"It's not nice to hit people; children are people."
Parents hitting their children has been accepted as a form of discipline in our society for so long that some parents can't imagine that it is possible to discipline children without hitting them. We have learned that not only is it possible to discipline children without hitting them, but it is impossible to discipline children by hitting them. Making children feel worse does not make them behave better. Dr. Daniel F. Whiteside, former Assistant Surgeon General, reported that, "Corporal punishment of children actually interferes with the process of learning and with their optimal development as socially responsible adults. We feel that it is important for public health workers, teachers and others concerned for the emotional and physical health of children and youth to support the adoption of alternative methods for the achievement of self-control and responsible behavior in children and adolescents."
When most of us were growing up, it was believed that as long as the hitting did no permanent physical damage, the physical punishment would "teach us a lesson." Although the words punishment and discipline are often used as if they mean the same things, punishment and discipline are very different. Punishment is defined as arbitrary harsh treatment for wrong doing. Discipline means to teach. The only "lessons" we teach children when we hit them are to hit, fear, and distrust those who hit them.
Most parents intend to teach their children to be courteous, respectful, responsible, kind and loving. Children learn most from imitating what they see us do. Since hitting is not courteous, respectful, responsible, kind or loving, how can we possibly expect to teach our children those things by hitting them? Hitting is punishment, not discipline. Punishing children doesn't teach them why their behavior was unacceptable or what they should do instead. Punishment is meant to deter children from repeating the behavior by being painful or unpleasant enough to cause the child to want to avoid being punished again. In theory, this method may sound effective, but in reality, being punished causes children to think more about the wrong that was done to them than the wrong they did.
The goal of parental discipline is to teach children self-discipline. If the only reason children have for not doing something wrong is the threat of being punished, then what guidelines will they have for acceptable behavior when no one is there to punish them? Hitting children when we catch them doing something wrong doesn't teach them how to do what's right; it teaches them that they need to be sneaky and to lie to avoid being caught.
Hitting children not only hurts their bodies, it hurts their hearts and minds. Instead of giving them the message that what they did was bad, being hit causes children to believe that they are bad. Research shows that children who are hit have lower self-esteem than children who are not hit. There is even some evidence from a British study that children who are hit may be less able to learn because physical punishments reduce children's IQ. Being hit triggers the fight or flight response in human beings. When we are hit, our rational thinking shuts down. All we can think about is hitting back or running away to protect ourselves. If we can't think about why what we did was wrong, we can't learn the right thing to do either. Most adults who were hit as children tell us that while they remember being hit, they don't remember why. This is more evidence that hitting fails as a form of discipline or teaching.
While not all people who were hit as children grow up to be hitters, all adults who hit grew up either being hit or witnessing hitting. When an adult hits another adult we call it assault. When a husband or wife hits the other we call it battering. When a big kid hits a little kid we call it bullying. When a parent hits a child we call it spanking. No matter what name we give it - a swat, slap, tap or spank, it is hitting. When the adults in a family hit each other we call it domestic violence. Why then, when the adults hit the children in the family, do we call it discipline? Nowhere else in our society is hitting considered acceptable. Isn't all hitting violence?
In spite of the fact that we now know hitting children does not teach them acceptable behavior but damages them emotionally, intellectually and physically, many children are still being hit in the name of discipline. When talking to parents in parenting workshops about why parents hit, I found three answers most common:
"I was brought up to believe that it is my right to hit my children when they misbehave and that it's the only way to make them mind."
"Until now I didn't know there was anything wrong with hitting them. My parents hit me and I just thought that's what you do to discipline your kids."
"I know it's not good to hit your kids, but sometimes I get angry and frustrated and I don't know what else to do."