A slap: child discipline or child abuse?

Virtually every culture and faith teaches children some version of ‘the golden rule’ – i.e., that you should treat others the same way you would like to be treated. So what are we teaching children when we use physical discipline against them? That resorting to aggression is a valid way to solve a problem? That if someone does something we don’t like, it is OK to hit them?

These questions are too big to be handled thoughtfully in such a brief blog post, but they are questions that many television viewers may be asking themselves, and each other, in light of NBC’s new miniseries, “The Slap,” which premiered in the United States on Thursday 12 February.

The dramatic arc of the show, based on a best-selling Australian novel and series, centers on an adult who disciplines an out-of-control child – not his own son – with a slap during a backyard barbecue. The subsequent drama that unfolds over the course of eight episodes finds family and friends choosing sides, with some agreeing that the unruly child needed a firm hand to be brought into line, and others saying it is never right for an adult to use force against a child. The tightly knit group is soon driven apart by what happens next.

Although this is a fictional story depicted on a small screen, we have evidence to show it represents a disturbing worldwide pattern. Last year, UNICEF released the most comprehensive collection of data on violent punishment of children to date. The numbers starkly showed that violent discipline is the most common form of violence in childhood.

On average, the survey data from 62 countries indicated that almost a billion children aged 2-14 had been physically disciplined in the home in the month before the survey was taken.

Physical discipline, also known as corporal punishment, is defined by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child as “any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.”

About four in five children had been physically punished and/or subjected to psychological aggression while 17 per cent had been severely disciplined (e.g., hit on the head, face or ears or hit hard and repeatedly).

The effects of many types of violence can be lifelong, and can even be passed from generation to generation. Abundant evidence exists to show how violent discipline is associated with – among other negative outcomes – poor mental and physical health later in life, increased violence and aggression, and damage to family relationships.

One interesting revelation in our data analysis was that many children are subjected to physical punishment even when adults in the household don’t think it is necessary. This gap may seem illogical but it could be explained by the fact that many parents lack alternative, non-violent methods of discipline.

That is why UNICEF promotes strategies such as helping parents, caregivers and families better understand their child’s early development and teaching them about positive parent-child interactions, including non-violent discipline.

One such programme targeted families with children aged 3 to 5-years-old in low-income districts of Istanbul, offering training and discussions on child development and parenting. Two years later, an evaluation found that mothers were communicating better with their children; the children had fewer behavior problems and; incidences of physical punishment had dropped by a staggering 73 per cent. A follow-up study found that, later in life, those children had gone on to do better in school and had more successful careers than children whose families had not benefited from the programme.

accelerating progress graph for Global Report
Global map, Feb 2015On the legislative front, progress is being made towards eliminating all violent punishment of children in homes, in schools and in all other settings. As of the end of 2014, corporal punishment in the home has been prohibited in 44 countries, in alternative care and day care settings in 50 countries, in schools in 122 countries, and in penal institutions in 130 countries.

The pace of law reform is accelerating rapidly, with 10 countries adding their names to the list of those that prohibit corporal punishment of children in the home and all other settings, in 2014 alone. Other governments are also expressing their commitment to reform; at the end of 2014, 45 countries had clearly committed to prohibition.

While this is encouraging news, 91 per cent of the world’s children are still unprotected in law from corporal punishment in the home, and 23 countries lack laws that prohibit corporal punishment in any setting.

Violence is not inevitable. It can be prevented and it is critical to act now to create safe environments for children which allow them to grow up free from fear.

For more information on progress to end corporal punishment in your country, visit: www.endcorporalpunishment.org. For more information on UNICEF’s global initiative to end violence, visit: http://www.unicef.org/endviolence.

Susan Bissell is the Chief of Child Protection at UNICEF Headquarters in New York.

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  1. Thank you so much for this fine, informative, and affirmative piece of writing. This is one of the very best such pieces on this subject that I’ve seen in a long time.

    I do psychotherapy with victims of psychological trauma. From this perspective I am quite certain that there is too much violence against both children and adults in this world. The wounds this violence can leave are often invisible, but deep and damaging nevertheless.

    Children who are hit experience it in the same way as adults who are hit: it’s an assault. When it comes from someone upon whom one is dependent for one’s very life, it is just incomprehensible. It’s also unnecessary. There are most certainly alternatives to assaulting a child in order to manage them as they grow up. It is heartening indeed to see that the UN is involved in work to teach such alternatives.

    Thank you for all you do!

    1. Hi Tom, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us – and for the positive feedback.

  2. I was wondering if hectic lifestyles (with little time to engage or communicate with children) of parents (across socio- economic classes) also adds to violence against children.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful piece of reflection. The issue is of such importance that it should not be only treated theoretically. There is need to be very practical and nearer to cultural realities…However the biggest question I see is…How is the society preparing people for parenting? I have never known of any program be it governmental or private that initiate people to that most difficult job of parenting. With that gap, we all use our cultural values to bring up our children the best we can. It is therefore very difficult for an African to see a slap that I give to my child as an abuse…I will therefore hope that UNICEF will be advocating for more institutional programs for parenting.

  4. I agree that hectic lifestyles can be part of some situations and in some situations it is still culture and I have even spanked my child. There are so many issues that can go into this but the main one is that it is not ok to hit children.

  5. This is an interesting point of view, however most state laws are quite clear on whether or not physical punishment is defined as abuse. In fact according to Colorado law, where I am from, it is perfectly legal to spank as long as no marking or bruise is left. The premise of the show you mentioned is interesting to me as it fits a topic I am researching currently. While the law does clearly define child abuse, not that all cases are handled properly, the public often does have their own point of view and it can lead to a parent being reluctant about rendering discipline in public. That can also cause developmental problems later in life. I want to make it clear though that am no way am I supporting abuse, based off my research I have found there are positive ways to discipline a child, one should not immediately resort to spanking every time. While I agree with some disciplines such as spanking, time out and “grounding” there are times when punishment goes to far. I also found that child abuse is more likely in a low income situation in my research. Your posting brought up some very interesting points that I plan on following up on for my own research in order to better shape my paper.

  6. I am currently doing a research paper for my English class which is titled ” The Lack of Discipline in Today’s Children”. In my research of this topic, I found this to a very divided and touchy subject. While I don’t condone abusing children in any way; I do strongly feel that some type of disciple is needed to help a child stay on track as they grow. There is a fine line between discipline and abuse according to some when it comes to perception. Discipline can range from spanking to time-outs as well a revocation of toys and electronics and it also helps a child to become a respectful and productive adult. I ran across articles that stated the pros and cons of spanking. While some say that spanking, when done correctly, is enough of a deterrent to ward off unacceptable behavior in most children, others state that children who are hit while young tend to grow into adults that hit. I think both statements are true to a certain extent. Spanking can be achieved by 2-3 swats on the bottom, which is more than sufficient enough to get the parent (s) point across. Some children today, who lack discipline, have a great sense of entitlement when it comes to life.They find it hard to follow rules, don’t like being told what to do, how to do it or when to do it; and lets not mention talking back and a total lack of respect for anyone including themselves. Unfortunately, these are things that they will encounter as adults, and if it poses a problem while they are young it will only become much larger as they grow. Discipline is a necessary tool that is needed in a child’s everyday life and the lack of it is, in a nutshell,the real abuse. We owe it to our children to provide them with the guidance which is necessary for them to grow to their full potential. Thank you for your time.

  7. You should provide possible alternatives to discipline not just a “why” you shouldn’t use physical punishment. A lot of parents/adults don’t know what better alternatives are.

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