Opinion

Spanking is brutal, harmful and ineffective. Why is it still legal?

7-year-old daughter of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula testifies in court

The 7-year-old daughter of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, at the center of his misdemeanor child abuse trial, testifies in court, Friday, May 3, 2019. Only her voice was allowed by the court to be recorded.
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The 7-year-old daughter of Assemblyman Joaquin Arambula, at the center of his misdemeanor child abuse trial, testifies in court, Friday, May 3, 2019. Only her voice was allowed by the court to be recorded.

Dr. Joaquin Arambula’s life began to unravel when his 7-year-old daughter showed up at school with a bruise on her temple. She told school officials her father had hurt her. Police, who believe his wedding ring left the mark, arrested him.

Last week, clutching a stuffed bunny, she took the stand to testify against her dad, according to The Fresno Bee. His lawyers say she’s making up stories.

Arambula, an assemblyman from Fresno, denies the child cruelty charge. But he openly admits to hitting his children as a punishment of “last resort.” His daughter sees it differently. She told police he regularly becomes violent.

I believe her. And while I have never met Arambula, I feel like I know him. Like his daughter, I was raised in the Central Valley by loving adults who firmly believed in “La Chancla.”

Chancla is Spanish slang for a flip flop, slipper or sandal. In some Latino cultures, this flimsy footwear has come to symbolize corporal punishment. Chanclas can be used to swat your legs or bottom, or they can be thrown.

Opinion

“Many of us, from the moment we could speak in full sentences, already knew the sting of discipline and all it entailed,” wrote Juan Vidal in an essay about “La Chancla” in 2014.

My own stinging memories came rushing back as I read about Arambula’s trial.

Believe me: When it comes to getting a “whoopin,” flip flops are the least of your worries. Belts leave welts. Switches – thin branches plucked from trees and wielded like whips – sting like wasps and tattoo red stripes across your skin.

Don’t forget stress positions, like kneeling (pants rolled up, hard surface) and the “wall sit” (back against a wall, knees bent, arms outstretched).

Sometimes, a child’s attacker loses control and gets sloppy. They flail with a hairbrush, spatula or broom. They shred flesh with their fingernails or rip out tufts of hair. They push, slap or grab at your face.

I’m not a parent, but I can say from experience that child assault is brutal, savage and ignorant behavior.

It’s also popular with parents across racial and cultural lines in the United States. A 2012 survey found that more than 70 percent of American adults agreed that “it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking.”

Smack an adult and you’re a criminal. Beat a child and it’s “discipline.” This, despite the fact that science has determined corporal punishment to be harmful and ineffective.

“We have a double standard for children,” said Elizabeth T. Gershoff, a professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin. “Right now, they do not have equal protection under the law.”

In 2016, Gershoff co-authored a meta-analysis of over 50 years of research on spanking. It found that even mild spanking can cause significant harm, including increased aggression, mental health problems, anti-social behavior and cognitive difficulties.

“The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children,” said Prof. Andrew Grogan-Kaylor, the study’s co-author.

So, why do parents do it?

“People hit their kids to make them obey,” said Lisa Aronson Fontes, Ph.D., a University of Massachusetts Amherst professor who researches family violence and culture. “They hit their kids because they’re frustrated … They hit their children, sometimes with the very best of intentions, but the best of intentions doesn’t excuse physical violence.”

Fontes said a parent’s belief in violent discipline is often rooted in their own upbringing. People who experienced parental violence as children are more likely to spank.

Some believe it helps to make their children “tough.” Since boys tend to get beaten more than girls, this contributes to “toxic masculinity.” It also teaches children that violence is a tool for gaining compliance from others, said Fontes.

“Papa didn’t cuss, he didn’t raise a whole lot of fuss. But when we did wrong, papa beat the hell out of us,” sang James Brown in 1974, expressing America’s fatalistic – and sometimes fatal – embrace of violence against children.

Up to five American children die every day due to some form of child abuse, according to national statistics. Current laws allow individuals to determine how much child beating is “reasonable.” Unfortunately, the definition varies greatly. Flip flops can become fists. Spankings can become beatdowns.

The good news is that there’s a growing movement to ban child assault. More than 50 countries have outlawed spanking. Civilized nations like Argentina, Austria, Denmark, Germany, Israel and Kenya have banned the medieval practice.

Yet it remains legal in all 50 U.S. states, including California. We mandate vaccines and climate action because we believe in science, but when it comes to parental violence we’re basically barbarians.

In 2019, we should criminalize – not normalize – such child abuse. The science is clear. Both the American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that hitting harms children and serves no good purpose.

California should abolish it. But who can take on such a complicated and emotionally-charged social issue?

I nominate Dr. Arambula.

For more information about the movement to stop violence against children, visit the U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children at http://endhitting.org

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Gil Duran is California Opinion Editor for The Sacramento Bee.


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