging psychologically and physically.
  • It is prevalent, occurring in approximately 50-60% of U.S. households with children.
  • It is frequently transmitted from generation to generation.
  • The sequelae are many and severe (e.g., violence; drug abuse; delinquency; abuse of partner and children).

Physical punishment has long been a persistent human behavior—a behavior that people have been profoundly reluctant to abandon or even modify.

Physical punishment is unjust, immoral, and makes things worse instead of better. The data overwhelmingly show that physical punishment is more damaging than helpful. Nineteen states in the USA still permit physical punishment of children in schools.: This is called battery.

To paraphrase Lincoln—If physical punishment is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.

There does seem to be progress, albeit slow, in recognizing and dealing with the problem of physical punishment and its violence. Internationally, there appears to be increasing knowledge in this area and a groundswell to prohibit the hitting of children. Over 130 countries have now prohibited physical punishment in schools, and over 60 countries have prohibited it in all settings. The follow-up data seem to suggest that these changes and laws have been beneficial.

It would appear that group influence and the laws are creating some awareness and changes. Psychological advances may be involved, such as increased understanding of early development (with increased empathy for babies and children, recognizing differences from adults); and greater awareness of one’s own childhood experiences and their impact on one’s development.


Holden GW (2020). Why do parents hit their children? From cultural to unconscious determinants. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 73:10-29.

Holinger PC (2020). The problem of physical punishment and its persistence: The potential roles of psychoanalysis. The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child. 73:1-9.

Straus MA, Douglas EM, Medeiros RA (2014). The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, Violence, and Crime. New York: Routledge.

Durrant JE, Smith AB (Eds.) (2011). Global Pathways to Abolishing Physical Punishment; Realizing Children’s Rights. New York: Routledge.

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