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Is Slapping a Child Considered “Child Abuse”?

i Feb 9th 61 Comments by

On January 26, 2011, the NJ Supreme Court unanimously ruled that a parent “slapping their child” did not constitute “child abuse”. The court’s ruling overturned an action by the NJ Division on Youth and Family Services to remove a teenager from her father and stepmother’s home in 2008. The father admitted that his wife had slapped his daughter and took her earnings from a part-time job to pay a TV cable bill.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court ruled that an occasional slap, “although hardly admirable…does not fit a common sense prohibition against excessive corporal punishment”.

In general, the NJ definition for physical child abuse states that a parent’s punishment of a child would need to lead to a serious injury to be classified as child abuse, so the court’s actual decision isn’t the story.

However, the court’s comment that the act is “hardly admirable” is important for two reasons.

First, research overwhelmingly shows that there are alternatives to spanking (or in this case “slapping a child in the face”) that are more effective in raising and disciplining a child — which is the point.

Striking a child has been shown to increase negative behaviors, including aggression, in children. When someone is hit, whether it’s an adult or a child, a natural reaction is hostility, fear, anger, and resentment. There is research that points out that children experience these same emotions and it affects their future behavior and attitudes — the same as it would an adult.

Second, research also shows that hitting a child as a disciplinary measure simply doesn’t work. It may change an immediate behavior due to the child’s fear of being hit again, but research shows that children who are hit are more likely to be misbehave after five years than children who weren’t hit.

Even supporters of spanking concede that the emotional and mental state of the parent can negatively, and quite harshly so, affect the child on the receiving end. Organizations such as the Family Research Council have noted, even amidst their other recommendations, that “physical abuse by an angry uncontrolled parent will leave lasting emotional wounds and cultivate bitterness and resentment within a child,” and further, “reactive impulsive hitting after losing control due to anger is unquestionably the wrong way for a parent to use corporal punishment“.

Do you think the mom of this teenager who was slapped was administering “balanced” and “prudent” use of spanking, or is it more likely that she was angry, reactive, or impulsive? How many parents are cool, calm and collected when they reach out and spank their children?

The reality is many parents resort to spanking their children out of frustration, when a child has pushed their buttons and refused to obey, with the result being an impulsive smack “to get the child’s attention”. Usually, the parent has simply run out of patience and believes they have the right to hit their children if they want to. Additionally, a parent who chooses to spank may come to rely on it more frequently to get a child’s attention, and use more severe spanking as the child grows older… and bigger.

It may also be useful to realize that parents choose to hit their children, in part, because while the children are small, they are unlikely to hit back. Not too many parents spank their six-foot-tall sons. In addition, parents choose to spank because they lack the patience or education to use more positive — and effective — parenting techniques, or they were hit as a child and simply repeat their parent’s behavior.

I asked a fellow parent, who supports spanking his son as a disciplinary measure, if he thinks spanking his children strengthens his child’s respect for him as a father or mother… or whether it might fuel hostility or anger in the child. The answer: “Spanking teaches my child to respect me”  (because if they don’t, they get spanked again…).

There is a better and more effective way to raise children than resorting to hitting your child when they don’t behave. It requires patience — a boatload of patience, sometimes — along with knowledge about other ways that work better. For more information about positive discipline, check out some of our “Tips For Parents“.