Corporal Punishment/Public Humiliation Part 1: Effects on Child Development

This a 2-part prequel to a 4-part Intentional Parenting series I want to start in April and continue 1x a month until July, writing from the perspective of a therapist providing supportive counseling to individuals interested in having or people who already have children. But before I start the series, I want to make sure that we’re all on the same page and have the same foundation. Meaning, we agree that corporal punishment (beatings) and public humiliation (shaming) are child abuse. And we agree that beating and/or humiliating children cause harm that outweighs any imagined “benefits”.

Lemme disclose right quick: my parents definitely believed in corporal punishment (beatings) and public humiliation (shaming) as discipline. Just like their parents and their parents before them and probably their parents too. I, and everyone I grew up around, thought this was normal even while we communed miserable experiences. Even as an adult, I have run into more people who have been beat and/or shamed as a child than people who haven’t. It’s gotten to the point that if you weren’t beat/humiliated as a child or if you’re a parent who decided not to beat/humiliate your children, people look at you like you’re weird. It honestly wasn’t until I started actively studying psychology that I learned how harmful beatings and shaming are to children and to adults. I’m sharing this information with you so we can begin to end this cycle. I want us to heal. This was a difficult series to write emotionally for me. I felt myself dragging my feet to write this because of how heavy this topic can be, but this is incredibly important and I really wanted to share this with y’all. It’s okay if you feel uncomfortable reading this and need to take as many breaks as I did while writing this.

Before I get into the ways beatings and humiliation are psychologically harmful, I want to state the obvious: Beatings and shaming don’t actually work. Think about all the reasons y’all got beat or shamed by your parents/guardians. Bet money y’all still:

  • Lie
  • Are disrespectful to elders
  • Cheat on things
  • Have messy bedrooms
  • Procrastinate
  • Masturbate

So if you’re still doing these things to this very day then beatings/humiliation failed change your behavior. You didn’t become a “better” person as a result. So following this logic, why continue to use methods that don’t even effectively change behavior in the long-term? That sounds like a waste of time to me.

Let’s start with the negative effects that beatings and shaming have on child development. In an article “Physical Punishment, Childhood Abuse And Psychiatric Disorders” in Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal, Tracie O. Afifi, et al. discovered that children who are beaten by their guardians are more likely to develop a mental disorder than children who were not beaten. Beatings and humiliation are supposed to be effective discipline, but, as I stated before, it doesn’t work. Most of us as adults still engage in a lot of the same behaviors we used to get beat over. We learned to hide from our parents and to lie, which sets the tone for any and all future interactions/friendships/relationships we have in the future. So by beating children, there’s a major risk of them developing a mental disorder with no real benefit to the child.

In another related article from the Child Abuse & Neglect: The International Journal, “Relationships Between Parents’ Use of Corporal Punishment and Their Children’s Endorsement of Spanking and Hitting Other Children,” Dominique A. Simmons and Sandy K. Wurtele found that beatings, especially frequent beatings, add to intergenerational trauma: children learn to co-sign beatings in general and cosign “aggressive problem-solving”. Meaning beating children teaches them not only that being physically hit is okay, it also teaches them that beating the tar out of other children is an appropriate way of dealing disagreements/conflicts.  Being beat as a child makes you more likely to see physical violence as the way to resolve issues you have with people. And maybe that works in some situations, but how many people have lost jobs, gotten injured in fights and have high medical bills, lost relationships, got arrested, etc. because they did not have another way to cope with the situation?

Someone might think that public humiliation/shaming is a tamer, more low-key form of discipline, but it’s just as damaging to children’s development. In Psychology Today, Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. agreed, calling the act of shaming children “ineffective” and “destructive”. Humiliating someone is a great way to show dominance, sure. But does shaming actually serve the purpose of discipline: teaching a child better behavior and how to make better choices in the future? Drexler stated the reason why shaming does not work is “because since most kids can’t distinguish between their impulses — their actions — and their selves,” the child can’t separate feeling ashamed about what they did vs shame for who they are as people. So shaming has a negative effect on children’s self-esteem. And all it really does is teach a child that their parents are capable of hurting them whenever they want and (in the case of parents’ using social media to shame their children) open the door for online strangers to harass young people on social media (comments, likes, retweets/reposts). And no one steps in and no justice is ever had. Not exactly something that makes for a solid parent-child relationship, the first relationship that a person learns how to build and manage. Children are adults in training. The human brain doesn’t finish growing until around age 25. And the last part of the brain to finish growing is the reasoning/decision-making part. Basically, our ability to make decisions and think through the consequences of our actions literally comes with age. Childhood and adolescence are basically probation periods where adults ideally guide/train them on how to be adults. They literally learn how to be people from you. Children are only going to use the tools that their parents show them. Instead of being able to use words to think about and maintain their own feelings, they are more likely to want to take their emotions out on other people or bottle those negative feelings inside.

And that’s not where the effects of corporal punishment, etc. ends. Even when we’re grown, the beatings we dealt with as children still affect us. In the Journal of Family Issues article, “Long-term Effects of Child Corporal Punishment on Depressive Symptoms in Young Adults,” Heather A. Turner and Paul A. Muller reported hitting kids in anger could lead to them being more at risk of experiencing depressive symptoms (See my depression post for more information on depressive symptoms, etc.). And it’s common knowledge in research and clinical practice that depressive symptoms can put someone more at risk of dealing with anxiety symptoms and substance abuse. It’s not enough to keep doing something just because it is what’s always been done. And the negative effects don’t just stop at an individual person. In the Journal of Pediatrics article “Childhood Corporal Punishment and Future Perpetration of Physical Dating Violence,”Jeff R. Temple, et al. found that not only do beatings teach children that hitting other children is okay, but that lesson sticks with them as they grow into adults. According to the article, beatings teach children how to treat the people they date and to deal with relationship conflicts using physical violence. The first thing that comes to mind is how this connects to the assault and murder rates of transgender and cisgender women of color, especially Black women, by their partners.

And what happens when it comes time for your adult children to take care of you? Elder abuse/neglect is unfortunately very common. If your adult child’s main way of dealing with frustration is with physical violence and then they take on the frustrating and stressful task of caring for you, an elderly parent:  How will they treat you? I mean, really, give yourself some time to think about it.

If you don’t have children and you truly feel you can’t raise children without beating/shaming them and have no interest in changing your methods, then be real with yourself. Just like anything: raising children involves sacrifice, compromise, and growth. If you don’t want to change yourself for the better of the child, you are probably not ready to have children.

If you already have children and want to change your behaviors for the better of your child/children, your next move is looking in the mirror and seriously begin asking yourself some hard questions, like:

  • What’s your end goal when you are disciplining your child? What lesson are you trying to teach? Does your method ACTUALLY teach the lesson or does it do something else for you (give you a power thrill, make you feel better, make you feel avenged, create fear, etc)?
  • What emotions do you feel in the moment when your child does something that disappoints/upsets you? In what ways do those emotions affect how you act and how you decide to punish them?
  • To what degree is beating/shaming your child a way to cope with/vent your feelings (frustration, anger, disappointment, etc) about the situation?
  • What are some things you can do to cope with these feelings/this situation BEFORE attempting to discipline your child?
  • Who can you contact for support and what kind of support do you want from them?

For the record, I am not going to be arguing back and forth with people about their opinions on corporal punishment and public humiliation/shaming. The research speaks for itself and I don’t care about anyone’s individual pro-beatings feelings or personal stories of how you specifically are “just fine”. I wouldn’t argue with someone who was anti-vaccine because that’s straight-up child endangerment and so is this. Period.

In the Part 2 of this 2-part series (which I will post on 3/25/18), I will cover alternatives to corporal punishment and public humiliation by talking about the psychology of how humans learn (Example: Learning from watching other people) and how knowing a little psychology can help you figure out ways to discipline children that will assist you in teaching the lessons that children need to learn in order to thrive. Thanks for reading.

Next post will be an intro to self-care on 3/11/18.

One response

  1. Pingback: Corporal Punishment/Public Humiliation Part 2: Alternatives « QueeringPsychology

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