At the end of WWI, the German and Austro-Hungarian economies were on the verge of collapse and children in these countries were starving. Moved by their suffering, Eglantyne Jebb handed out leaflets in Trafalgar Square featuring photos of starving Austrian children. She was arrested and found guilty because the leaflets had not been cleared by the government censors. The judge at her trial, however, was so impressed with her commitment to children that he paid her fine. His donation became the first contribution to the Save the Children Fund, founded in England in 1919. According to Jebb:
“We cannot leave defenseless children anywhere exposed to ruin — moral or physical. We cannot run the risk that they should weep, starve, despair and die, with never a hand stretched out to help them.
International movement for the rights of children
As the war relief efforts wound down, Jebb turned her attention to children’s rights in general. Eglantyne and her sister, Dorothy Buxton, founded the International Save the Children Union in Geneva in 1920 and thereby launched the international movement for the rights of children.
Jebb believed that the rights of a child should be especially protected and enforced. She had a plan for a Children’s Charter and drafted a short document, the first of its kind, that asserted the rights of children and the duty of the international community to prioritize them. Here are the child rights outlined in Jebb’s original 1923 document:
- The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
- The child that is hungry must be fed, the child that is sick must be nursed, the child that is backward must be helped, the delinquent child must be reclaimed, and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succored.
- The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress.
- The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
- The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.
This document, though unenforceable, was adopted by the International Save the Children Union on February 23, 1923 and endorsed by the League of Nations General Assembly on November 26, 1924. An expanded version of the declaration was adopted by the United Nations in 1959 and was a major inspiration for the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child, the world’s most widely ratified human rights treaty in history.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is a human rights treaty that sets out the civil, political, economic, social, health and cultural rights of children. It was adopted on November 20, 1989. Currently, 194 countries are party to it, including every member of the United Nations except Somalia, South Sudan, and the United States.
UN recommendations on corporal punishment
In 2006, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted a new General Comment on the issue of corporal punishment:
…to highlight the obligation of all States parties to move quickly to prohibit and eliminate all corporal punishment and all other cruel or degrading forms of punishment of children and to outline legislation and other awareness-raising and educational measures that States must take.
Cruel and degrading punishment such as “corporal’ or “physical” punishment, whether at home or elsewhere, is defined by the UN Committee as:
- Force intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.
- Washing mouth out with soap
- Forcing swallowing of hot spices
What other countries have done
Corporal punishment is the most common form of violence against children worldwide. Currently, 62 countries outlaw domestic corporal punishment, according to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. Another 27 countries have committed to reforming their laws to achieve a complete legal ban. Governments of 110 states, including the United States, are not currently committed to legal reform in the home setting. Here’s a map showing corporal punishment laws by country.
The detrimental effects of corporal punishment
A longitudinal study of more than 2,500 low-income White, African American, and Mexican-American mothers and their children found that spanking at age one leads to more aggressive behaviors at age two and less sophisticated cognitive development at age three.
College students are more likely to be lawbreakers if they were spanked as children.
A 2009 study showed that children who are spanked have lower IQs.
An important meta-analysis of 88 studies published in 2002 by Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff associated parental corporal punishment with 11 outcomes.
- Immediate compliance
- Decreased moral internalization in childhood
- Increased aggression in both childhood and adulthood
- Delinquent and anti-social behavior in childhood
- Criminal and anti-social behavior in adulthood
- Impaired quality of parent-child relationship in childhood
- Depression and lack of purpose in life in childhood
- Increased likelihood of physical abuse in childhood
- Depressive and alcoholic symptoms in adulthood
- Increased likelihood to use abusive techniques with own children as an adult.
A 2012 study published in Pediatrics correlated a relationship between harsh physical punishment (pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, and hitting) and increased risk of:
- Mood disorders
- Anxiety disorders
- Alcohol and drug abuse/dependence
- Personality disorders
The study concluded,
“From a public health perspective, reducing physical punishment may help to decrease the prevalence of mental disorders in the general population.”
And finally, spanking doesn’t work. Children misbehave within 10 minutes of being spanked.
Spanking in US homes and schools
Despite the international consensus that corporal punishment of children is a violation of their human rights, spanking is common among US parents. Recent studies report that 45% to 95% of US children are spanked each year. US parents mostly spank children under five and do so infrequently, once or twice a month. A 2014 study showed that 30% of one-year-olds were spanked at least once a month by one of their parents.
Poland was the first nation to outlaw corporal punishment in schools in 1783. School corporal punishment is no longer legal in any European country. By 2016, an estimated 128 countries had prohibited corporal punishment in schools, including all of Europe, and most of South America and East Asia.
However, approximately 69 countries still allow corporal punishment in schools, including parts of the United States, some Australian states, and a number of countries in Africa and Asia.
Held on April 30th every year, No Spank Day encourages adults to refrain from hitting children and instead seek alternative methods of discipline.
Alternatives to spanking
- Point out a way to be helpful.
- Express strong disapproval without attacking character.
- State your expectations.
- Show your child how to make amends.
- Take action.
- Allow your child to experience the consequences of his or her own behavior.
- Sympathize with the child. Be compassionate but stick to your decision.
- Give an early warning.
- Give specific instructions. Tell what to clean up, not just to “clean up.”
- Ask your child if you can help.
- Ignore some annoying behavior. Don’t reinforce negative behavior by giving it too much attention.
- Do nothing.
- Tackle one problem at a time. Correct one behavior at a time.
- Use your sense of humor.
- Give yourself time to grow and change.
- Be affectionate.
- Make sure the children are getting enough sleep.
- Use the Golden Rule for children. Do unto them as you would like to have done unto you.
- Convey respect.
- Overlook differences that don’t really matter.
- Don’t do for your children what they can do for themselves.
- Schedule family time.
- Use “I” statements.
- Don’t reward inappropriate behavior.
- Use encouragement and honest praise rather than blanket praise.
- Stop and think before you act.
- Don’t make a big fuss over spills and accidents.
- Acknowledge positive behavior.
- Sometimes just listen and be sympathetic. You can be sympathetic to both sides.
- Be willing to change your mind.
- Say “yes” as much as possible.
- Get support and inspiration as a parent so that you remember you have choices.
- Continue to think of your child as an emotional equal and figure it out.
- Just say “no” to spanking.
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home, and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock, and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Sign up for my free newsletter with my latest posts on parenting, social justice, and healthy living.