Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Fink! Still at Large: Corporal Punishment Is Destructive to the Human Spirit. How Prevalent Is Corporal Punishment around the World, and at What Point Does the Practice Become Abuse?

Magazine article Clinical Psychiatry News

Fink! Still at Large: Corporal Punishment Is Destructive to the Human Spirit. How Prevalent Is Corporal Punishment around the World, and at What Point Does the Practice Become Abuse?

Article excerpt

Picture this scene: Hundreds of high school students are sitting on either side of an aisle in a large room. At one point, a boy is marched down the aisle and is told to bend over a small table. A school official then proceeds to hit the boy with a stick. The boy cries out with each hard swat. The camera pans the audience and captures the boy's fellow students cringing with each whack.

We do not know how long the beating lasted, but it was clear that it took place in front of the school body, a setting that must have been magnified the boy's humiliation and shame. And there appeared to be no parents or school officials to advocate for him.

I watched this scene on a DVD several weeks ago while attending a conference in Dallas called the Global Summit on Ending Corporal Punishment and Promoting Positive Discipline. I signed up to go because I thought that I'd meet a few like-minded people who have an agenda to advocate for children, and to stop the abuse and misuse of children throughout the world.

The conference was organized by George Holden, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Southern Methodist University, Dallas, and featured some of the top names in the field related to corporal punishment. Several hundred people attended, including representatives of 21 counties and many from the United States. For years, I have been following the work of children's rights advocates such as Murray Straus, Phil Greven, and the late Irwin Hyman. To my amazement, Dr. Straus--whose research shows that children worldwide who are spanked have lower IQs--not only attended the conference but spoke several times.

Practice Prevails Worldwide

We should know several basic facts about corporal punishment: Some 28 states in the United States still permit corporal punishment in schools. In Europe, 23 countries have prohibited corporal punishment entirely, including in private homes. The prohibition of corporal punishment took place in Sweden more than 30 years ago without a lot of fanfare (Child Abuse Negl. 2000;24:1027-35). Europe is small compared with the rest of the world; in Asia, Africa, and South America, the rod is still amply applied.

For example, the DVD of the boy apparently takes place in a high school somewhere in Asia. I spoke to the man who prepared the film and the person who introduced the segment on the DVD. The person who handled the introduction came from Thailand, and I asked him and his colleague in what country the beating took place. Neither could say. But they did reassure me that this kind of scene is not rare across Asia.

As the conference went on, I became more aware of the prevalence of corporal punishment worldwide. And one of the most important, as-yet-unresolved questions of the conference is tied to the one that was asked at the outset of this column: When does corporal punishment cross the line to become physical abuse? Corporal punishment, after all, is considered to be a disciplined retribution rather than a random act. Corporal punishment is generally applied to the buttocks and legs, rather to the face or upper body. Both the person who is inflicting the punishment and the person receiving the punishment know it will end. Do these factors legitimize corporal punishment or make it acceptable?

Being on the receiving end of corporal punishment can affect the psyche. Making a child expose his buttocks leads to further humiliation, but many children become inured to the process and seem to accept it as a reality of their lives. The body accepts the blows, but the mind has a tougher time.

I don't know what would be considered an acceptable punishment and what would be child abuse. Child and youth agencies look for wounds or marks on the child's body before they identify a situation as abuse. For example, broken skin is much more related to abuse than punishment. The line between how angry the person inflicting the pain is and whether the child knows why he is getting the beating is ill defined. …

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