Socially acceptable?

December 5, 2011

This week I have been reading with interest about Milli Hill’s (aka The Mule) petition to ask Amazon to stop selling books that advocate the physical abuse of children.  The petition has garnered over seven thousand signatures at the time of writing, as well as considerable press coverage in the States.

In posts on her blog, Milli Hill quotes some shocking passages from one of the books she is objecting to, leading to strings of comments from outraged readers.

Whilst smacking and corporal punishment are still used by many, it has been banned in many countries, and the level of interest Hill’s petition has attracted seems to indicate an encouraging trend towards smacking being socially unacceptable.

However, all this makes me wonder; will there ever come a time when other common parenting practices, now widely used and accepted, will become socially unacceptable?   How much evidence against them does there need to be before we start to turn our backs on certain methods?  How much neuroscience needs to be presented to us before we can ask Amazon to ban books by the likes of Gina Ford?  How many psychological studies before we can ask Channel 4 to stop airing ‘Supernanny’?

Sadly, I think perhaps it’s not just a case of evidence, it’s what speaks to people clearly.  It’s what’s in your face. The idea of physically harming a child is abhorent to many.  But what exactly is it we are objecting to?  The main objection seems to be that it involves inflicting pain on a helpless dependent that looks to us for love and care.

So this leads me to the question, what is there to object to in the use of, for example, ‘time outs’ to control a child’s behaviour?  And I came up with pretty much the same answer.

Physical pain is not the only type of pain.  There’s emotional pain too. Time outs, and its many variations, are used as method for changing a child’s behaviour because many deem them effective.  This perceived effectiveness is the result of pain inflicted on the child.    Gordon Neufeld, Ph.D., and Gabor Mate, M.D. write in “Hold On to Your Kids, “The withdrawal of closeness….is such an effective means of behaviour control because it triggers the child’s worst fear – that of being abandoned.”

Also, many would argue that consistently causing a child emotional pain like this is worse than smacking.  We know the physical pain inflicted by smacking does not cause any lasting physical damage, yet emotional pain, at such a vulnerable age, can have far reaching effects.  So why do we object to physical punishment but not to non physical punishment?  The absence of physical pain or visible injury does not make a punishment OK.

Parents may be starting to turn their backs on some old methods, but the replacements being peddled by parenting ‘gurus’ are not alternatives, they’re just a variation on the same old theme.