Corporal Punishments Hidden Costs

Corporal punishment of children linked to later interpersonal violence.

BY Salim Muwakkil

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If the civil rights community began a movement to discourage corporal punishment among African Americans, I believe it would do more to stem the tide of interpersonal violence than any other strategy.

An errant bullet hit the eye of a 12-year-old Chicago girl on August 27 but she survived. Earlier this year, stray bullets killed two girls in separate incidents in the city’s Englewood neighborhood and triggered a flurry of activity designed to address the chronic violence hammering Chicago’s inner-city neighborhoods.

In black communities across the United States, concerned people are gathering with increasing urgency, seeking solutions to rising rates of violence.

Let me add one suggestion that is not likely to be raised at any of these gatherings: Stop spanking your children.

If the civil rights community began a movement to discourage corporal punishment among African-Americans, I believe it would do more to stem the tide of interpersonal violence than any other strategy.

Experts are increasingly fingering corporal punishment–the infliction of physical pain on the body of a child for purposes of punishment or controlling behavior–as the culprit in a wide variety of social dysfunctions. A host of relevant professional organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and the National Association of Social Workers have published position papers opposing or strongly discouraging corporal punishment of children.

International research on the deleterious effects of physical punishment is so compelling that the United Nations has initiated a global program to eliminate it. Not only is corporal punishment of children a violation of human rights, the United Nations argued in a 2005 UNESCO publication, that according to a preponderance of research, it is also “counterproductive, relatively ineffective, dangerous and harmful.”

In 1979, Sweden became the first country in the world to ban all corporal punishment of children. Twelve more European countries have followed: Denmark, Norway, Finland, Austria, Cyprus, Italy, Croatia, Latvia, Germany, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Iceland. Leaders in these countries concluded that the costs of corporal punishment were too high for a society that called itself civilized.

Despite this wide consensus on the ills of corporal punishment, there is scant sentiment for an anti-spanking movement among African Americans. But that may be changing. Growing numbers of experts who focus on the black community, are also raising questions about the high costs of using physical violence to punish children. Dr. Alvin Poussaint, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School who has written extensively on African-American issues, has long opposed the use of corporal punishment.

His major argument is simple: “the use of corporal punishment teaches children that violence is the way to solve problems.” Poussaint, who was an adviser to the popular program “The Cosby Show,” says corporal punishment also has other harmful effects on the social life of the black community.

At a recent forum on young black men, sponsored by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, Poussaint fingered corporal punishment as a factor in the disproportionate expulsions of black children from pre-school programs, especially males. He said his research has found that even preschool black males harbor a lot of anger.

“There’s an overuse of beating kids,” he said, breaking a major taboo among black leadership by raising this issue. “So that you have 80 percent of black parents believing you should beat them–beat the devil out of them. And research shows the more you beat them, the angrier they get.”

High levels of violent crime in black communities certainly reflect that anger. According to figures from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, African Americans were more likely than other Americans to be both victims and perpetrators of violent crime.

In 2000, blacks were six times more likely than whites to be victims of murder. They also were seven times more likely to be perpetrators. In fact, for the last half-century blacks were homicide victims at least five times more than whites were. Sometimes that rate reached more than ten times the white rate.

Among the major reasons cited for this disparity are poverty, segregation, media violence and the self-hatred inculcated by a white supremacist culture. Some argue the problem is simply one of bad behavior, abetted by black communities that deemphasize personal responsibility and cultural standards.

There is a bit of truth in those explanations, but Poussaint’s anti-spanking reasoning also makes sense. What doesn’t make sense is that black leaders have yet to make the connection between high rates of corporal punishment and high rates of interpersonal violence.

One reason for this reticence is the influence of the church. All spanking advocates need to do is cite a biblical justification not to spare the rod and for far too many, the case is closed. Also, many African-American parents argue they must discipline their children harshly to prepare them better for the racist treatment they’re sure to receive in the Untied States.

But Poussaint said his research found that 80 to 90 percent of black prison inmates were severely punished or neglected as children. It doesn’t work.

There’s also the sheer injustice of imposing an act of physical violence on someone smaller and weaker: As we’ve learned from U.S. foreign policy, that never leads to positive outcomes.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of "The Salim Muwakkil" show on WVON, Chicago's historic black radio station, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Photographs from the Harold Washington Years.

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