I cannot claim to have originally said it, but I’m happy to repeat it, because it’s spot on: By definition, violence violates a person.
Both “violence” and “violate” have roots in the Middle English violentus (with the core word “viol“), by way of vis, meaning “force.” The two words are rooted in the same meaning, and bear a strong connotative resemblance.
Children are people. They are neither a homogenous class or unified group, nor are they things or property. Children are thinking, feeling, individual human beings. They are people. Violence against a child is – literally, practically, and figuratively – the violation of a person.
This is more than a semantic exercise.
A short time ago, I was pointedly asked to differentiate between occasional spanking and beating children. I was roundly rebuffed for categorizing spanking as “adult-on-child violence.” As a thinking person, there are obvious differences, even to me, between occasional spanking and regular HCP or “harsh corporal punishment” as it is known in child developmental circles. Some of those differences are illustrated simply in factual language: frequency, inferred strength of impact, inferred frequency of incident, and so forth.
These are (not so) nuanced qualitative differences describing two different acts, but both situations nonetheless describe acts of violence. Striking is by definition violent: it is the application of physical force, or “vis.” Hitting another person is violent, and is violence. The question is not whether or not spanking is adult-on-child violence. It is, by definition, one person being violent to another. Advocates of HCP seem to want me to give them credit for their intent. They seem to want credit or validation or affirmation in being violent. They would say selectively and infrequently violent, but I see no reason to make such a distinction in this context. Research shows us that care-taking adults who are violent to children damage those children. Be it neglect or corporal punishment, mistreating children hurts children.
Kids that get hit are getting hurt.
Hitting Never Teaches
Parents who embrace corporal punishment, of any kind, intend to use selective violence as a teaching tool. They seem to believe that it “toughens kids up” or “straightens them out” or “sets them right.” The truth of the matter is that violence is never a viable teaching method. It is never an effective teaching tool.
It may induce a Pavlovian aversion dynamic, and instill even keen awareness of an antecedent-consequent action-outcome logical truism, but that’s not teaching. That’s training.
You may not differentiate, but I do not believe in “training” children. I am a teacher in part because I believe all people deserve to understand. Hitting is the action equivalent of the ubiquitous verbal “because I said so.” That’s not instructive; it’s dominating. “You must comply,” as the Borg might say, is not a valid form of engendering trust and bringing about understanding. Instead, it establishes a dominating power dynamic, and I find that undesirable in the context of love and compassion.
Yes, a parent has “authority,” but explaining why that is in a way that children truly understand will have far more valuable and extensive validity than any momentary pop-off, verbally or physically.
“Hitting to teach” does not accomplish the goal at hand, regardless of intent. The outcome of violence is neurobiological trauma to the child. This action fails to address the real issue at hand, whatever issue that may be, and instead replaces meaningful relevant consequences imparted by a caretaker with the “action shorthand” of causing hurt to another person as a dissuading influence. Corporal punishment is by definition an extrinsic motivator, and serves only to deter one specific behavior again the consequence of violence in return, but it does not serve as a method for addressing the underlying cause of whatever the erroneous behavior may have been. Indeed, it makes an assumption that the behavior was erroneous to begin with, without ascertaining the reasons behind and the causes of the behavior to begin with, or why a child said or perceived a thing, and instead utilizes what to me is obviously action shorthand.
Before one even need study the ample evidence that striking children harms them psychologically and neurobiologically, one need only examine the pedagogical inefficacy of violence as a relevant consequent to child antecedent action to recognize hitting children as ineffective and counterproductive.
To view children as empty-headed little know-nothings with no thoughts of their own, no beliefs of their own, no experiences, no unique qualities, no personal observations, no individual characteristics, to fail to see them as individuals is bad enough, but to see them as objects is entirely inhumane. A child who has misbehaved – first of all, misbehavior requires a significant analysis of the rules: What is the child doing and why? Frequently I find people who are supportive of spanking or HCP adult-on-child violence will speak at length about hypothetical conditions in which they may nee dot coerce the child’s behavior to a specific conduct: “the child is crying in public, and its embarrassing, so sometimes you’ve gotta smack the kid to straighten him up. The child took something without permission, and he’s gotta learn.”
That’s not a teaching tool.
You haven’t shown me, in this hypothetical, any effort to understand the origins of the behavior. You need to understand that child that action that situation, and not paint with some over broad brush, but significantly and seriously ask: “why is this happening?” What’s going on. Only then, only by truly understanding that child in that situation, can you create some kind of intervention if appropriate. Kid took something without asking: Why? What if it was born out of a deep seated injustice that some other child had less? Is that something we should punish? Does the child developmentally understand the situation? Is the rule you have or the social convention that you’re objecting to not being followed, is that appropriate developmentally? Was the child put into a circumstance that set him/her up for failure that s/he didn’t choose and may falsify type (Jung) or be contrary to the child’s natural modality? (Benziger.) These are questions of child development, and to suggest that as part of child rearing, violence is a useful and thoughtful tool, is patently absurd. It’s not going to teach the child anything. Providing an extrinsic motivator of relevance maybe developmentally appropriate, but the aversion to violence is not an effective teaching tool. You are instilling fear, terror of violence, in a child. Have you not seen what goes on in Gaza? Parents who are advocates of spanking see absolutely no similarity, but psychologically violence light is still violence. Even violent words can be extraordinarily damaging to a child. I’m not suggesting that we wrap kids in bubble wrap, because certainly children nee to learn relevant lesson sir they are to develop their own understanding and identity, which is something every individual ought to have, and certainly there’s difference between the thoughtful compassionate restraint of a child from self-harm and abject violence.
Parents who are tired or exhausted or frustrated may not take the necessary time, not invest the necessary energy, to fully ascertain and understand the conduct and the child, and instead may simply want the behavior to stop, no matter what no matter why, and resort to violence. If a child does something undesirable, striking the child as a consequence may serve as a momentary deterrent, but it does not address the underlying cause nor does it act in a loving or compassionate manner in understanding the situation, communicating the situation, helping the child to understand the situation in a relevant and meaningful way, and assist the child in building personal meaning so that s/he will can better decisions in the future. Adult on child violence does not seek to teach the child. It says, intentionally or not, simply, “I’m bigger and stronger than you, so you better listen to me, or I will hurt you.” For violence to aid a child’s learning, the method must be meaningful and relevant, and that means violence must become relevant to the child. Children are not developmentally equipped to handle violence. Indeed, humans are not intended to experience violence. We’re not built for it. Exposure to violence leads to hyper vigilance, post-traumatic stress responses of a variety of fashions, and ultimately may lead to antisocial or pathologic behavior, given the significant neurobiological impact that violence has on the brain. Children, while neuroplastic, are especially susceptible to neurobiological damage, and violence will force the child brain to “develop around” perceptions and understandings of violence.
Do I feel empathy for tired parents, beleaguered by life circumstance or a grueling day, who then come home to face energetic children who, by developmental necessity, are pushing buttons, challenging boundaries, and learning new ways of doing that may be problematic or frustrating? I absolutely do. Folks, I’ve taught kindergarten, I’ve taught self-contained special education classes, I’ve taught middle school… I’ve taught sixth grade percussion, and if you wanna see kids push buttons, come hang out with eleven and twelve year old drummers. I get it: Kids can be tiring. Kids can be challenging. Kids can really frustrate you.
You’re an adult. Grow up. There is never a valid reason to strike a child because you’re annoyed.
In instances in which parents are more thoughtful, and selectively apply hitting their kids after all other instructive avenues have been exhausted are almost always skipping the next steps: ask for help, do research, look for other strategies, and so so often, are compromising on other consequences.
Once, a mother told me, “it was easier to spank her than to go through the trouble of taking away her iPhone.” That is the laziest parental argument I have ever heard. If you’re not willing to parent, do not complain about the challenges of parenting.
Hitting a child is “shorthand.” It skips the compassionate care and nurturing instruction the developing child needs and requires in favor of simple situational modification at the hands of superior force. It is not only discompassionate, but ultimately counterproductive, and has no place in any child’s life, let alone in the context of a caretaker relationship.
Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes kids are pains in the ass. Guess what? They’re hardwired to be that way. Learn about your kid’s head, don’t strike it.
The use of violence is not an effective adult skill for enhancing child understanding or for addressing perceptions of the child mind. I don’t doubt that many parents are well intentioned in their use of corporal punishment, but it strikes me as extraordinarily arrogant for a person who has not studied child development, who has not invested time and energy to study the child mind, and who are not experts in learning, to say “I know better” for logically-fallacious reasons, and that they are uncompelled and unswayed by the evidence presented to the contrary. Recently, during a particularly unexpected and volatile interaction, I was accused of utilizing “junk science,” because the studies in question had not been replicated on the billion-person scale. In short, the counterargument presented justifying the use of selective violence with children was that billions of people evident all around “turned out just fine” hitting each other.
The truth is that they did not “turn out just fine.” Instead, they had to develop around instances of violence. This is not to say this is not possible. Shonkoff & Phillips showed in 2000 that proper brain development is promoted through occasional, infrequent experiences of moderate stress. However, there is no compelling research to support the use of violence as a form of this stress. I do not advocate a “parentless parenting” technique in which one does not establish boundaries and consequences within reason to establish safety for the child and encourage alignment with general expectations – learning not to hit other people, for example! – but find no compelling reason in the literature to use violence as a teaching method. To the contrary, I find compelling, overwhelming evidence that suggests doing so is deleterious to development. (If you read the collected works of Alice Miller, and still attempt to make a rational argument that treating children so is good for them, I’ll gladly take on that debate.)
Strikes to the head are the most problematic for developing child brains, by far, and the recent emphasis on traumatic brain injury has only served to reinforce this. Miller’s work suggested that children of single digit ages are especially susceptible to damage when struck. Several major studies have recently shown that abusive head trauma (AHT) causes massive damage to children up to age five. However, violence is not merely a matter of the immediate imparting of hurt, but also of the lasting consequences of violence-induced stress, such as the hormonal response. Striking a child as a parenting technique is, usually, designed to induce embarrassment and/or terror, responses which have significant biochemical consequences. As the child brain is susceptible to hormone and neurotransmitter influences, this is not an inconsequential consideration. All the more disturbing is the 2011 finding (Berger, et al) that during times of stress for adults, like the recession, incidents of AHT resulting from HCP rise, underscoring the issue at hand: adults hit kids for the wrong reasons, and adults who think hitting kids is a good thing are justifying their mistakes in judgment and decision making.
Many adults to whom I speak say that they are not trying to injure the child, but rather use a “last resort” consequence when verbal, temporal, or material admonishments fail. They describe a “gentle swat” or an “uninjuring smack” or a “light tap on the bottom.” If there is no injury caused, no harm or physical discomfort intended, then the argument as a consequence is dismantled from the start. If there is no extrinsic motivation, the act serves no purpose. The only purpose of striking is to induce harm, so if one does not seek to induce harm, there is no purpose in the action. I have heard the follow-up, “well it’s embarrassing and makes the child feel bad about themselves.”
When that is the motivation, you are now squarely in Miller’s research and must begin to explore the nightmare of psychological trauma induced through humiliation ritual and personal denigration as a parent method, and that is the subject of another equally-excoriating blog post. Shaming an humiliation rituals are also psychologically damaging and counterproductive, and there is still the inclusion of the threat of violence in the act, as an amalgam it is still violent. I believe very fervently, based on the psychological work done in the field, based on a career’s worth of experience with children and child development, intense recent study of these subjects in my work, and my own experiences as a child and with children, that there is no room for any form of violence with children. In short, if you hit to injure, you’re causing injury, and if you hit not to injure, you have no reason to do so.
Neuroplasticity, Intent, and Outcome
I have never made the claim that children are totally destroyed by being hit once. I was struck as a child. I can recall four, perhaps five times I was struck as a child. Spanking was not a way of life in my household, and I was never beaten. However, I was hit a few times. Do I resent my parents for it? No I do not. Do I blame my parents? No I do not. Do I believe my parents were bad parents? No I do not. Do I believe that my parents’ belief at the time that an occasional spanking was good for their kids is a damnable and unforgivable offense? No I do not. But the fact of the matter remains, yes, every time I was hit, my development was impaired. In a minuscule way? Perhaps. Insignificant in the grand scheme? Perhaps. But just as likely is that something significant – relative to being child – happened in my brain that I had to “grow around.” I use the phrase “selectively brittle” in my work to describe the fact that children are extraordinarily neuroplastic, with up to three times more neural connections than the healthy adult. However, my ability to grow up neurotypically does not change the fact that I was subjected to unnecessary harm through selective, infrequent, well-intended violence. I am not afraid to use the correct term to describe what something is, and striking another person is violent. A caretaker striking their child is adult-on-child violence, by definition. If you are uncomfortable with that language, then your argument is with Merriam-Webster and the development of Germanic languages, not with me, because I cannot help you with that. This isn’t a matter of semantics: violence hurts kids. It causes irreparable harm, though not irrecoverable harm. You can grow up to be healthy and happy after having been hit, it’s true. But that doesn’t change the fact that your brain will have to do something it ought not to have had to do to adapt unnecessary trauma. While occasional moderate situational stress may be productive, I find no compelling evidence to suggest that being struck by a caretaker is a valid or healthful form of such stress. You may consider this no big deal and totally absurd, but the bottom line is that once you have seen the neurobiological evidence as to the significant harm that striking a child does to that child, if you care about children, if you believe that adults in care taking roles have a responsibility to truly care for those children, then as I say in pedagogy, so I say for child behavior: intent doesn’t matter. It didn’t matter if you meant well if what you did was harmful. Thinking people who want to do right by children cannot roundly ignore the evidence that hitting children hurts them. That, to me, is far more compelling, far more important, valuable, has far more veracity than any layperson’s opinion or casual observation, than any logical fallacy, and I’m not interested that it’s inconvenient for people. I don’t care that it gets people riled up. It’s good to be challenged, to be set back on your heels, and to seriously question: is this best for my child? Is this right? Is this healthy? Is this good for my child, not just not bad? Is this achieving the aim of compassionately caring for and teaching the child? The evidence says that it is not.
If you are uncomfortable with the word “violent” in the context of the adult-child relationship, you ought to be seriously circumspect about being violent, and question why you are willing to be so to a little kid. Some of the people to whom I speak, who are most angered when I challenge a parent’s right to as if we’re on a playground and that I said something mean about your dad. The truth of the matter is that if your dad hit you, I have absolutely no judgment about your dad’s intent or mindset or philosophy or character, because I don’t know your father. I’m not interested in making such a judgment, nor am I interested in judging people. I’m not talking about people; I’m talking about behavior. I’m not talking about a person when I say “corporal punishment is adult-on-child violence that results in significant often-unseen harm to the child.” I’m talking about an action. Now, your dad may have had all the positive intentions in the world, and was a loving, compassionate person who would have done anything in the world for you, and believed fervently that what he was doing was the right thing for you and good for you. That may be the case. You may also have simply rationalized away the fact that your father engaged in regular violence and might have been abusive. At least one of these two sentences probably gets your blood running. Good: it’s good to have passions. But your passions running hot can never be sufficient justification for an action, and very frequently, we do exactly that. the fact is that when an adult is physically violent for the child they are responsible for taking care of, they do significant, often invisible harm to the child.
If knowing that, you still say, “I know that when I strike my child it is an act of violence that will damage him/her in a way that they will have to effectively grow around,” then you and I stand at philosophical odds in terms of how people treat one another, not just how parents parent their children, but in terms of what is appropriate and healthy behavior of how one person treats another. Selective violence against women by men who feel it is difficult to reason with them, and in order to teach them desirable behavior, is decried by mature thinking people. Selective violence against one race by another, which feels it is difficult to reason with members of that other race, and in order to teach them desirable behavior, is so reprehensible to our society that it is illegal and the subject of constant social awareness campaigns and reparation efforts. Selective violence against one age group by another is, however, “a right” in the minds of those who support spanking, HCP, and other forms of child mistreatment. I find it selective and silly to allow for violence against the group most susceptible to its ravages, and to claim moral righteousness and superiority in doing so.
Children are People
To treat children in a lesser way because one feels children are incapable of understanding betrays ignorance of the child mind as well as demonstrates a misunderstanding of the pedagogy of actions and consequence. The developing child mind certainly will have a challenging time understanding certain concepts. It may, in fact, have an extraordinarily difficult time, and require simplification or allegory, with more developed nuance being introduced into the child’s understanding at a later time. However, children deserve understanding. They deserve to be explained to. Simply by virtue of being, they deserve to be free of violence, and to be explained to, because that’s what caring adults do: they patiently explain.
Adult on child violence betrays the adult responsibility to the child, especially when that adult is a caretaker. It is unacceptable to me for a care taking adult to say I cannot, will not, do not invest the time and energy necessary to help the child understand healthfully, and will instead resort to violence.
Violence is not an acceptable or valid way to treat a person.
If you believe in harming a child, in striking a child, if you believe that adults should occasionally strike children, then you believe that your perception is more important than their outcome. You believe that your opinion and your expedience has more validity than substantive reproducible research, and you believe that an ineffective way of doing something for the sake efficiency for the adult is acceptable parenting.
I fail totally to see a pedagogically-appropriate context for teaching by hitting.
Here comes Adrian Peterson in the wake of the Ray Rice scandal: We have a national outcry that Ray Rice physically battered his girlfriend. There was significant outcry (as there should be) at so heinous an assault. It is not acceptable for a person, regardless of their size or gender, to physically attack another person. There are no situations in which physically striking someone is an appropriate solution to your problems, is an acceptable expression of anger or frustration or sadness. It is not an effective teaching tool. It is not an appropriate or effective thing for a police officer or teacher to do. Why is there, then, any shred of difference when we’re talking about a child? In order for a person to accept that these rules that we would apply to any other person do not apply to children, one must suspend the believe that children are people. This is a prevailing view of certain sociopolitical groups that espouse extremist ideology: That children are in fact not people, but are property.
It is an inhumane, despicable, disgusting attitude that, to me, is indicative of either some significant pathology or psychology, or some kind of social or institutional co-opting or damage, such is its significant departure from essential humanity.
Children are people, and each child is an individual person. To treat them as anything less is, by definition, inhumane, and I have absolutely no tolerance for those that purport to value humanity but do not value each human.
You say “don’t hit people,” and yet we’ll hit a child. You cannot teach that lesson. If you expect the lesson to be learned as an adult don’t hit people, then why would you violate that principle for the child. Well because he’s a child. You view him as different than a person, and I do not accept any situation in which a child is not understood to be, seen as, a unique individual person. It is discompassionate, inhumane, unloving, anti child, and I reject it out of hand. Stirking a child does not teach a child, does not help a child. Parents who are such strong advocates of spanking often say “I myself was hit, and I turned out just fine.” While you may have turned out “fine” in the macro, that does not mitigate the fact that there is strong evidence that every time you were struck, your development was in some way impaired or affected. Children being extraordinarily neuroplastic is insufficient justification for the application of violence as a teaching tool. It is not a teaching tool. Teaching is the b ringing about of learning, and learning is auto generative: it comes from within, and it must come from relevance. For violence to be effective, you’d have to make violence relevant to children, and violence ought not to be relevant to children. Children are not developmentally equipped to deal with violence; I daresay no person is. Violence damages the human being. Violence damages the human entity. When we are exposed to violence, we become hyper vigilant, develop post traumatic stress, develop neurological, biological, measurable damage psychologic, because violence is damaging. A smaller, less physically robust human will be more significantly damaged by less robust forms of violence. It’s relative. you say, it’s just a smack, it’s a thoughtful and occasional smack, relative to the little child condition you’re still imposing abject violence on another person to no productive or useful end. One must separate in their minds, fundamentally, the difference between consequences and violence.
Contradiction in Terms
I find it so entirely strange that we can generally acknowledge it is normal and healthy for an adult to be averse to pain, but to be so willing to inflict it upon a person when they are most vulnerable to its most damaging effects, instead of doing what we can to shield children from that pain.
Parents who say I would only ever hit my child on the bottom I would never slap my child across the face, that kind of mitigation it seems to me indicates that you know that what you’re doing is wrong. You bring about crying and shame and hurt and believe that associating these deeply damaging feelings with behaviors will dissuade the child’s behavior. But do you understand the development stage, what he will and will not associate. At what point od you decide to start seeing that person as a person, and shift away from violence? Does my 60 year old father have a right to hit me, his 35 year old son? No? Why not? When did I cease to become something less than a person, and became a person, to you? Is boyhood a subhuman condition? Can it be so defined as to separate those who are to be kept safe, and those who are to be left out to be harmed for their own good? If either animal was to be subjected to harm, ought it not be the one who is better equipped and less developmentally damaged? The logic alone fails. You reserve the right to escalate your violence as the child grows and becomes more resilient to your physical duress. Do you eventually get to the point where you’re systematically escalated violence over years, built up a tolerance to the point you’ll crack your daughter across the face?
I find nothing laudable about this sort of pattern. Nothing desirable about this dynamic. Nothing loving about this kind of relationship. It is essentially flawed, essentially missing something. It is damaged.
I cannot help but wonder what happened to a person that led to such willingness to damage the ones they purport to love.
Learn more about the child mind, understand what works and want doesn’t, and step back from violence. There is no room for violence in any caretaker relationship. None.
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