Spanking is never a good idea: child psychologist

To spank or not to spank? A recent court case in St. John's has brought up the question of how far a parent can go to discipline or protect their child.

It's legal in Canada for parents to spank their children

Child and clinical sychologist Dr. Joan Durrant says there needs to be more support for families in order to eliminate spanking. (Glenn Payette/CBC)

To spank or not to spank? A recent court case in St. John's has raised the question of how far a parent can go to discipline or protect a child. 

The case involves a mother and her partner who allegedly confined the mother's daughter because they believed she was doing Oxycontin and didn't want her to leave their apartment. 

The parents were charged with unlawfully confining or imprisoning the girl. The case is still working its way through provincial court. 

[Spanking] is also linked to depression and anxiety. There are no positive outcomes.- Dr. Joan Durrant

While most parents will never find themselves in that position, it is still quite common in Canada for parents to discipline their children by spanking, and it is legal — at least for now.

Not a good idea

For Child and Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Joan Durrant, who is at the University of Manitoba, spanking is never a good idea.

"There are many studies, probably 50 studies, that show that when children are physically punished, they are at a higher risk of becoming aggressive themselves, because they are seeing a model of that and they are not seeing other ways of resolving aggression and dealing with frustration and so on," said Durrant.

She added, "[Spanking] is also linked to depression and anxiety. There are no positive outcomes."

Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada is known as the "Spanking Law."

Child psychologist Dr. Joan Durrant says spanking can lead to aggression and depression in children. (CBC)

In part it says a "parent or person standing in the place of a parent is justified in using force by way of correction ... if the force does not exceed what is reasonable under the circumstances."

The law itself says that parents cannot just whale away on their kids, and the Supreme Court of Canada has set other limits.

The highest court in the land says you are not allowed to hit a child under two; you are not allowed to hit teenagers; you are not allowed to use objects, such as belts and rulers; you are not allowed to cause injury; you are not allowed to hit a child in the head, and you are not allowed to degrade the child.

Lawyer, and child advocate Mary Birdsell said that even with those restrictions, the law is wrong. Birdsell said no one should be allowed to strike a child, and the law should be struck down.  

Child advocate and lawyer Mary Birdsell says there is no justification for spanking. (CBC)

"Assaulting people is illegal. And I think we have evolved in terms of our understanding of how children interact in relationships well enough to know that we should not be allowed to hit them when we aren't allowed to hit anybody else," said Birdsell.

One of the criticisms of spanking is that when it doesn't work, a parent will get frustrated and use more force.

Durrant said there is a real danger when adults start hitting kids.

"Once a parent starts hitting, if that child should resist, or if that child is incapable of controlling their behaviour, which they often are at young ages, that force can escalate very, very quickly," said Durrant.

"And in Canada, we have about 15,000 cases of substantiated physical abuse a year. And most of those started as incidents where parents set out to simply teach the child a lesson through spanking."

For Birdsell, who is executive director of Justice for Children and Youth, a non-profit legal aid clinic in Toronto, spanking has had its day, and the time has passed for it to be used as a form of discipline.  

"If there were a law that said you can use corporal punishment for the purposes of discipline in the employment context, so for instance, someone shows up late for work, or they are persistently not meeting their performance measures, we would all think that's ridiculous at this point," said Birdsell.

"And I think children should be protected from the kind of harm that results from hitting." 

According to Durrant, about 35 per cent of parents in Canada still spank or hit their children. She said the percentage should be zero.

"At this point there are 48 countries that have passed laws that say we no longer justify the use of physical punishment against children. And Canada is not one of those countries," said Durrant.

But what do you do if you have a child that is out of control, going to the extreme, and punching holes in a wall?

"I'm not saying you just sit down and hug the child if they just punched a hole in the wall," said Durrant.

"You talk about it. Why did it happen? How can we work on whatever problem led to that? And now how are we going to fix that?"

In short, Durrant said parents need to take a deep breath before reacting. They need to talk to their kids, and try to figure out what's going on, even with young ones throwing a tantrum. Are they hungry, tired, bored? She said you have to figure out why they got upset.

Durrant said that parenting is tough, and if spanking is going to be eliminated things have to change.

"I think in our country, we do a relatively poor job of supporting parents and helping them understand how children develop and how they think. Most of us have been hit as kids. The more that we see the use of force to control our behaviour, the fewer opportunities we have to see how you can help a child learn to regulate their emotions."

By spanking them, Durrant said, "We are just compounding the problem."

In an inadvertent way, Justin Trudeau's government has promised to make spanking illegal.

The federal Liberals have said they will adopt all of the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which looked into abuse at residential schools. One of the commission's recommendations is to get rid of the spanking law. 

About the Author

Glenn Payette

Videojournalist

A veteran journalist with more than 30 years' experience, Glenn Payette is a videojournalist with CBC News in St. John's.

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