Physical discipline can cause more harm than good
The state Supreme Court has overturned the abuse conviction of a man who kicked and slapped his girlfriend's 17-year-old son.
Parents are given wide legal leeway in disciplining of their children, but the Hawaii law's limits should not be regarded as endorsement of physical punishment. A strong spanking might seem effective but that and more severe lashing could have adverse consequences in the long run.
The state Supreme Court ruled last week that a Big Island man was acting within the law when he twice kicked the buttocks of his girlfriend's 17-year-old son, whom he treated as his stepson, and then slapped him. The boy's neglect of the man's directive to grate cheese for tacos for a Mother's Day dinner prompted the outburst.
That was mild compared to other disciplining of children. More than 150,000 cases of physical abuse of children are reported annually in the United States, resulting in more than 4,000 hospitalizations and more than 800 deaths, according to federal statistics.
A new study at the University of North Carolina found that nearly half of 1,435 mothers surveyed anonymously said they or their partner had spanked their child on the behind in the previous year, and half of those said an object, such as a belt or switch, was used. Previous research has shown that spanking used often is increasingly ineffective in producing the desired behavior, prompting the parent to spank more, harder or with an object.
Hawaii's Supreme Court has found in some cases that parents hitting a 14-year-old daughter with a backpack, a small brush and a plastic tool handle, hitting a 17-year-old daughter above the knees with a belt and slapping a daughter repeatedly in the face, punching her shoulders and slapping her again did not reach the criminal threshold of corporal punishment.
However, a national standard for assessing parenting practices includes, as physical abuse, beating, burning, kicking, hitting with an object somewhere other than the buttocks or shaking a child in his or her first two years.
In the court's opinion, Chief Justice Ronald Moon noted that the Legislature has approved the use of physical discipline as a "parental tool." In the Big Island case, Moon wrote that the boy had shown "disrespect for parental authority," and that misbehavior "warranted discipline."
Parents may take that ruling as a guide for what is legal and what is criminal, but not as a measuring stick for what is best. Such discipline, in excess, has shown to have adverse effects during childhood, as well as adult consequences of "aggression, criminal and antisocial behavior, worse mental health and the abuse of the one's own child and spouse," according to the North Carolina study.