Strange distinctions

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.


Image: shadows – John Lodder / flickr

Shannon Burns

Shannon Burns is a reviewer and essayist (Australian Book Review, Sydney Review of Books, Music & Literature). He is a member of the JM Coetzee Centre for Creative Practice, and was awarded the Adelaide Review Prize for short fiction in 2009.

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  1. Thank you for a marvellous and very brave article- child abuse is so common and the points you make about it being a consequence of or dependent on patriarchal family structures is really interesting.

  2. Not so long ago, I responded to an article in a local newsletter that called hitting a child “sugar smacking” and it stated “that we all do it”.
    My perspective is simple. If a child gets smacked and it hurts, it is abuse. If a child gets constantly shouted at and is emotionally hurt, it is abuse.
    There is no doubt that the smack and continued smacks to teach wanted behaviours in children have worked, in the short term, for the parents. However, on top of this, I wonder, after the smack, does the parent then check out what an alternative punishment might be? One less hurtful but appropriate in strength and remedy. Do parents have parenting manuals, the internet or respected friends with whom they can discuss how to steer clear of abuse, no matter the sugary labelling?
    I am sure that retorts to my comments can be of the kind that states a mother doesn’t have the time to learn how to discipline their children. Well, hello! Mostly having children is a choice. Bringing up a child surely is worthy of some study. And, of course, one must ask about our own childhood? And whether we were smacked and will we come up with the ubiquitous “It didn’t do me any harm” statement? How do they know? How did they come to that conclusion? Are they experts in happiness? And if so, why are they punishing others?
    Sad to say, I had to make my stand very clear to mothers of the older generations because they simply wanted to keep saying that yes, they did smack their children and considered it ok. Well, it may have passed as ok, 50 years ago but today surely must be a time for change and understanding.
    I am asking questions here not making judgements. A mother is someone whom I respect and admire for their willingness to take on the valuable task of nurturing and teaching a child so that the child may live a full and exciting life.
    The writer of the it’s ok to ‘sugar smack’ a child continued to show her ignorance by denigrating a mother who cruelly hit a child. She queried how someone could do that? I asked her: At what point do you think a sad and lonely mother, whose partner may or may not love them, whose finances may be not enough and who is worried how to juggle her housekeeping; at what point do you think, when she is over tired, maybe depressed or ill, not satisfied sexually or even abused, needs a cigarette or a drink but can’t afford any or steals out of the kids money boxes to pay for them; at what point do you think she will finally collapse, wish her life was, oh so different, has no more love to give her kids except a swift smack or worse, tells them that she wishes they would all vanish and if it weren’t for them she would have a happy life? The point is somewhere in there, she will find the time to smack the kids because she has nothing left to give and their crying will not get to her because she will just smack them some more or lock them up in a cupboard or send them out into the street to “play”.
    Okay that sounds a bit harsh but the ‘sugar smack’ writer did ask and can we judge that it is “truly a disgrace” when we have not walked in those sad and disheartened shoes. Childhood abuse, whether from one end of the continuum or the other, is often repeated, and copied from one’s own world, as a way to deal with frustration in our own unravelled lives, perhaps temporarily, and not only because a bottle of milk has been spilled but because we have not learned how to discipline our children. Perfect lives do not exist but changing our ways can create some wisdom and understanding.
    My comment here is not whether child abuse is allowed and other kinds are not. I totally agree with you about the “strange distinction”. I am more concerned about all the years that have been wasted on not teaching parents how to bring up their children. How to understand themselves and their behaviours within relationships.
    The ‘sugar smack’ writer continues to talk about a ‘cute little tush’ but is unaware of inhibitions being created from using the child’s backside as a punishment tool.
    I can say with all honesty that my sisters and I were not smacked as children. I remember a few promising threats which did not come to anything. Did it do me any harm? Not as a singular piece of upbringing but no doubt as my family were not perfect and had many issues with which they didn’t deal or did deal but not well, my childhood was filled with being taught by their values and their mistakes. It would not have been easy for them. No internet, very few books available. So I could be classed as a lucky child. No smacks, sugary or otherwise.
    Further, the reader of the ‘sugar smack’ article was encouraged to praise any ‘sugar smacking’ that might be observed in public and have courage to approach and condemn another person that is abusing a child.
    The mind boggles. I am no expert in child rearing nor abuse, but I do know hurting a child puts them at risk. A risk that can be erased if we care enough. We do not need labels, or categories to know what hurts the most. Pain is pain. We can learn. Perhaps it should be considered abuse not to know how to care for our children.
    We learn how to do most of the pleasurable activities in life, don’t we? We surely can find a way to teach discipline with love and knowledge and not react from frustration, anger and ignorance. We can learn to notice the warning signs of dysfunctional behaviour and perhaps give ourselves the ‘sugar smack’ to prompt us to change our ways.
    I do not know much about “strange distinctions” but I do know that we all deserve a good start in life without ignorance and being the doormat or punch bag of our parents or anyone else, come to that.

  3. An excellent article on such an important issue. I have written one that covers much similar ground (soon to be published) based on my own experience of violence in childhood and the way the current conversation around domestic violence largely overlooks children. I even take exception to that very phrase “and their children” and the lack of available statistics and information available on children. Thanks for writing this.

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