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Beating Children Remains Common Worldwide

Cultural differences play a role when it comes to physically disciplining children

Research reveals cultural differences about what seems to be acceptable when it comes to physically disciplining children.
Research reveals cultural differences about what seems to be acceptable when it comes to physically disciplining children.

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Rose Hoban

Thirty years ago, the United Nations ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child - a document that spells out the basic human rights of children, and states that children need special protection and care.

But three decades on, how are children doing?

Pediatricians from the University of North Carolina have taken a look at one measure of children's well being - the extent to which they are subject to corporal punishment and abuse.  

One of the pediatricians, Desmond Runyan, was at an international meeting about a decade ago when he proposed that countries work in parallel to measure the type and extent of child abuse occurring in each place.

Researchers from Chile, Brazil, Egypt, the Philippines, India and the U S  agreed on common methods to measure child maltreatment in their respective countries.  

Cultural differences

Runyan says more than 10 years later, the data reveal interesting cultural differences about what seems to be acceptable when it comes to physically disciplining children.

"Among the things we learned for instance was that in India, slapping a child in the face or head is more common than spanking them," he says. "And in Egypt, 25 percent of the mothers said that they had beaten their child up, which was defined as  hitting them over and over again with a closed fist."

"And then the other interesting things were like the Philippines, the rate of telling people that evil spirits or the bogey man was going to get them, the kind of emotional, kind of threatening to lock them out of the home, was very high."

However, despite the differences in punishment methods, Runyan found some notable similarities.  For example, he found  the education level of mothers impacted how often they resorted to physical discipline.

"The more years of education, the lower the rate of harsh physical punishment in kids," Runyan says. "So that was our major overall finding."

Effectiveness of spanking

He maintains that one of the big problems with corporal punishment - aside from the obvious - is that it just 'isn't effective' at changing behavior.

"The children that were hit were more likely to be misbehaving still after five years than the kids who weren't hit," Runyan says. "It teaches them to be more aggressive."

He maintains there are other more effective tools of parenting that don't include physical punishment, but still correct behavior.

Runyan's colleague at UNC, Adam Zolotor, agrees. He says the research shows that routinely spanking has been shown to result in many negative behaviors as the children grow up.

"Most children that are spanked don't develop those outcomes but some do, and we are not always good at predicting at who's going to develop those bad outcomes," Zolotor says.  "And there are lots of other effective tools of parenting, and I think it's important that all parents have a broad range of tools that they don't have used effectively to teach their children."

Zolotor also looked at the extent of corporal punishment of children in many countries, but he examined what happened in countries which had enacted bans on corporal punishment, or spanking.  

Ban on corporal punishment of children

These types of laws have been enacted in many countries, from Europe to Latin America.

Zolotor found that in these countries, the rates of physical abuse had dropped as the rate of physical punishment dropped.  But, he says, that for a country to pass a ban, physical punishment needs to already be falling out of favor.

"Spanking has to be unpopular enough in a representative government that is politically feasible to pass an anti-corporal punishment law," Zolotor says.

"But then I think that the passage of the anti-corporal punishment law and then maybe the policy, and the media, and the research support that comes with the passage of those laws reinforces further declines in corporal punishment."

Zolotor also examined which countries had ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child and found that only two countries in the world had not signed on. Those countries are Somalia and the United States.

"Some people have said a bit tongue in cheek that it's perhaps because Somalia is a country without enough laws and the U.S. is a country with too many laws," says Zolotor. "There has been in opinion expressed in the political theater that the U.S. doesn't want to pass a law that would leave them accountable to the UN in terms of our own legal framework and protection of children."

He points out that only 24 of the 193 signatories to the Convention have  banned corporal punishment outright.  He says such a ban isn't necessary to signing onto the law.

"It would mean that we would need to be working towards eliminating this type of violence against children," he says.

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