In the 21st century, should we be hitting children as just another form of parental discipline?
And what do we mean exactly by “hit?” A pat on the backside to extra-emphasize to a 3-year-old not to run into the street in front of cars? Or the methodical creation and application of a “switch” with which to raise welts on a 4-year-old who apparently was overly aggressive with one of his siblings?
Minnesota Viking running back Adrian Peterson had the latter in mind, apparently, in disciplining his son over the summer, injuriously enough that it came to the attention of law enforcement (and now, resoundingly, the media). He actually sounded unapologetic about it in his early responses, and found plentiful support from among the majority of the American population that still believes corporal punishment is at least sometimes appropriate in disciplining children.
Later, Peterson offered this official “statement” that sounded contrite notes about the physical damage he claims he inadvertently caused, while still defending his right to inflict corporal punishment. It’s worth quoting a key passage of that statement, available in its entirety here, for the insight it sheds on this all-too-common practice and the way it passes from one generation to the next:
I have learned a lot and have had to reevaluate how I discipline my son going forward. But deep in my heart I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives. I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man. I love my son and I will continue to become a better parent and learn from any mistakes I ever make.
Peterson is here seen equating his “success” as a football player, that being overwhelmingly his primary identity, with being a “successful” man and father, a claim that is problematic on its face when beholding the specter of a bleeding and helpless 4-year-old whose father felt compelled to resort to physical violence to adequately control his son’s behavior.
The deeper underpinning was that even though we were manipulating kids like mad, ultimately, they would come to their own decision (or not) to get their behavior in line, without the threat of an adult’s physical violence to force the issue.
But complicating the matter is this: Could it be true that Peterson may not have survived the mean streets of his youth without the “whuppins” he received to keep him in line?
We can’t know this one way or the other, but human psychology is a complex beast, and it may be that given his circumstance—the particular amalgam of culture, family, neighborhood and the individual psychologies, including his own, of the actors in his childhood drama—the specter of physical discipline helped keep him from going off a deep end into criminal life and worse, rather than becoming a widely renowned and respected sports hero.
And to become a “success,” in the way that he obviously has been.
A “success” who also beats his 4-year-old son so badly that it reportedly leaves “bruises on his back, open wounds on his legs, cuts to his scrotum, and defensive wounds on his hands.”
And who nevertheless says he loves his son deeply.
Which I have no reason to doubt is true.
And which still makes him a perpetrator of a long cycle of violence against defenseless children, which we can only hope this media firestorm can help consign to the eventual death it deserves.
One of my early teaching jobs was with “severely emotionally disturbed” (the nomenclature of the times) children who knew a thing or two about getting under an adult’s skin. Expert hell-raisers, chair-throwers, biters, screamers, schemers and interrupters, they were also sweet kids a good part of the time, who managed to garner huge amounts of attention with their negative behavior.
Our teaching strategy was to turn what was often the kids’ attention-seeking methods upside down, paying no mind to their outrageous behavior while lavishly rewarding all the other students who were staying on task and ignoring the miscreant. It worked more often than not, though sometimes the price to be paid for ignoring a child’s escalating behavior was a massive amount of after-school cleanup. (“Will they REALLY ignore me while I’m squirting soap all over the floor and throwing Mr. Hidas’s favorite coffee cup across the room?”)
Ours was a classic behavior modification approach, attempting to reward positive behavior, ignore negative behavior, and stack the deck so full of goodies for the positive (candy! gold stars! attaboys! free time! impromptu trips to the park!) that no reasonably conscious person, which these kids certainly were, would think of not getting on board with the program.
The deeper underpinning was that even though we were manipulating kids like mad, ultimately, they would come to their own decision (or not) to get their behavior in line, without the threat of an adult’s physical violence to force the issue. I should note here that most of the kids undoubtedly had been beaten by their parents and other guardians over the years, and it had, self-evidently, failed to be effective. That’s when the parents came to us, desperate.
The ability to exert self-control in the self-interested pursuit of rewards does, after all, mirror how life more or less works as we come to our own most effective ways for how to navigate it to our advantage. Absent this self-control, someone else’s authority—a parent’s, a cop’s, a judge’s, a prison guard’s—looms over us, and when we drill down to the deepest dimension of this power, we realize it is the power of life and death itself.
When I raise my hand or belt and prepare to strike you, I have the power to inflict pain, and more pain—and if you continue to resist, more still. The logical full expression of this power is physical annihilation, let us be frank. That is the warning behind every act of physical violence with which one overpowers a child or anyone else. That is the threat it carries.
Is that a threat we want to implant in a child’s consciousness?
One renowned Christian couple who buy fully into the Old Testament’s multiple encouragements to beat children (Proverbs 3:11-12, 13:24, 19:18, 20:30, 22:15, and 23:13-14) cite the absolute need to “break the child’s will,” leading to his or her “complete and joyous subjection.”
The willingness to employ ultimate, remorseless power is the requirement for raising civilized children, the authors say in their book and website, “To Train Up a Child.” Among their many ghastly training “recommendations”: parents should “tempt” infants (as young as four months old) by putting an appealing object within reach and when the child reaches for it, the parent “lashes” him or her. (The “suggested” switch for a four-month-old child: a branch 12 inches long and 1/8 inch wide. Rulers, belts and tree branches are recommended for older children.)
This practice is said to prepare children to learn the valuable lessons from the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden, primary among them not to reach for shiny baubles, no matter how alluring, if the stern parent figure warns against it.
Let us agree that this is odious and immoral, and in an effort to forestall any gray areas that might allow for such extreme discipline, Sweden clearly led us down the right path as the first nation in the world to ban corporal punishment of children altogether in 1979. More than 30 others have since followed in their wake. Tellingly, Sweden has also done away with the death penalty.
Funny, how little we hear about those crazed, out-of-control Swedes and their chaotic culture.
Truly, corporal punishment is unnecessary when so many other proven behavior-shaping methods are available to us in this learned age. Parents can be strict without being violent, demanding without being abusive. The choice is never between physical punishment and no punishment at all.
But here’s something else: I have known many—many!—parents who spanked their children, not, at least to my knowledge, viciously, but with some regularity, as a behavior management tool. I suspect you have, too. Methodical whacks on the butt, an occasional slap, and the threat of those always looming. And their kids turned out…O.K. Not perfect, because no one is, but well-adjusted, happy, contributing members of society.
Might they be psychologically stunted in some subtle fashion or other as a result of it, even though we will never be able to trace that stunting back to the spankings they endured? Perhaps. But the point is that corporal punishment, within certain bounds, of course, would not appear to have had a catastrophic impact on their development and function as human beings.
This is anecdotal, I know, but the data on whether corporal punishment is effective or damaging is sketchy and debatable, and while common sense and anecdote tell us millions of well-adjusted people are raised without it, so are others who have known a butt swat or face-slap or two or 10 in their lives, and seemingly gone on to become emotionally stable human beings.
My own parents would occasionally threaten us with some physical consequence, and I got a handful of the swats and slaps mentioned above over the course of my childhood. (Junior high gym coaches brought a few more.) It never seemed serious and I’m not aware of any lingering effects from it, but my parents did keep it as a kind of trump card for rare occasions. And it never involved actual suffering or pain.
I have never hit my own daughter, but that is hardly to say I haven’t been tempted a time or two. (Oh gosh, make that 10 or 20…) On those occasions, I have had to consciously suppress the urge, sometimes at the cost of the lip I was biting down on with unconscious force.
So it’s not that I don’t understand the urge—who doesn’t, living with a teenager? But I long ago decided to set my intention not to use physical punishment, in the trust or belief that it ultimately can’t be good for my child or me or our society at large. I figured there is already too much violence in this world, I should not contribute more to it, and all told, disciplining with violence probably does not help produce self-directed children with a healthy balance between respect for authority and holding authority accountable.
It’s no surprise that conservatives—politically, culturally, religiously—support corporal (and capital, let it be noted) punishment by greater margins than liberals. Most surveys coalesce around the 70 percent mark overall in America who support corporal punishment, with conservatives at 85 percent and liberals perhaps surprisingly only 20 points lower. Conservatives cite it as central to household and societal order, liberals as unnecessary and oppressive to a child’s independent spirit.
And speaking from my own personal and general perspective, the respective camps’ children tend to exemplify their upbringings: those reared in conservative households tending to be respectful, obedient, and conformist, those from liberal households more free-speaking, rebellious, and individualistic.
These have always been the basic poles of conservative/liberal, the continuum along which we all must find our way according to our sensibilities, upbringings, and the influences that manifest themselves to us over our lives. The tension is always and ever more to value the best of our traditions as conservatives would have us do, not move too precipitously to overthrow the old order, while also evolving ever forward with the new knowledge and progress that liberals are always seeking.
Corporal punishment is just one more facet of this never-ending civilizational struggle.
You have to get two minutes into this video before the song starts, but Loudon Wainwright’s reflections and regrets about hitting his son are the most powerful artistic statement I have ever come across on the subject.
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Rotating banner photos at top of page courtesy of Elizabeth Haslam, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lizhaslam/
Crying boy statue near top of page by Jeremy Brooks, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jeremybrooks/
Father and daughter walking photo by Jenny Downing, Geneva, Switzerland, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenny-pics/
“Warning Children” photo by Cosey Fanni Tutti, United Kingdom, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/coseyfannitutti/
Bubble boy photo by Magdalena Roeseler, Zug, Switzerland, some rights reserved under Creative Commons licensing, see more at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/magdalenaroeseler/