For years, research has demonstrated that physical punishment is an ineffective (and often harmful) approach to disciplining children. For example, a 2016 meta-analysis combining dozens of studies found detrimental outcomes as a consequence of spanking children, including increased aggression and antisocial behavior, lower self-esteem, and more mental health problems. The study even found lower moral internalization of the very values parents were hoping to instill in their children.
Yet, when the topic of corporal punishment comes up, it is often met by familiar arguments: “I used to get spanked and I turned out just fine;” “Spare the rod and spoil the child;” “This is part of our culture. Timeouts and countdowns are for White parents;” “How I raise my kids is my business.”
Some of the people holding these views may be surprised to learn that many scholars suggest that the practice of beating children was adopted from (White) owners of enslaved people. In a 2017 New York Times Op-Ed titled “Stop Beating Black Children,” author, journalist and child advocate Stacey Patton writes, “There is no evidence that ritualistic physical punishment of children existed in pre-colonial West African cultures, where children were viewed as sacred and purer than adults, and sometimes even as reincarnated ancestors or gods.” She goes on to add that “brutality cascaded across other cultures through slavery, colonialism and religious indoctrination.”
If 2020 has done nothing else, I hope that it is showing us that knowing our history is a critical factor in understanding our current state of affairs. If science clearly tells us that corporal punishment is ineffective and harmful to children … and scholars and historians tell us that our cultural beliefs about physical discipline originated and/or were perpetuated by chattel slavery and colonialism … perhaps it is time to reconsider our long-held beliefs and assumptions about corporal punishment.
If we truly want to honor our culture and history, I would propose that we take the time to consider the beliefs we hold about power, obedience and respect. I would propose that we carefully evaluate what we are aiming to accomplish when we endorse physical harm as a means of forcing compliance or rectifying wrongdoing. I would propose that we explore effective, evidence-based and culturally informed approaches to promote positive behavior.
It’s time for us to recognize the linkages between slavery, colonialism and white supremacy and our parenting beliefs and practices. It’s time for us to start building strong children. It’s time for us to end corporal punishment in alternative care settings, daycare, schools, penal institutions and – yes – in the home.
By doing so, we are sending a clear message that physical harm is not the way to address disrespect, disobedience, anger or any other plethora of behaviors that may be seen as undesirable. By doing so, we might even find that the message makes its way into the psyche of our children, who feel heard and supported, and who do not default to violence in their own approaches to conflict resolution. We might even find that by treating our children as we would want to be treated, we can interrupt cycles of generational trauma and community violence that plague our homes and streets.
Editor’s note: Anna Wheatley Scarbriel, Ph.D., is the director of grants and programs for the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands (CFVI). She holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from the University of Miami. She has two children, ages 4 and 1.