When one adult hits another, Maryland law defines this as assault. When a larger, stronger adult hits a child, this act can be interpreted under Maryland law as "reasonable" discipline. We find it difficult to understand why it is acceptable to hit a child with an object such as a belt, when it is always unacceptable to hit another adult, either with a fist or anything else.
"Spare the rod ... spoil the child" has guided child rearing for thousands of years. Almost all parents have used physical (or corporal) punishment to "discipline" their child at some time. Studies have shown that 67 percent of parents of children under age 2 have used physical punishment. By the time a child reaches adolescence, the percentage has increased to 85 percent. Physical punishment ranges from a simple spank, to hitting a child with a belt or cord, to washing a child's mouth out with soap, to kneeling on a grate for hours. In essence, it is the use of physical force with the intention of causing bodily pain or discomfort to correct or punish the child's behavior.
There are major differences of opinion among caregivers regarding what is considered "reasonable" corporal punishment. Some believe that a spank that does not leave a bruise is "reasonable," while others may feel that hitting a child with a rope that leaves bruising and scarring is also acceptable. Maryland law does not provide specific guidelines, leaving "reasonable" open to interpretation by parents, as well as by child protective services, police, prosecutors, judges and masters. This lack of clarity can lead to inconsistent and potentially capricious decisions regarding child safety.
The Maryland General Assembly had the opportunity this legislative session to clarify this issue with a bill submitted by Sen. Jamie Raskin. Unfortunately, Senator Raskin felt compelled to withdraw the bill after it faced significant criticism during Senate hearings.
SB689 sought to define types of physical punishment that would not be considered "reasonable." Under the bill, hitting children with objects, burning children, punching children with a closed fist, and making children ingest noxious substances would no longer be defined as reasonable corporal punishment. While not as restrictive as laws in 24 countries that have banned corporal punishment, this bill would have been in line with laws in 15 other states and would have been a major step forward in outlawing actions that are harmful to children. We hope it will be reintroduced next year.
While many parents may believe that their parental rights would be infringed upon by such a law, there is sound precedent and scientific research supporting SB689. Of foremost concern is the safety of the child. The use of an object to punish a child can cause substantial injury, including brain injury. An errant swing of a belt can lead to blindness.
Our state laws currently include stronger protections for animals than for children. Many recent news stories have featured animals that have been burned or beaten, yet there has been no outcry in support of pet owners' rights to physically harm their pets. Why, then, is it acceptable for parents to discipline their children in a manner that causes physical harm? Shouldn't we treat our children at least as well as our pets?
Extensive research demonstrates that the risks of corporal punishment far outweigh the perceived benefits. When asked why they use physical punishment, most parents say, "because it works." Research has repeatedly demonstrated the opposite. Not only does it not "work," it often leads to adverse outcomes. Instead of becoming compliant and learning from their misdeeds, children who are physically punished are more likely to become aggressive and defiant. Over the long run, children who are physically punished are significantly more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, substance abuse and psychological problems. For every adult who says that corporal punishment "worked" for them, there are many more for whom it caused harm.
Moreover, physical punishment teaches children that violence is an acceptable way to cope with challenges. Rather than teaching a child what he or she did wrong and what to do instead, it teaches a child only to be afraid of the punishment.
What is really needed is for parents to learn how to be supportive and loving, yet also establish clear rules, limits and consequences for negative behaviors. Developmental experts call this "authoritative parenting," and research has shown that children raised by authoritative parents have better outcomes than those raised by those who use physical punishment or those who are permissive.
The best advice for parents relying on physical punishment is to ask for help when they feel angry or out of control with their child. Many local nonprofit agencies, pediatricians and parent groups have classes and advice to help parents succeed in the hardest job they have: raising happy, healthy children. If you feel you are having difficulty controlling your child's behavior, call The Family Tree Parent Stress Line at 800-243-7337. Details on the research behind corporal punishment can be found at the Center for Effective Discipline Web site: www.StopHitting.org.
While we would like to see alternatives to corporal punishment used all of the time, preventing or reducing the most severe forms of physical punishment is a step in the right direction. Doing so may improve the well-being of many Maryland children -- and it is the right thing to do.
Dr. Scott D. Krugman (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Dr. Wendy G. Lane (email@example.com) are, respectively, past and current chairs of the Child Maltreatment Committee of the Maryland Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.