SALT LAKE CITY — As a child, Joan E. Durrant looked forward to her family summer road trips in her father’s 1960s Starliner.
While she was never spanked or hit by her family, she said her life was put at risk each time her dad turned the keys to his car, unbeknownst to her parents.
“We traveled thousands and thousands of miles without seat belts. We were never in a crash,” she said at the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children conference in Salt Lake City Friday. “We could have been killed so easily so many times.”
In 1959, Swedish Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seat belt and made his invention available to the rest of the world to help prevent fatalities.
"You'd think that everyone would jump on this and everybody would be buckling up. Strangely enough, that's not what happened,” she said, referring to opponents who called the law "an infringement on their personal liberty."
In 1984, New York passed the first law that required people to wear seat belts. And by 2015, 49 states had seat belt laws.
Durrant, a child clinical psychologist and associate professor of family social science at the University of Manitoba in Canada, drew parallels between resistance to using seat belts and resistance to stop corporal punishment based on the negative consequences it has on children.
"At the same, we were riding around in that car … a lot of children were being hit. That was very normative, it was completely acceptable,” she said. “The sense was that if you were a good parent, that's what you did. But just as in the case of seat belts, research started to accumulate.”
Durrant used the example of NFL player Adrian Peterson, who in 2014 was charged with child abuse for hitting his 4-year-old son with a switch. His lawyer later told the New York Times, “Adrian is a loving father who used his judgment as a parent to discipline his son.”
Peterson eventually agreed to a deal and pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of reckless assault, according to the New York Times.
But Durrant said there’s no difference between discipline and abuse.
“This is common and it is time that we stop thinking about these two things as different," she said. “That’s not true, most of what we call abuse is meant as discipline and it can be on a wide range of acts. It's not all hitting … it’s kneeling on pencils, handcuffing kids to radiators, and it’s making them stand in the hot sun … all in the name of teaching them a lesson.”
She said many parents of children who die from abuse had believed it was “effective and completely acceptable to hurt them physically to teach them a lesson.”
Sweden passed the first law banning corporal punishment in 1979, she said. As of 2019, 54 countries have adopted laws banning corporal punishment.
Durrant said research consistently shows that corporal punishment predicts higher levels or aggression, external problems with children, negative relationships with parents, predicts slower cognitive development, weaker moral internalization, internalizing of problems and physical injury.
"You'd think that if we learned that what we were doing was harming our children, we'd stop, but for some reason on this particular issue it's really hard to get people to stop," she said, adding that children have the right to protection, security and dignity.
Durrant said changing laws could help change perspectives on the consequences of corporal punishment. In 1965, half of Swedes approved hitting children, and by 2015, just 8% of parents approved it.
Durrant said she remembers debates about marital rape, which was widely not considered wrong until it was made illegal.
By changing laws, she said, "you redefine that normative act as violence, you’ve changed its facing, you’ve made it … socially unacceptable."
But laws alone won't fix everything, according to Durrant. "You also need a transformation in nonviolent parenting that requires more than just replacing physical punishment with other punishment."
Cheryl Foland, clinical therapist and former supervision officer, has noticed the number of adults in the criminal justice system who were abused as children.
"Working with children and juveniles, children learn what they live. That is their normal. If they are spanked, hit, tortured, whatever the effect, that's what they are going to do because that's what they learned," she said.
David L. Corwin, professor of pediatrics at the University of Utah School of Medicine, said he would like to see Salt Lake City become a no-hit zone."1 comment on this story
"This is an area where the faith community could really work to educate itself about the research and knowledge regarding hitting children and corporal punishment," he said. "And look at alternative forms of discipline and decide whether this is an opportunity for the faith community to take the leadership role in helping parents discipline and work with their children in ways that promote healthier children and more success, rather than carry the risks that are associated with corporal punishment."