Handle With Care

By: Atara Bachrach  |  May 12, 2022

By Atara Bachrach, Opinions Editor

I’ve always known that I’m pretty opinionated. I mean, it’s not like I’ve kept it a secret; being an Opinions Editor for the YU Observer isn’t exactly the most subtle. But recently, I learned that a belief of mine, something I’ve never even thought twice about, is actually quite controversial. It all started last week, when I cracked open a book a friend had recommended to me. It was one of those self-help things I’d heard so much about but never bothered to pick up before, and, as I read, I came across a line that shocked me. In chapter 5 of the book*, the author describes how, in the case of a child who is particularly deviant, one should use a “swat across the backside” to nip the behavior in the bud. 

Feeling frustrated and confused, I had to take a brief pause from my reading before I continued. Surely I must have misunderstood. There was no way the author was implying what I thought they were. Maybe it was meant to be a confused joke? Or perhaps a misguided quip, used as a preface to how that might actually be a terrible idea? Puzzled but resolved to learn more, I reopened the novel, determined to understand the author’s intentions. There must have been an alternative explanation for what he had written. Right?

Nope. In fact, the more I read, the more unsettled I felt, as this perplexing line of thought continued. The author went into great detail as to how corporal punishment, the use of any physical force to discipline children, can be an extremely effective tool in parenting. You know, when done properly, of course. The author also contends that should one choose to shy away from doing so when necessary (since, evidently, there are cases when it is indeed necessary) they are failing not only as a parent to their child, but in their contribution as members of society. 

I was dumbfounded. Could this really be true? Was corporal punishment genuinely the solution to teaching a child to abstain from bad behavior? Was this the actual key to good parenting? As someone with an immense fascination with developmental psychology, especially in the development of children, I knew this was something I absolutely had to look into. So, after doing a bunch of research on the subject, I can tell you that I learned a lot of information, some of which was quite unexpected. Including the fact that the controversy surrounding this idea is in no way black and white.

Given the matter’s evident controversy, it wasn’t a huge shock to learn that there are compelling cases to be made for its opposing views, both for those in support of corporal punishment and those against it. Unsurprisingly, the strongest defensive argument for corporal punishment is that perhaps it can, be effective; that is, it can sometimes be used to stop a negative behavior immediately. Ideally, this can be really helpful if you (G-d forbid) find yourself in a situation where a child is in imminent danger, and you need a way to protect them from harm instantaneously. 

According to several studies, however, there is no definitive proof that corporal punishment is overall effective due to multiple confounding variables. It depends on a caregiver’s relationship with a child, as well as their own personal level of emotional reactivity. For instance, in the case of a parent who is prone to impulsive or extreme anger, using physical punishment would certainly be inadvisable, if not off-limits entirely. Another mediating factor is how much force a parent uses in administering punishment, as well as how often they do it and in what contexts. 

Studies also indicate that even with such intervening, situational factors kept in mind, the apparent effectiveness of corporal punishment must be considered only when in heavy relation to its other potential outcomes, aside from its immediate effects on behavior. Countless other likely effects must be taken into account when assessing the advantages (of which there are few) and disadvantages (of which there are many) of corporal punishment. First and foremost, the research actually shows that children often have a difficult time associating the actual physical punishment with the behavior that caused it, essentially defeating the purpose entirely. 

There is also a lot of empirical evidence showing that the risk factors of using physical punishment are so strong, and so prominent, that it can have long-term effects on a child’s brain development, some of which may not even present themselves until later on in life. 

Researchers found that children who received physical punishment were significantly more likely to exhibit increased aggression and antisocial behavior than children who did not. They were also highly associated with worsened mental health and heightened moral internalization– the application of a moral concept to one’s self under the duress of certain toxic stressors– among several other negative behavioral consequences. In further research, it was found that those who were spanked as children are more likely to develop certain psychiatric disorders, including anxiety and suicidality, as well as other external issues, such as drug use and antisocial behavior. 

But even if there ever actually was a right time to discipline a child physically, an attempt to find the line between “healthy discipline” and legitimate child abuse would not only be essentially unattainable, but impossible not to blur thereafter. How can we determine the specifics of when it’s acceptable to hit a child and when it’s not? And what would happen should a child continue to misbehave, even after a parent has already tried using physical discipline with them? Would the punishment need to be escalated? Would that be okay? Or safe?

Ultimately, even if no actual harm were to come to a child’s body from such a thing (a spank, a flick, a “swat to the backside,” or–as many Jews like to call it–a “potch,”), the potential for long-term psychological damage and emotional trauma is not worth it. Not at all. 

It’s true that those in parental roles have a responsibility to keep their children safe. But they also have a responsibility to guide their children, to act as model figures for them. To be someone whom they can look up to, follow, and learn from. All so that they can develop and grow towards a happy, healthy, and hopefully successful future. That’s a lot of responsibility and pressure to have, and by no means an easy process. It’s scary! Knowing that if you don’t do it right, your kid might not turn out the way you hoped? That’s terrifying. And, as we all know by now, we humans have a  tendency to make a lot of really silly mistakes when we’re scared. 

But hitting a kid? Choosing to act in anger or upset in the name of punishment and discipline, under the supposed notion that it’s for their own good, and that we only do it because we want the best for them? That’s the kind of mistake we just can’t afford to make.

Having a child is an extremely delicate privilege. Our kids are fragile, and they’re trusting us– they’re counting on us– to do the absolute best job we can to protect them. How reliable of role models can we really be if we, the very same people in their lives who they are meant to trust, respect, and learn from the most, use physical force in our efforts to enhance their lives in raising them because we love them? And no matter how hard we try to clarify our reasoning, whether we like it or not, we send our kids the subliminal message that, sometimes, it is okay to hit, if it seems necessary to get what you want. And if their parents, the people who are meant to do the best job loving them out of anyone else in the entire world, can have good cause to hit them, what might they expect from a future partner?

With great power comes great responsibility, and in my opinion, to truly do our best as parents to our kids, we have to work hard to ensure they develop a firm understanding that violence is wrong, that it’s never okay to hit others. But how can we successfully do that if we, ourselves, actively hit them? We can’t expect them not to be confused by this inconsistency, let alone demand that they refrain from doing it themselves. How can we tell them it’s always unacceptable to hit another person, or even an animal, while showing them that the same rule does not apply to an adult hitting their own child? That just doesn’t feel right to me. 

Parents, caregivers, and educators have one thing in common: together, they each play a powerful role in bringing up the next generation. Growing up, I always knew that if I made too much trouble, it wouldn’t end so well: I’ve had more missed recesses and time-outs than I can count. But something I never had to worry about was my physical safety. My teachers and parents, as daunting as they may have seemed, would never have dared to lift a hand to me, let alone think about actually striking me, and that’s something I never really thought to be grateful for. At least, until now. So let’s do right by the next generation, and remember: the power is in our hands. Literally. 

*For the sake of privacy and respect, I’ve chosen not to include the title of the novel in this article; if you have any further questions, however, you are more than welcome to email me at asbachra@mail.yu.edu.