My most memorable instance of corporal punishment involved my stepfather, whom I loved dearly. He was the sort of man who couldn't handle one drop of alcohol—it completely changed him. On that day, he had started drinking, and it turned into yet another yelling match with my mother.
He wasn't someone you'd call a domestic abuser by nature, but he lost control easily when drinking. The pain he inflicted was usually emotional or the result of pushing. Pushes, of course, lead to falls, bruises and sprained ankles. At the least, his alcohol-induced rants always led to my mother or me cowering and crying in fear.
That day, I decided to stand between them and try to get him to stop before the argument completely got out of hand. I tried to reason with him and told him to leave her alone. Then he did something he didn't often do: He ripped his belt off and started moving toward me, swinging it. Before he could hit me with it, though, my mother jumped in front of me, and he hit her instead. It turned out that he was swinging it from the wrong direction, and the large belt buckle hit her hard on the leg, bursting a blood vessel. It would cause her pain for the rest of her life.
This difficult memory is just one of the reasons I tend to think of domestic abuse as "family violence" and why I include so-called "corporal punishment" as part of the violence scourge that is too often hidden from view, behind closed doors. And it's the child-beating part of family violence that society allows and justifies even more than violence against women. People too often ask "why does she stay?" of a woman after she's punched, slapped or pushed, even as many of them believe it's perfectly acceptable for parents to decide to "tear up" their children's butts and even leave marks to prove they meant it.
How exactly do adults end up with more rights here than helpless children?
It's easy to come up with defensive excuses for hitting kids to get them to "behave" and to instill fear so maybe they won't do a certain thing again. "I was spanked, and I turned out fine." "The Bible says to do it." "It's the way I was disciplined." "It's the only thing that works sometimes." "I have the right to discipline my kids anyway I want."
But it's the rest of the story that gets messy and complicated, not to mention horribly dangerous for children.
First is the most basic problem. As Anna Wolfe reports in this week's cover story, the research on corporal punishment does not support its use, and a growing body of neurological study shows that using the fear of physical violence—let's be honest and call it what it is—on children can be devastating in many ways.
Sure, it may well stop him or her from doing something again, but over time, inducing fight-or-flight fear hormones may damage the child's brain and stunt its growth.
This is huge. And in girls, it may have even worse effects. One of the results of physical punishment, as you'll see in the story, is that spanked children may well grow up and be attracted to abusive situations. So, to break it down, when you ask why a woman stays in an abusive relationship, it could be because fear of physical discipline wired her brain that way as a child. Let that sink in.
I'm sure some reading this are snorting by now about how you weren't stunted by spanking and that your parents did it, and their parents before them. And you're fine.
Here's the logical wrinkle in that argument: If you're continuing the physical-violence tradition, you are perpetuating a dangerous cycle because it was done to you. Even if you're "fine," you cannot know how your child is going to react to it as an adult, so it's a huge risk to take with your own children.
Not to mention, if you already have family-violence issues, including against a partner (and many prominent, "good" people do), you already might be in denial about the potential causes of your abusive nature.
Take NFL star Adrian Peterson, who apparently beat his toddler son with a switch until red welts appeared (a practice I often saw done as a child). He even casually admitted to the child's mother in a text that he had accidentally hit the boy in his testicles. His excuse for such brutality? That's the way he was disciplined back home in Texas. It was done to him, so it must be OK, he believes.
Anybody seeing the problem with this argument? He's part of a dangerous cycle, and can't even see it. And until this point, society has let him get away with it.
Peterson (along with my stepdad above) also illustrates an even more dangerous component of corporal punishment. It's not like adults can somehow be tested in advance to see if they are psychologically prepared to only take physical discipline so far and then stop—such as a swat on the butt with an open hand. That is, we discover child abuse after the fact and, in many cases, the adults think they are doing something within their rights. They just got angry and took it "too far," they rationalize. Whoops.
How is that OK to do with children?!
That means we give adults the permission to take it as far as they can get away with, and often that causes very real pain to children before anyone steps in, if they ever do. Is this really how we should approach violence against children, or should we follow the multitude of countries that have realized that whipping kids is no more acceptable than whipping adults?
Family violence—against adults and children—happens in every community, among all ethnicities and in families of every socioeconomic status. Child abuse is one of most-underreported crimes, even as it's an epidemic (even if you don't include open-hand spanking or hitting with belts or switches as abuse).
Abuse of women and children is magnified by the use of alcohol and other drugs, including over-the-counter painkillers. Know any adult spankers who use any of those mind-numbers? Of course you do.
Experts on what is now often called interpersonal violence know that it is a cycle often passed on by abuse victims—which really does start to make sense when you consider the neurological effects of intentionally inducing fear of violence at an early age.
It is time for all adults, with children or not, to reconsider traditions on corporal punishment and pay attention to both research on its harmfulness and expert advice on how to mete out smarter, non-physical discipline. No adult should turn her head on any kind of family violence, and we all must demand that all do everything possible to stop violent cycles for the safety of our society.
Put another way: If a tipsy daddy can accidentally break a kid's or a mama's blood vessel with a belt buckle, or a star football player gets so distraught that he hits a toddler's testicles, just how often is society enabling other vicious attacks due to antiquated ideas about discipline? Every day.
And don't forget: It's even harder for children to escape, or get help, than their mamas. It's time to stand up for kids, too.