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Why Physical Punishment Persists

Ignorance of early child development enables physical punishment.

Key points

  • Physical punishment is a signal that we need to take early developmen seriously.
  • Adults focus on behaviors at the expense of being curious about the causes and meanings underliying a child’s behaviors.
  • Softened language such as "spanking" and "swatting" doesn't lessen the impact of hitting on children and society..
ronniechua/Adobe Stock
Source: ronniechua/Adobe Stock

Physical punishment is like the canary in the mineshaft. It is a signal of impending danger. It is a signal—that we need to take early development seriously, that we need to understand how feelings work, and that we need to be aware of the variables that contribute to violence.

On a larger, public health level, how does the issue of physical punishment play out in society? Why doesn’t the overall society and its many distinct cultures see the problems, damage, and violence that physical punishment creates? Much has been written about this blindness; for instance, the titles of three excellent summaries overtly ask this question:

Why Do Parents Hit Their Children? From Cultural to Unconscious Determinants by George Holden, Ph.D., 2020

Why Won’t They Learn: Unconscious Underpinnings of Corporal Punishment by Jack Novick, Ph.D., & Kerry Kelly Novick, 2020

Why Can’t We See It? by Neal Spira, M.D., 2020.

There appear to be a variety of reasons for the persistence of physical punishment in societies as well as in individuals, and for our difficulty in bringing our cognitive capacities to bear on this problem. In societies and cultures as well as individuals, one can see: a lack of information and data about physical punishment; disavowal and denial; intergenerational pathology; identifications with aggressors and doing what was done to them; transferences; fear and shame of raising an unsocialized and out-of-control child; and impaired interest, such as lack of curiosity on the part of the parents.

Two issues are notable with respect to the role of affect in physical punishment in society. The first is the notion of contagion; the second involves the affect of interest.

Contagion is seen in the following manner, and it is somewhat different than one sees in individuals. There is in society a sense that everyone uses some physical punishment, everyone does it—at least a little—so why not do it? In the United States, the incidence of physical punishment has been slowly decreasing over time, and yet it remains around 50-60%, generating the sense that it must be all right. There is no “voice of the law” telling people to stop and reflect on what they are doing.

In a society that does not prohibit physical punishment, there is little to trigger the curiosity of people about their own (or their child’s) behavior, as they hit their children. There still appears not to be enough importance and publicity given to early development and the problem of physical punishment. So many do not think to ask themselves: Why am I doing this? Is it working? Does it make things better or worse?

Society fails to embrace the positive powers of cognition when it allows or encourages the perpetuation of physical punishment. This happens in part because of a widespread tendency to focus on behaviors rather than on causes and meanings that underlie behaviors—a big cognitive failure on the part of society and its members.

We see this especially with the socialization of children. Adults seem to focus on behaviors at the expense of being curious about the causes and meanings that underlie a child’s behaviors. The result is that rather than being interested in what is behind the behaviors, adults are guided by their fear and anger and use physical responses to try to change children’s behavior. Once again, inhibited curiosity in an adult severely inhibits curiosity in a child.

Second, on a large social level, there appears to be a lack of awareness (that’s muted cognition again) of the problems associated with physical punishment. The data against physical punishment are compelling, but it seems as if social policymakers (as well as individuals) are either unaware of the information, dismiss it, or are unable to change.

Social change takes time. Consider the initial resistance to using seat belts and to responding to the health problems of smoking and the entrenched problems of racial and ethnic discrimination.

The power of language is often overlooked. and the way individuals and social policies wield language often distorts its meaning to their advantage. The terms “spanking” and “a little swat” minimize the impact of the word “hitting”.

Laws prohibiting physical punishment have the capacity to bring attention to the damage caused by physical punishment and highlight the benefits of alternatives. Such laws in many countries are linked with programs to help parents and children. Just the existence of such laws can raise social awareness of the problem—the voice and language of the law.


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