“How can anyone think he or she is doing ‘what is best’ when hitting a child?”
This is an excellent question that was asked of me in the comments section of my article Repairing the Emotional Bond Between Parent and Child; a question that has a multi-faceted, somewhat complicated answer.
First, I would like to ask you a question. Do you only feel compassion for the children who are hit until they reach adulthood? Or does your compassion for them extend there also? If it does, then you do feel compassion for me, because I was also hit as a child. Not just with a hand, but with a brush, a wooden spoon, and I’m not really sure what else because I have blocked most of those memories subconsciously, no doubt to ease the pain thereof.
And therein actually lies one part of the answer to this question. Children who are victims of abuse are far more likely to become perpetrators of abuse.
A study published last year in Child Abuse and Neglect revealed an intergenerational cycle of violence in homes where physical punishment was used. Researchers interviewed parents and children age 3 to 7 from more than 100 families. Children who were physically punished were more likely to endorse hitting as a means of resolving their conflicts with peers and siblings. Parents who had experienced frequent physical punishment during their childhood were more likely to believe it was acceptable, and they frequently spanked their children. Their children, in turn, often believed spanking was an appropriate disciplinary method.
The culture we live in largely believes that spanking is the only way to effectively discipline children. These children who are spanked are then not only more likely to abuse others due to growing up in a culture that condones (and encourages) abuse of children, but because they are carrying the psychological effects of that abuse. Those effects run deep. They often include a suppression of emotions; which, when not properly addressed, build up and build up until they come bubbling to the surface as rage. That rage is not truly directed at any individual in particular, but anyone who happens to be there will bear the brunt of the assault. Likely, that will be the people closest to you, who you are around most often. And in a culture which condones hitting children, that rage can easily be directed at one’s own children, with no fear of repurcussions, because it is perfectly “acceptable”.
Another psychological component at play is the “fight or flight” response. When attacked, the brain’s natural response is either to fight back or to run away. However, there is actually a third option, which is to freeze. In the case of a child being attacked by a parent, there is a huge conflict within the brain. The attacker in this case is the person that the child instinctively knows is supposed to care for and protect them. This is highly damaging to the child’s emotional wellbeing. It leads to an internal dilemma. On the one hand, the child wants to run away from the attack. But on the other hand, the child wants to run to his or her protector. The dilemma, then, is the fact that it’s the protector who is inflicting the harm! So there is nowhere to run. Fighting back isn’t really an option when the threat is obviously much bigger and stronger than you (and will likely get you further attacked anyway), so that brings us to “freeze”. The child’s brain goes into a protective mode. It partially shuts down, in order to protect itself as much as possible from the emotional aspect of the attack.
When that child grows up, they are no longer too small and weak to fight back. Sooner or later, they will begin fighting; either with words or actions, or both. (If they don’t, they will likely be continually emotionally paralyzed.) Since they have been conditioned to respond to a threat in a primal, rather than an intellectual way, they will then revert back to using their primal brain whenever a conflict arises. When that conflict is with a child (not “obeying” them), the instincts kick in and they will do the very thing that was done to them. Unfortunately, this is the one type of abuse that is still widely accepted and condoned by society. Which enables the formerly abused child to continue the cycle of abuse for yet another generation.
The problem is that, until enough people have the courage to say “spanking is abuse, it is wrong!”, the cycle will continue. For the cycle to break, one must be able and encouraged to admit that the spankings they received were in fact abuse; which means they have to accuse their parents of said abuse. They then have to have the support, resources, and willpower to heal their emotional wounds and change their way of thinking.
This cannot happen without the majority recognizing that this is not the result of an evil person inflicting harm for their personal enjoyment. Pointing fingers and calling names does not initiate healing and change. This cycle of violence has been perpetuated for so long that there is no one to blame, because we cannot possibly trace it back far enough. I abused my kids because I was abused as a child. I was abused because my parents were abused as children. My parents were abused because their parents were abused as children. And so on and so forth.
Not long ago, a husband “spanking” a wife was commonplace, and widely accepted.
Now, we call this “domestic violence” or “spousal abuse”, not spanking. Will you be part of the generation that changes the notion of “spanking” children into abuse? Will you help heal the current generation of abused children by offering support and encouragement instead of blaming and shaming their parents? Will you stand with me in Breaking the Cycle of Abuse?