Friday, March 11, 2005

More On Kids and Violence

At dinner the other night, a friend of mine indicated that he thought teachers should be allowed to use violence to control kids. I'm not sure exactly what his overall argument would have been, as the conversation moved past before he outlined it, but that prompted me to say a little bit more about the subject.

While it is true that I have a moral problem with hitting kids or committing other violent acts upon them, the fact is that I don't even have to appeal to morality to make my case against using violence against children. The utilitarian argument fails as well, because hitting kids is completely ineffective in controlling kids or in helping them to grow up as better adjusted human beings.

When I first got married, I discovered that my wife and her ex-husband had almost exclusively used violence to control their children. She hit them whenever they misbehaved, talked back, or acted out. This disturbed me and I told her she had to stop it. Her response was always something like, "The kids are complete terrors now. If I don't smack them when they're bad, they'll be completely out of control."

I spoke with my parents on the subject, and my father said, "Well, you know, all the studies are showing that hitting kids doesn't work at all. It actually makes kids worse the more you do it, and while they don't necessarily improve when you stop, they don't get any worse either."

So, I looked up all the studies I could find and learned that my father was correct. As is often true, our "gut instincts" about how our own species works were completely wrong. The studies indicated that kids who were disciplined with violence became more withdrawn, more antisocial, showed greater incidence of oppositional defiant disorder, committed more crimes, and were more violent with their parents, friends, and classmates. They were more likely to run away, use drugs, have sex earlier, and get pregnant while underage.

Armed with this information, I went to my wife and said, "The kids won't get any worse if you stop hitting them. All the studies show it. If you won't at least stop hitting them for a trial period to see if they get worse or not, I'm going to leave." (Ultimately, I was going to leave if she didn't stop, period, but I just wanted to get her to agree to a temporary cessation because then I hoped then she would stop permanently when she saw the results).

She stopped. I had no better success with them after she stopped hitting them than before; they had never really listened much to me, because once kids get used to getting smacked for being bad they just aren't scared of a disapproving stare (like my father used to great effect on me) or other subtler techniques -- and they quickly become accustomed to and unafraid of being hit, too.

My also wife found the kids no easier or harder to control without hitting. After a few months, she admitted that the kids were no better than before, but also no worse, and agreed that hitting them was not an effective means of control and stopped. To my knowledge, she hasn't hit them since.

Unfortunately, of course, as noted above, while stopping the violence against the kids was a good thing, there's not really any way to make up for the damage already done. There's no way to start over and use punishments like the corner and the disapproving stare once you've escalated to violence. In fact, once you escalate to violence, nothing else works, and violence only works as long as you escalate it, kind of like taking drugs. At a certain point, you reach the limit of the violence you can commit upon a kid without permanently injuring him or her, and then you have exhausted all means of control. Or, as often happens, you end up escalating the violence anyway, and the kid ends up in the hospital or the grave.

Hitting kids doesn't work. Giving teachers the "tool" of violence to control kids is only giving them an option which permanently closes all other options and eventually exhausts itself. It produces kids who are more likely to act out, become violent, or cause disturbances. It accomplishes nothing. Teachers will not get more control of their classrooms if they are given the option of using violence. They will get less.

Even if you have absolutely no moral qualms with society, in the form of parents and teachers, using violence to control children, there is still no good argument to be made for corporal punishment. It produces no positive effects. It creates disobedient children and violent adults. It produces classrooms and homes in which the only way to keep control is to be more violent than the last time until, eventually, the only way to control a child is to kill him or her.

It doesn't work. Only a sadist could be in favor of violence against children given the weight of the evidence of its complete ineffectiveness.


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