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Hitting Mania

In 1999, 894 São Paulon schoolchildren aged 7-15 years (49% boys, 51% girls) were involved in research carried out by the Child Studies Laboratory (LACRI), University of São Paulo. Trained pairs of postgraduate researchers visited the schools to administer questionnaires for 7-9 year olds, 10-12 year olds, and 13-15 year olds. The questionnaires were designed to survey the kinds of corporal punishment the children were subjected to in the past and the present, who this was inflicted by, the reasons for the punishment, and the feelings and opinions of the children. They involved completing sentences, multiple choice questions, discursive answers, and drawings, resulting in both quantitative and qualitative information.

Childhood voices - children aged 7-9 years
Children were shown five pictures of adults hitting children in different ways and asked "What do you think about this way of treating you?" and "Who does this to you in your house?" They were then asked to draw two pictures, the first showing how they feel when their parents treat them this way and the second showing how they are treated at home if none of the pictures represented their experience.
The three most frequent punishments for boys were spanking (41.92%), smacking (41.51%) and ear/hair pulling (36.79%). For girls, the three most frequent forms were smacking (32.76%), ear/hair pulling (27.59%) and spanking (24.14%). Others included pushing/kicking, socking and punching, and slipper paddling. Most punishment is inflicted by the mother, with the mother appearing as the punitive figure in 58.7% of the drawings produced, though perpetrators also included fathers, brothers, uncles/aunts and grandparents.

Children described their feelings when beaten by parents in a variety of ways (although pain and sadness were considered by the children to be the most important):

  • pain - including physical and psychological pain, "pain in the heart", "pain from the inside"
  • fear - "I get very frightened"
  • discomfort and uneasiness - "bad", "evil", "shame"
  • cynicism - "when my mother goes out I start laughing"
  • forced joy - "merry because I get nervous"
  • voice - "nothing"
  • alienation - "I don't know how I feel"
  • false joy - "merry because I don't cry", "happy because it doesn't hurt"

The children used words like "evil", "wrong", "bad", "very violent" and "don't like" to describe their opinions on corporal punishment, although a small minority also expressed favourable opinions.

Boyhood/girlhood voices - children aged 10-12 years
The questionnaire asked children did they used to be beaten at home, were they still beaten at home, and were they never beaten at home. Children were then asked to complete the sentences "I was or am beaten this way ..." and "When this happen(ed) I feel (felt) ...", with similar tasks for those who are no longer beaten. Those who had never been beaten were asked what they thought about this. The final task was to draw a picture of the person who carried out the beatings.

More than half the boys and girls reported having been beaten at home, more commonly for boys and reaching over 75% for boys from low socio-economic backgrounds. Between a quarter and just over a half of those who reported having received corporal punishment were still being beaten, again most commonly boys from low socio-economic backgrounds. Slipper paddling was the most common method of punishment, used alone or with other implements such as a belt, cane, wire, broom, switch or other household item. The mother was the person most commonly inflicting the punishment, particularly against girls. The father as punisher was mentioned in just over one in four of the drawings produced, more commonly in punishing boys than girls.
Of those who stated how they feel when physically punished by their parents, 48.6% described feelings of pain, sorrow, sadness and anguish; 17.2% expressed rage or hate, 13.6% both. Fear and shame were mostly expressed by girls and usually also involved repentance and guilt.

Forty-five children (17%) had never been beaten, and had strong views against corporal punishment:

"I believe hitting your child is wrong"

"I think it's an injustice"

"I think that mothers and fathers who hit should be beaten the same way"

"I think it's very ugly to be beaten"

"I have never been beaten. I think this is a crime against the child"

"It's a very bad torture for small and big children"

"Hitting a defenseless child is being a coward"

"Hitting is useless, it should be talking"

"If you hit a lot, the child will get more and more scared of you, when you'll hit him he might run away from home and stay on the street, that's why children get more and more scared"

"I think parents should not hit their children since it doesn't do any good, it just stimulates children to hit their own child after they grow up"

Adolescent voices - children aged 13-15 years
Children were asked to write a composition entitled "Hitting the children: right or wrong?", then presented with a series of multiple choice questions to describe their upbringing.

There was no form of punishment that had not been experienced by at least one child. The most violent and cruel forms - burns, being tied up, being attacked with knives or guns, having their heads immersed in the toilet while flushing, and immersing the buttocks in boiling water - were experienced by those with low socio-economic backgrounds. The most common forms were slipper paddling and belt, ear/hair pulling and smacks, and threat of hitting. Children in this age group seemed to be most usually punished by the father.
Overall, the most common feeling when punished described by those in this age group was rage.

More than 60% felt that hitting children is wrong.

"Last Children's Day my mother hit my arm twice with a broomstick and I couldn't write or swing my arm" (girl, 15 years)

"My father hits for nothing, he hits just to see his child cry" (girl, 13 years)

"My parents talked to me and explained why I was going to be beaten and then they took a belt and hit me, or used a ferule and hit my hand" (girl, 15 years)

"I think I deserved to be beaten because I did many wrong things that my mother didn't like and the worst is that it took me a long time to learn my lesson. I came to understand that it's right to hit just now when I'm 13 years old." (girl, 13 years)

"My mother hits me, but not to hurt me, just so that I'll be a real man when I grow up" (boy, 14 years)

"And since I have been beaten, I've already thought of running away; I've already been punished and I feel guilty for having done some of the things I did. I know today that being beaten brings pain, it hurts. And when I get married I'll bring up my children based on patience and with a lot of love and affection because I don't want them to go through what I went through." (girl, 15 years)

Azevedo, M. A. & de Azevedo Guerra, V. N., 2001, Hitting Mania: Domestic corporal punishment of children and adolescents in Brazil, Sao Paulo: IGLU Editora

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