Inmates' problems not lack of spanking, but lack of attention from parents

January 25, 2004

Dear Editor:

After reading letters to the editor suggesting that spanking children is the universal preventative for crime and lack of spanking causes crimes, I am compelled to respond. These notions are simplistic and clearly erroneous.

At least 80 percent of my clients in prison were physically disciplined and even abused. Their problems were not lack of physical punishment but lack of love, affirmation, positive guidance, and attention from a caring adult. They did not have the opportunity to model themselves after someone who empathized with and respected others.

The adults in their lives did not or could not provide a healthy and secure environment in which they could develop. As a result, they learned that the world is a threatening and dangerous place. Thus, they grew up feeling worthless, inadequate and afraid. (The bravado of juvenile delinquents is nothing more than a defense against their greatest fear of being weak, vulnerable, and powerless.)


Many individuals in prison learned as children that the bigger and more aggressive person rules. More powerful adults in their lives used and abused authority to exploit and harm them and others who were weaker and more vulnerable. They learned that an adult could act out anger against them because he/she was bigger, but that children could show anger toward the adult without being harmed. Frankly, many prisoners learned as children that might makes right, not because of lack of physical punishment, but because parents failed to recognize that parenting is much more than administering punishment.

Research has shown that physical punishment has limited effectiveness. As long as children are under supervision of the one who punishes, they will conform. However, their behavior regresses when the punisher or the threat of punishment is removed. However, if children's good behavior results in affirmation and rewards, the children learn self-control and develop internalized standards modeled from responsible, empathic adults. This does not mean that children never need punishment. However, those who advocate physical punishment fail to recognize that other forms of discipline are more effective. If the punishments are directly related to the children's offenses, it is easier for them to associate the consequences with their misbehaviors and with explanation understand why their behavior is not desirable.

Many people whom I have known were reared in homes that did not use physical punishment. They developed into fine citizens and are highly functioning and happy individuals. They learned to follow the rules because it was good for them and others, not because they were fearful of being spanked. They learned to care for and respect others because they were respected and loved.

Physical punishment does not make good citizens, nor does the lack thereof, make criminals. As I remind participants in my groups, being a parent is much more than meting out punishment. To be effective, punishment should be sparsely used. Children learn to be good, responsible members of their family, church, and community through modeling adults, especially their parents, and by living with acceptance, love, emotional support, empathy and protection by parents and other adults. Children learn what they live.

Billie Jones Stockton


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