When I was six or seven years of age, my step-uncle bashed his wheel-chair-bound wife in front of me, my older stepsister, and his four-year-old daughter, while we slept over at their house for the weekend. My auntie begged loudly, then very quietly, for him to stop, but he kept punching and slapping her until she drifted into unconsciousness. It was merciless and sickening, and I was sure that he would kill her.
Three years later, in 1989, I spent some weeks living with my mother in a women’s and children’s shelter. The place had a welcoming, communal atmosphere, and the fridge was always packed with food. The women often huddled together in small groups, drinking instant coffee and chatting quietly, while the kids played outside or in the common room. My mother explained, after the first day or so, that several of our housemates had escaped from violent men, and that a few of the women were now desperately sad and found it difficult to get out of bed each day – so I should try not to disturb them.
One afternoon a man appeared at the front gate and yelled for his wife and daughter to come out. The gate was locked, but he managed to kick it off its hinges within a minute or two, and soon he was hammering at the front door and making wild threats. While this was going on, several of the women discussed how to prevent the man from dragging his wife away if he broke the door down. But he never got that far. The police arrived quickly, the man ran away, and the duo were ferried to another shelter, in a distant town, later that same night.
I was hit often as a child. My stepmother was the worst culprit. Barely a day seemed to go by without a knuckle on the head or an appointment with the wooden spoon. Occasionally she bit me. I was hit if I forgot to do a chore, or if I glanced at someone in a way that annoyed her, smiled at the wrong time, spoke when I shouldn’t have spoken, or if I mopped the floors or dusted the shelves or washed the dishes carelessly. I developed a keen talent for tidying the house once I realised that nearby objects were among her favourite weapons.
Above all, she hit me twice as many times and twice as hard if I flinched, and jeered at me when I cried. So I learnt how to take a hit without showing emotion.
I mention all of this because violence leave distinctive marks. There are similarities between its various manifestations, but one person’s experience won’t necessarily tally with other experiences, and mine have left the stubborn impression that corporal punishment and other forms of violence are inextricably linked, and that separating them into different categories is arbitrary and, in some cases, counterproductive.
The distinctions we draw between kinds of violence are in large part the product of gender bias, historically expressed in common law rulings that permitted men to beat women and children in their homes, while criminalising public battery and assault. If our courts had not been sexist, there would only be one category of criminal violence. So why do we accept those subcategories now?
In a 2011 poll of more than 4000 Australians, eighty-five percent of parents admitted to smacking their children. Just this month, in a poll of more than 3000 Australians, eighty-four per cent of respondents said that corporal punishment should remain legal. A 2006 survey of 720 Australian adults found that ‘45% of those surveyed believed it reasonable to leave a mark on a child as a result of physical punishment.’ Most parents – mothers and fathers from all social and cultural groups – hit their kids, and most Australians believe that they should be free to do so. Violence is, therefore, an elemental feature of domestic life for most children.
Research into corporal punishment reveals a range of (to me) astonishing details, most notably the fact that toddlers are hit with more frequency than children of any other age. The best three sentences on the topic come from a 1996 paper titled ‘Corporate Punishment in Adolescence and Physical Assaults in Spouses in Later Life: What Accounts for the Link?’:
Over 90% of parents actually do use corporal punishment on toddlers. Moreover, parents who use corporal punishment tend to do so frequently. In fact, 7.5% of the mothers of 3- to 5-year-old children interviewed for the National Longitudinal Study of Youth hit the child during the interview.
The authors refer to US parents in this paper, but the use and social acceptance of corporal punishment is largely mirrored in Australia. This was the general attitude that parents held in the 1990s, and most of their children are now in adult relationships, having learnt that the sincerest forms of love go hand-in-hand with violence.
A more recent real-time (instead of retrospective) study of thirty-six mothers and one father, which was designed to record instances and kinds of parental yelling at children, captured one mother ‘spanking her three-year-old son eleven times for fighting with his sister, prompting a fit of crying and coughing.’ Another mother ‘hits her five-year-old when he won’t clean up his room,’ while others slap and spank their toddlers for minor misbehaviour, like turning the pages of a book before they should.
Decades of research has shown that children who are hit by their parents are more likely to use violence against intimate partners (and others) later in life, yet the categories of violence are kept resolutely separate in legal, social and moral spheres – often with perverse results. A parent can hit their three-year-old daily, for innocuous or imagined misdeeds, without fear of legal or social consequences, as long as they mostly do so inside their own home. But if that same person hits their adult intimate partner with the same proportional force, they are a criminal, and if they hit a stranger, they face serious legal consequences. Now consider how vulnerable and impressionable a toddler is compared with adult intimate partners or strangers.
The absurdities that result from these archaic categorisations are occasionally overwhelming. One prominent organisation whose explicit mission is to ‘prevent violence against women and their children’ (my italics) makes no direct mention of corporal punishment on its webpage at all, tacitly confirming that they do not consider corporal punishment to be ‘real’ violence. A search of ‘corporal punishment’ and ‘smacking’ on the website offers no results, and a lengthy section devoted to the role of parents and caregivers, which includes a short summary of ‘what to do as parents’, carefully avoids saying don’t hit your children.
The same searches on the White Ribbon website provide one hit: a policy document on corporal punishment that reinforces the claims made in this article. It notes that ‘[c]ountries that make corporal punishment illegal have shown some decreases in gendered crime, such as sexual assault’, that ‘[e]xperiencing corporal punishment as a child is linked to later violence against female intimate partners’, and that ‘[w]itnessing or experiencing family violence as a child is one of the key contributing factors for violence against women in our community.’ It concludes:
Based on the evidence presented here, corporal punishment is identified as both a form of violence and as a variable that may influence a child’s later use of violence in adult life. For these reasons, White Ribbon does not condone the use of corporal punishment as a means of discipline.
White Ribbon is not actively against corporal punishment – the language here is cautious and the document is located where few people are likely to stumble across it – but they don’t ‘condone’ or entirely disregard its impact either. I suppose that’s something.
The failure to address the impact of corporal punishment on other forms of violence renders most efforts at violence prevention absurd, if not counterproductive. The federal government’s current campaign against domestic violence is a case in point. The notion that ‘violence against women begins with disrespecting women’ is reasonable enough, on the face of it, until you recall that it is common for parents to strike their children for behaviour that they deem to be disrespectful. If the campaign proves to be successful at changing social attitudes, the immediate impact is likely to be registered on the thighs, cheeks and backsides of children. Under such conditions, it would be a miracle if the rates and intensity of boyhood misogyny isn’t doubled, instead of reduced.
The prevalent use of controlling, coercive smacking in domestic settings by those who claim to love their victims should trigger alarm bells for campaigners against domestic violence, yet it doesn’t. The idea that violence (of any kind) begets violence (of all kinds) is hardly revolutionary – and perhaps unexciting as a consequence – but it still stands to reason, and attempts to prevent one category of violence without seriously addressing its interrelatedness with other categories will have us running in circles for decades to come.