A Family Tradition
Is violence a family tradition?
By Andrew Willis
Robbyn Peters Bennett, LMHC, CMHS is a psychotherapist, educator, and child advocate who specializes in the treatment of trauma-related mental health problems resulting from the effects of early childhood stress, abuse and neglect.
She is also the founder of StopSpanking.org, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public on the dangers of spanking. In her spare time she is on the steering committee of The U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children.
Robbyn is currently producing a documentary, The Last Resort, about the cultural practice of spanking children. You can find more of Robbyn’s work here: stopspanking.org
I caught up with Robbyn and we talked by phone.
Robbyn, you are a psychotherapist, an educator, and a child advocate who specializes in the treatment of trauma-related mental health problems. You are a leader in the movement to stop childhood trauma. You are producing a documentary, and you’ve just given a TED talk that already has over 10,000 views. How does that feel?
A TED talk is supposed to be the speech of your life, right? It was such an amazing opportunity to share with my community and I was really worried that people would shut me down, that I would come across as self righteous and judging.
During the process of memorization, and practicing with others, and being coached it became really clear to me that people are interested in the story behind the data. Personally, I love research. But at the same time, the topic of spanking is so incredibly personal and so many of us have such a hard time talking about it. We feel judged and ashamed.
It is a shameful thing to admit that you have hit your child and to realize that the research is suggesting we may have even negatively altered the development of our child’s brain! That is a loaded message. I am incredibly grateful to my coach and my TEDx team who encouraged me to be as open about my own story as possible.
I have five children, all grown now, and four grandchildren. When you are a grandmother, your perspective changes. You aren’t worried about what people think, you don’t carry the fear of judgment and frankly you are less overwhelmed in general. As a grandmother, it is easier for me to slow down and be with my granddaughter, for example. Things don’t ruffle my feathers as easily.
I’m certainly not terribly concerned with her being well behaved or having the approval of strangers in a grocery store! I’m more concerned that she feels good and is happy and is connecting to me and learning. As a result, she is pretty well behaved.
Mothers in our culture do not have sufficient support. They are doing too much on their own and they fear the judgment of others. As a result, they are too preoccupied with the child’s behavior and are not able to slow down and really enjoy being with their children. Instead of being present and attuned, they are rushing around doing too many things at once. Mothers are stressed, and that makes for irritable kids.
Robbyn you are clearly passionate about what you do. Where does your passion come from?
That is a difficult question to answer.
At a fundamental level, my passion comes from love but also from an overwhelming urge to fight injustice. As a therapist working with people who struggle from the effects of trauma, I have seen a great deal of suffering.
There are some people in this world who never experience joy. Never.
Can you imagine how that must be? How is that fair?
Therapy is incredibly helpful, but it doesn’t fix everything. Some of the brain damage from early abuse is enduring, and many people have to learn how to deal with chronic suffering while avoiding passing the trauma on to others. So of course, the question is, can we prevent child abuse so people don’t have to work so hard to feel good later on?
Often people just throw their hands up, and say, “the world is messed up.” Many people feel resigned about how poorly children are treated, but accept child abuse like it is a natural and unavoidable phenomenon, like taxes and death. Well, I don’t accept child abuse. I don’t think it is natural. I believe child abuse is maladaptive.
What is natural is our innate need to relate and to connect to each other.
I was spanked and I spanked both of my children. I got through it. Most people who were spanked as children seem to get through it OK? Doesn’t it toughen kids up?
Yes, spanking can toughen people. It can harden them to pain of others. Spanking is the seed of bullying. Some people can pull out the weed of bullying, but for others it just grows. Many sophisticated, successful, worldly, accomplished people rely on bullying rather than connection to get what they need. Are they OK? The very act of spanking a child disconnects you from empathy. For some, spanking results in serious problems that are obvious. For others, it just establishes an early belief that in some circumstances, causing others pain is useful and legitimate.
Spanking is a precursor to overt child abuse. The research clearly links the two. If you think spanking is OK, you are 3X more likely to physically abuse a child (defined as beating, burning, kicking). If you think it is OK to spank with an implement, this increases to 9X.
How “OK” are we as a nation when 29% of us report being physically abused by our parents as children?
Why do parents keep spanking their children? Is it abuse?
People spank their children, because it is socially acceptable to do so. Children can be very frustrating and if you think striking them is a solution, it is very easy to strike them. When parents understand that spanking is destructive, they usually seek alternatives. But the medical profession has not shared the research or educated the public, and so parents spank because they think it is a quick fix. Hitting anybody is abusive. It is especially harmful to hit your own child, because it damages the emotional bond and it can interfere with brain development. The quality of our emotional bond with our children is fundamental to healthy brain development.
What should America be doing differently to educate parents?
We should be providing parenting education and support, beginning during pregnancy through the first five years. We should educate and support parents in the very way that we have been addressing smoking, HIV education, domestic violence and any other major health problems. There should be posters in hospitals, pediatrician’s offices, head start and preschool programs, and schools warning parents that they should never spank their children, offering resources on better alternatives.
Domestic violence has reportedly dropped by 64% in the last 15 years. We could have the same results on behalf of children if we were to take early development and family violence seriously.
Some countries ban spanking both in schools and at home. Should America ban spanking?
Laws on assault should apply to all citizens. There are exclusions on the books that negate a child’s right to be free from violence. These exclusions are a violation of children’s basic human rights. The legislation should serve to educate and change attitudes. The logical position is that the criminal laws on assault apply equally to all assaults on children, whether they are disguised as discipline or not.
At the same time, you cannot ban spanking without providing support and care to parents to help them learn alternatives. Otherwise, such a law could be punitive and that would not help children or parents. When the law allows parents to strike their children, we are confusing people and suggesting that children need less legal protection than adults. Which in fact is not the case.
35 nations have banned spanking or any other form of hitting of children in the home. The purpose of the ban is to raise the human rights of children and to help end child abuse.
Can you tell us about the Adverse Childhood Experiences study and how that impacted your views?
The ACE study helped me to understand that adverse childhood experiences are at the root of most of our social ills. It also clarified for me the serious nature of family violence. I was shocked how common physical violence was in families, and further disturbed to see how domestic violence and other family dysfunction lay the groundwork for problems that last a lifetime.
Enjoy Robbyn’s TED Talk.
Violence – A Family Tradition
Robbyn Peters Bennett, LMHC, CMHS is a psychotherapist, educator, and child advocate who specializes in the treatment of trauma-related mental health problems resulting from the effects of early childhood stress, abuse and neglect. She is the founder of StopSpanking.org, a non-profit dedicated to educating the public on the dangers of spanking. She is on the steering committee of The U.S. Alliance to End the Hitting of Children. Robbyn is currently producing a documentary, The Last Resort, about the cultural practice of spanking children. Please share her work, and consider helping to fund her documentary. For more information, go to: stopspanking.org