“Whap!” my friend sliced her arm across the air for emphasis. “Oh, my mom used to whip us all! She could even do it without looking up from what she was doing. And it would hurt! She got softer on the younger ones, but us older kids used to get whipped.” She spit out the word “whipped” while shaking her head but also smiling oddly at the memory.
You see, this friend has a lovely relationship with her mother, a woman I know as gentle soul who dotes on her grandchildren. She’s a woman who raised 8 of the nicest people I’ve met in Kenya and who took in 5 of her relative’s kids when their parents died. She’s a woman who visits my friend every week; they sit around a plate of ugali and fish and talk like old friends. They hug goodbye. They have, by all accounts, a close and loving relationship.
But what about all that whipping? From the American perspective it would have bordered on abuse. The theory goes: all that physical punishment would breed resentment, psychological damage, and trust issues. In some settings the parent would have been visited by Child Protective Services. The children would grow up to learn that violence solves problems.
So, what happens when an entire country “beats” (that's the word used here for physical discipline) their children? The truth is corporal punishment is ubiquitous here. I’ve yet to meet an adult here who was not physically disciplined by their parents and their teachers. It’s expected; it's the norm. In fact, when corporal punishment was officially outlawed in schools (a completely unenforced legal concession to the international community) parents generally thought this was a horrible idea. The assumption was that without the threat of a whacking, children would become uncontrollable. Pretty much everyone you meet here has been “whacked.”
But it is not a country of cowering maladjusted adults prone to violence. Sure, there are pockets of crime and have been eruptions of political violence, as there are in many places in the world, but overall the people I’ve met have been overwhelmingly are peaceful, warm-hearted, community-minded and generous.
So, what’s going on here? Well, I’ve delved into the spanking research and it’s a morass of spurious scientific conclusions and the debate is often clouded by emotion. Spanking has been attributed (often erroneously, it turns out) to everything from delinquency to mental illness to lower cognition. But there’s nothing all that definitive because choosing to use corporal punishment correlates with a lot of stuff which is difficult to disentangle – for example, stressed out, depressed mothers or children with pre-existing behavior problems. So, if the data show long-term negative impacts associated with spanking, it’s impossible to know if it was the spanking or the stressed out mom or the already present behavior problems which have caused the long-term outcome.
You can’t very well divide parents randomly into 2 groups and ask one to spank their kids and the other not to and then look at what happens to the children. So, it’s hard to truly know what the true impact is.
But one study, looking at inter-ethnic views of spanking and its long-term effects shows that if a culture views spanking as normal – basically, if it’s what everyone does – kids aren’t damaged by it as much. In African American communities or in American Conservative Protestant communities spanking is the norm. And for those children it does not lead to more aggressive behavior later in life. In fact, spanking correlates with lower levels of aggression in those communities even as it correlates with higher levels of aggression in other communities. The authors note in African American communities spanking has been a “legitimate expression of parental authority” and even an expression of love; whereas for whites, spanking is more taboo and often triggered by anger.
Another study compared ethnic Norwegians with ethnic Sami, a people who view spanking as normal and acceptable. Among Norwegians, physical punishment was linked with anti-social behavior. Among the Sami, there was no such correlation.
I guess this is a way of saying: in parenting, culture matters. It matters even in how we process, learn from and experience physical pain. It matters down to our nerve endings and brain development. I find that astounding.
None of this, I should mention, should be taken as an endorsement of spanking or hitting your children. Even if spanking is less likely to lead to aggressive or anti-social behavior in some contexts, there are plenty of reasons to choose not to spank your children: (1) Other methods are just as effective and probably more humane, (2) spanking can teach that violence solves problems and (3) once you start spanking it can be easier to escalate into hitting out of anger or frustration.
I should also point out that there is a range of physical punishment even in cultures in which it is socially sanctioned. Some physical punishment is clearly beyond the pale, and no one can condone that. But most of the world does some kind of spanking. This is changing slowly, but is still the case. I suppose my point is, it’s nice to know that these children might not be experiencing quite the state terror those of us in the West often assume comes with childhood corporal punishment. And it’s also a good reminder that it takes more than a parent or two to raise a child.
For more info see: