The New Republic has an interview with a child psychology expert about the damage inflicted by corporeal punishment. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I grew up in a home and an environment where corporal punishment was the norm and not the exception. Because the Adrian Peterson story is so high-profile, I think there’s a big conversation about how the African American community views corporal punishment, but as the Washington Post notes, “Most races spank their children, especially Southern whites who are fundamentalist Christians.”
My parents are Southern white fundamentalist Christians, and we grew up in a working class community where nearly everyone else was a fundamentalist Christian and about 65% of the population was white. I don’t think I can recall a single person I knew who didn’t get spanked as a kid. I also went to school for twelve years at a tiny segregation academy* that was not parochial, but still had teachers who felt comfortable reading Bible stories in class and taught Creationism as a competing theory to evolution. There were 32 kids in my graduating class and no black students. Corporal punishment was doled out as a response to any sort of misbehavior and the principal would even spank 16 and 17 year old guys who were on the football team.
So spanking was part of life–at school, at home and throughout the community. I got spanked and slapped across the face as a kid, and so did my brothers. And the fact that my parents did this made them no different from anybody else’s parents.
That said, I can tell you right now that if or when I have them**, I will never hit my kids. I don’t believe in it morally, philosophically–and I don’t believe it works.
My moral stance is simple: violence is not acceptable, except in self-defense. If you can get an assault charge for slapping an adult, the only way to justify doing it to a child is to argue that children are not fully human and deserving of the same rights. Which is, on some level, what many people believe, whether they choose to put it in those terms or not. But people who are Christian fundamentalists are never going to buy a moral argument because it’s too easy to assemble some literalist reading of Old Testament lore to justify the convenient notion that children are second-class citizens and property of a sort.
So while I don’t think it will necessarily persuade anyone I grew up with, I want to address the efficacy point. One of the reasons why corporal punishment is so prevalent is because people really think it works. Enough spankings and bad behavior stops. And sometimes, it does with small children, but not because the children in question have re-evaluated their moral calculus with regard to bad behavior. If it curbs or induces any sort of behavior, it’s simply because the child is afraid of being hit in response. That’s not character-building, and it does not teach respect. It only teaches fear and response, something that all animals with a working autonomic nervous system can understand, but which has nothing to do with right and wrong.
For me, it had that fear-inducing effect, up to the point where I was mentally and emotionally developed enough to expect that if an adult did something on my behalf, or to me, they should be able to provide a good reason for it. And I wanted to know what those reasons were very, very early. As in pre-school early. Very often in our household, those questions were verboten. And the older I got, the more questions I had. Why can’t I do this? What is the point of this? Why this and not that? “Because I said so” was my mom’s favorite phrase and if I asked again, it was not uncommon to get a slap in the face as a response. The question itself was ‘disrespectful”, that the answer was none of my business, and so on. I think the intended effect was to make me stop asking the questions altogether, which didn’t work. My mom also did this, typically, in a moment of exhaustion and frustration, usually with things that had nothing to do with me. She would get very distraught and upset, and I didn’t understand it because I just wanted a reason, and so I would stand there like some sort of tiny Alabamian Dr. Spock protesting quietly that what was happening was not logical. In retrospect, it was probably deeply irritating to her, but I still don’t think it warranted a palm to the side of the cranium.
As a result, especially in elementary school and my teen years, those kind of exchanges made me feel like the adult in the relationship, the one who was staying calm and being reasonable. And I began to suspect that the questions were verboten because she didn’t have an answer. (Thankfully, that sort of discipline never worked on me because a natural distrust of “I said so” authority and willingness to ask verboten questions are pretty much necessary qualities for journalists.) I also think part of the culture where I grew up made it difficult for adults to just say “I don’t know” in response to anything.
When I got a spanking it was still usually for something that was perceived as “talking back”, which is notable for the fact that I was generally a very quiet kid and didn’t do a lot of talking. But even then, I had a lot of strong opinions. My brothers got spankings for more conventional infractions. My dad did most of the paddle-to-the-rear spanking, usually beginning with a big This Is Going to Hurt Me More Than It Hurts You speech. (Offers to trade places out of consideration for Dad’s feelings were never accepted.) If that did any damage, I think it’s that for years I had a sort of Pavlovian response to anything that induced shame–and not just guilt-induced shame, either–a physical tensing up as if waiting for a spanking. If you train a child to have an animal response to a certain stimulus, sometimes those neurological wires get crossed. I wouldn’t just have that response when I fucked up, I’d also get it when someone had humiliated me through no fault of my own, when I felt shame for any reason (including bodily/sexual shame). Sometimes I still have that response, and at 37 years old, it’s just not healthy.
It’s not debilitating either, so I’m not going to suggest that I’m woefully and irrevocably damaged by my parents’ use of corporal punishment. I am not.
But do I think that sort of discipline made me a better, more productive person? No. I was a pretty well-behaved kid to start with–straight A student, generally obedient to my parents, not a rebellious child. Inasmuch as my parents are responsible for that–and they were, to a large extent–they shaped it via conversation and creating models for me with their own hard work and ethical examples. They taught me empathy by teaching me to be considerate of other people and trying to do that themselves in every day life. There is not a single thing that I learned to do right because someone threatened to hit me if I didn’t do it.
So it annoys me when I see people trying to make the case that corporal punishment made them a better person. The best case is that maybe it did, but frankly, they have no way of knowing that, because there’s no alternative experience to compare it to. The worst case is that it absolutely didn’t, and they suffered for it in ways they’re unaware of. For me, I can point to very concrete negative effects that went well beyond my childhood.
As Philip Larkin wrote,
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats…
Generally speaking, I don’t think my mum and dad fucked me up very much. Waaaay below average on the fucking up your kids continuum. (They were great! Five stars! Would totally be their kid again!) They were good, committed parents who worked their asses off for us and sacrificed their own needs constantly to ensure that we were taken care of and happy. And I am quite sure that I will fuck up my own kids (if or when I have them) in all sorts of new and innovative ways they would never even think about.
But, there is this: I will never hit them.
*If you don’t know what a seg academy is, read this. The short answer is that they’re cheap private schools that were created in the 60s to accommodate working class white people who didn’t want their kids to go to integrated schools. Most of them have been technically integrated now, including the one I went to, but I don’t think the environments are exactly welcoming to non-white people. I had some very positive experiences while I was there, and some great teachers–and I plan to write about that at some point, too–but I don’t see any point in whitewashing the bigotries.
** Yes, I do realize there are probably a million things I’d vow never to do as a parent–including “because I said so’s”, no babysitting with Disney movies, no refined sugar, blah blah blah. This is different.