The time for raising children by using corporal punishment has passed

Mark Hammontree

Walk into the average sixth grade classroom in Alabama, ask for a show of hands of who has been spanked by their parents at least once, and chances are a good deal of hands will come up. 

While the practice could be said to have declined somewhat in the last few decades, polls have shown that around 61 percent of parents of children ages three to four have said spanking is an acceptable form of punishment for young children in certain instances. In the South especially, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that spanking is almost an expected part of parenting and of childhood. Our parents were spanked by their parents, who were spanked by theirs, who were spanked by theirs. And really, the saying often goes, we “had it easy, because when I was your age, my grandmother made me cut down my own switch and count them out.” Now, for those of you perhaps unfamiliar with the colloquialism, a “switch” is really just a thin tree branch stripped of its leaves and stems. It’s clear that when it comes to spanking, for most people down here (and throughout the country), it’s no big deal.

At the end of what turned into a banner week for the NFL, Adrian Peterson, the league’s best running back, was indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child. The indictment stemmed from allegations of child abuse after Peterson struck his son repeatedly with a switch.  Peterson’s lawyer released a statement saying that he was doing nothing more than disciplining his misbehaving son in the same way Peterson himself had been disciplined “growing up in east Texas.” Peterson “disciplined” his son so thoroughly that the child had visible lacerations and bruises on his back, thighs and buttocks even a week later. Two separate doctors agreed that the effects of Peterson’s disciplining constituted child abuse.

Even among proponents of physical discipline, I think most people would agree that Peterson’s spanking of his son went way, way too far. This brings up the question, though – when it comes to a parent disciplining their children, just how far is too far? It’s gone too far as soon as you put a hand on the child. Or a switch, or a paddle, or a belt. When you, as an adult in the position of power, make the decision to cause physical pain to your defenseless child, discipline runs the risk of becoming more than just discipline.

Now, I know that spanking or switching is by no means a prosecutable offense, and certainly not in Alabama, one of 19 states that still allows corporal punishment in public schools. Despite the fact that it is still legal, striking your child or anyone else’s child on any part of their body is not right, no matter the situation. While plenty of American parents, and plenty of college-aged kids, point to their own spankings as children as to how they learned respect and turned out the way they did, there is a great deal of research that suggests physical punishment really does cause psychological damage in children. A 2009 study linked regular spankings (at least once a month) with either hand, paddle or belt, to significant decreases in grey matter in the prefrontal cortex which can in turn lead to later depression, addiction and other mental health problems.

The occasional pat on the wrist or slight squeeze of the arm is not as problematic as the regular spanking described above, but if your punishment is going to leave any sort of mark, you’ve gone too far. That spanking has been a traditional part of raising a child is a fallacious argument and should no longer be used to justify the outdated practice. There was a time when doctors treated disease with the traditional cure of blood-letting, and there was a time when it was tradition for men to settle their disputes by dueling.

There was a time when parents would teach their children a lesson by physically hurting them. That time has now passed. Peterson’s arrest has shown that. Many of you will one day be parents, and many of you already are. Don’t spank, paddle or switch your kids. Just don’t do it.

Mark Hammontree is a junior majoring in secondary education language arts. His column runs on Mondays.