For years, young people — especially young people of color, those with disabilities and those identifying as LGBTQIA+ — have been subjected to over-policing, unfair surveillance, and punitive and exclusionary discipline in schools. That has pushed some of them out of the classroom and into the criminal legal system in what has become known as the school-to-prison pipeline. Now, as Missouri reinstates corporal punishment, joining 19 other states in making it legal for adults to hit children in schools, young people face increased risk of being exposed to violence at home and at school.
We know that because of the U.S.’s legacy of slavery, racism and sexism, certain students — especially Black and Brown children — are disproportionately impacted by corporal punishment and physical violence. Black and Brown children are more likely to be physically assaulted by police in schools and are also more likely to experience corporal punishment inside their homes. We also know that in Southern states that allow it, children with disabilities are 50 percent more likely to be corporally punished. For many parents and teachers, hitting has long been the norm. But that doesn’t make it right.
The U.S. was built upon an ideology designed to subordinate Black and Indigenous people. Throughout our history, laws and policies maintained a racial hierarchy, ensuring enslaved people were not educated, and erasing Black and Indigenous cultures. Historically, state-sanctioned violence — through the use of lynching, whippings, paddling and hog-tying — was an important tool for maintaining control over and disciplining of Black and Brown children in schools.
By instituting corporal punishment, school districts are exposing children — sometimes as young as 4 years old — to violence. This violence causes long-term damage to the young people who are hit, and it possibly impacts young people who hear or witness their peers being hit (because they are powerless to stop it and because they fear it could happen to them), and the entire school community.
After years of working in community as an educator, a village mom and an advocate, I am disappointed that this issue not only persists, but is coming up again in places that had previously turned away from hitting. I had hoped that attitudes and norms would have changed around hitting children. The data are clear that hitting does not lead to positive results. We wouldn’t tell a child to work out their problems with another child by hitting them, so it shouldn’t be acceptable for an adult to resolve issues with children by hitting or spanking them. What is more, children who are hit — whether in the home or at school — go into “fight or flight mode,” making it harder for them to learn. Children cannot learn in an environment that is violent and unpredictable.
It also bears noting that hitting has been conflated with discipline. Discipline is a teaching tool. Somewhere along the way it became synonymous with physical punishment. But physical punishment puts children in a state of fear. No one can learn meaningful lessons about right and wrong when they are afraid; in fact, they may pick up harmful information about how to respond to conflict when the adults around them model violence.
Further, spanking hurts the relationship between children and adults, or between the person being hit and the person inflicting harm. It also can cause mental health challenges later in life, according to the American Psychological Association. Stacey Patton, a journalist and longtime advocate for parenting that does not reinforce archaic slavery-era discipline practices, has argued that hitting children grooms them for the criminal legal system, sexual abuse, mental health challenges, and a host of other issues.
The evidence is clear. The U.S. must have a serious movement to create and embrace children’s conventional rights. But the U.S. has not ratified a position statement around those rights. If we embraced such rights as the norm, we would set a standard for how our nation treats and interacts with children. Although there is federal legislation aimed at stemming the tide of corporal punishment by offering grants for alternatives such as restorative justice, peace circles, dispute resolution etc., there isn’t a national position statement around the dangers of hitting children. We should however be supporting the work of people like Stacey Patton and also supporting organization’s like mine, the Nollie Jenkins Family Center, Inc.
Hitting children teaches them that “might makes right.” To put it another way, when policies and practices permit adults to hit children, our society is sending the message: “Because I’m bigger or have more power than you, I can hit you and get away with it.” If we send that message in childhood, we will find it harder to tell the domestic violence victim that they do not have to endure abuse that can kill them physically and psychologically. No school district should want to teach young people that people who are bigger than them are entitled to abuse and control them. Instead, schools should teach children and adults alike that conflict is natural and that they can resolve it peaceably.
The question school districts should be asking is: “What tools should we give young people, and what tools do adults need?” We must first embrace painless parenting and painless teaching. For persons who want alternatives to corporal punishment, restorative justice is a great option. Restorative justice looks at how to learn from and make amends for mistakes. It also creates a safe environment for the entire school community and teaches communication skills that will aid young people throughout their lives.
We need a different vision for our children and schools. That vision must include safe spaces for young people. Additionally, the vision for our children’s well-being must include — indeed, start with — what young people want and what the research says is good for them. Children don’t want to be hit. They don’t want to live in fear of being hit. They want other models. We can and should offer it to them.