Physical Punishment and Parental Rights
posted by Elizabeth A. Wilson
A recent study published online in the Canadian Medical Association Journal brings up the unresolved debate about parental rights and physical punishment of children. This study lends support to an argument I made some years ago in an article called “Suing for Lost Childhood” about the use of the delayed discovery rule in child sexual abuse cases. In my article, I argued that physical abuse of children and neglect can have impacts on children’s development that are as destructive as sexual abuse, but for a variety of reasons we are as a culture more attuned to issues related to children and sexuality. (I later called the analysis used in that article “narrative genealogy” as it traces the cultural origins and migrations of stories that ultimately had shaping effects on legal decisions.)
The CMAJ study reviews 20 years of published research on physical punishment of children and concludes that no evidence exists of positive outcomes. Physical punishment is correlated with aggression and antisocial behavior, cognitive impairment and developmental problems, as well as depression, spousal abuse, and substance abuse. Co-author Joan Durrant says, “”There are no studies that show any long term positive outcomes from physical punishment.” Summaries of the study say that the study refutes the frequent argument that aggression comes before corporal punishment and not vice versa. (I’ll get to the viral video of the dad shooting his daughter’s computer with a .45).
Despite the volume of studies showing the harmful effects of physical punishment (not to mention emotional abuse and physical and emotional neglect), it remains difficult even in some Western countries to challenge parents’ legal right to hit their children. The Canadian Supreme Court ruled corporal punishment within “reasonable” limits to be legal in 2004. The practice is legal in all 50 states. In contrast, the UN has been out in front of this issue. After a 2006 report found shockingly high levels of violence against children in all aspects of their lives, the UN created the position of the Special Rapporteur to the Secretary General on the issue of Violence Against Children. Since 2009, Marta Santos Pais has served in that position and the United Nations has staked out an aggressive stance anti-violence.
U.S. ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) has been stalled by fears (not completely unwarranted) that the Child Convention will undermine parental rights. In response to comments by President Obama suggesting that his administration was rethinking the U.S.’s position on the CRC — now a non-signatory outlier with Somalia– the culture wars are again beginning to ramp up. A coalition of US organizations has set November 20, 2012 as the target date for the U.S. to ratify the CRC. A coalition of groups opposed to the CRC and in favor of a “Parental Rights Amendment” to the U.S. Constitution are preparing to oppose ratification. The domestic debate about the ratification CRC may soon become fiercer, now that an Optional Protocol allowing children to file an individual complaint to the Committee on the Rights of the Child will open for signatures on February 28th.
Coincidentally, as I write this, the internet is roiling from a video a father uploaded on his daughter’s facebook where he excoriates her for a disrespectful and swear-word laden post that made it seem as if her parents are using her as a slave. The father tells his story in language just as vivid as his daughter, and I’m with him until the point when he takes his .45 and fires 8 or 10 rounds into his daughter’s computer. (“And this one’s from your mother…!”) Available here. If a husband shot a .45 into a wife’s computer, I have no doubt it would be considered an act of domestic violence. But there seems to be a lot of support for the father out there.