I don’t know how you come down on the incarceration question… whether it’s for rehabilitation or revenge…. But I was beginning to think revenge is the only argument makes any sense.
— H.I. McDonough, Raising Arizona
When Elana and I were courting — when we still thought having a baby was a long way off — we had a lot of discussions about raising kids. These discussions were sometimes very abstract, and sometimes they involved very aspirational notions, such as, “Wouldn’t it be nice to raise our kids on a farm?” (We do not own a farm.)
Elana was not just fantasizing, however, when she said she would never spank her kids. She was very serious on this point. “I’m not telling other people what to do, but no child of mine will ever be spanked.”
I was more on the fence. On the one hand, I had been spanked, quite a bit. I was spanked on the behind with open hands and flyswatters and once, when I was an amazingly mouthy pre-teen, my dad even smacked me across the face. I don’t believe corporal punishment did harm, in and of itself, to my relationship with my parents or to my self-esteem or my ability not to murder people. Lots of my friends were spanked, and none of us has grown up to so much as get in bar fights, let alone become violent criminals.
It was just part of the culture of parenting in Georgia in the 1970s, and we all generally looked back on our spanking episodes with amusement. The angry parent brandishing flyswatter or belt or kitchen spoon seemed to us, in nostalgic hindsight, a little cartoonish — inexplicably but hilariously violent, to be avoided if possible, but not abusive.
On the other hand, I couldn’t think of a single time corporal punishment had changed my behavior for the better. On the contrary, during a ten-year epic battle with both parents and teachers over whether I would do homework and participate in class, the desire to avoid spanking never encouraged me to do my homework or become a better student, in part because blowing off homework felt good now, while a spanking might or might not feel bad later.
This is not to say spanking had no effect: I did still want to avoid the spanking, if possible, and so I became a rather inveterate liar. I don’t know if I was a good liar — you’d have to ask my parents about that — but I lied prolifically, because, after all, the only real proof my parents had of my misdeeds came at report card time. (This was back when teachers and parents weren’t in such constant contact.) This was my childhood logic: lie all quarter long, sleep in class, accumulate months of homework-free days, and then deal with the spankings at the end of the term. It was a horrible, guilty, harried existence… but I did get out of a lot of math homework.
I know a lot of people claim that spanking did them no end of good. The story usually goes something like this: “When I got out of line, my dad would wallop me good. He did it to teach me a lesson, because he loved me. And I learned to be a good person and work hard and respect my elders because of it.” Now, I don’t deny any part of that except the “because of it.” I’m sure your dad loved you and wanted to teach you how to be a moral and responsible person, and I’m sure that you did, in fact, learn to be a good person from this dynamic with your dad. I’m just not sure the spanking magically transmitted the morality into your bloodstream via your asscheeks.
My guess is that the fact that your dad was attentive to your moral progress and strove to correct you when you were wrong was the determining factor, not the spanking itself. The spanking was a kind of placebo ritual, which your dad, following generations of good dads before him, performed for your benefit, carefully explaining its purpose. He could have performed other rituals, of course — he could have told you to say ten Our Fathers, for example, in order to cleanse your sin away and discipline your soul. But spanking is a good ritual for kids because it’s physical and easily understood, and because kids would like to believe that the memory of the pain will remind them not to transgress again in the future.
This turns out not to be true, of course, because children have notoriously poor impulse control even when they’re under threat. But the child wants it to be true, and the dad believes it, and so they perform the ritual together. The child is reassured that his father cares about his behavior, and he strives to be worthy of his dad’s approval. That, I suspect, is why spanking “works,” to the degree that it does, sometimes, for some people.
But if the child doesn’t care? If he would like your approval but not as much as he’d like to skip homework/tease his sister/paint the dog blue? Or worse yet, if he sees the thing you’re asking him to do as having no value, as an arbitrary demand on your part? Well, then you’re nowhere, I think.
Science bears me out, by the way, on corporal punishment encouraging kids to lie, and lie big. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman, in their eyebrow-raising book on scientific studies of parenting, Nurtureshock, write about Victoria Talwar, a child psychologist who studies lying. (The relevant chapter can be found here; scroll down past the text of the NPR story to find it.) Talwar does variations on an experiment in which children are given an opportunity to illicitly peek at the answer during a guessing game. Her interest is not just in which kids peek, but which kids lie about having done so.
Increasing the threat of punishment for lying only makes children hyperaware of the potential personal cost. It distracts the child from learning how his lies impact others. In studies, scholars find that kids who live in threat of consistent punishment don’t lie less. Instead, they become better liars, at an earlier age — learning to get caught less often.
Talwar did a version of the peeking game in western Africa, with children who attend a traditional colonial school. In this school, Talwar described, “The teachers would slap the children’s heads, hit them with switches, pinch them, for anything — forgetting a pencil, getting homework wrong. Sometimes, a good child would be made to enforce the bad kid.” While the North American kids usually peek within five seconds, “Children in this school took longer to peek — 35 seconds, even 58 seconds. But just as many peeked. Then they lied and continued to lie. They go for broke because of the severe consequences of getting caught.”
Even three-year-olds pretended they didn’t know what the toy was, though they’d just peeked. They understood that naming the toy was to drop a clue, and the temptation of being right didn’t outweigh the risk of being caught. They were able to completely control their verbal leakage — an ability that still eluded six-year-old [American children].
In other words, corporal punishment, which is painful, gives a child a strong incentive not to get caught, and the more intense the punishment, the higher the stakes and the greater the lie. (In my own experience, I found this to be true even when the crime in question was lying itself.)
So I’ve seen little evidence that spanking curbs bad behavior (except inasmuch as it’s perceived as a sign of love and attention), and I’m pretty sure it gives kids a good, concrete reason to lie.
But for myself — I won’t presume to speak for other parents — there’s a more powerful reason not to hit my kids. I think it makes me a worse person.
In 1996, right after I graduated from college, I spent a few months in Florida watching my sister’s kids while she finished her degree and studied for the MCAT. As an uncle and the only adult looking after three children under 6, I was granted guest spanking rights. And occasionally… I exercised them. Here are my observations:
- I spanked when I was pissed off. It was not that I spanked as part of a coldly rational system of discipline; I spanked when the kids were out of control and I wanted to re-assert my authority.
- Once I had opened the spanking can, I found that I went to it sooner and sooner.
- This, of course, meant that the kids got inured to it. Having been spanked, they knew it was unpleasant… but also that they could endure it. I would have had to hit them MUCH harder to get their attention — to the point of bruising, probably, which I think we can all agree crosses some kind of line.
- Spanking and yelling didn’t end misbehavior, but their mom’s attention and affection at the end of the day generally did.
Corporal punishment felt, to me, like bullying. And it was very attractive for precisely that reason — because bullying annoying people is very satisfying. But it didn’t feel like a good way to get respect from the kids; in general, the spanking came about because I had already lost their respect and obedience.
Which leads me to my final thought on corporal punishment: it doesn’t teach either the parent or the child anything about how to live in the world. At no other time in life — in no other relationship — is a beating an acceptable way to solve a problem.
If you work in an office, you can’t turn your subordinate over your knee. If your friend takes up smoking, you can’t smack his hand with a ruler. I’ve seen many, many parents and other caretakers take a child by the arm and say, “You wait ’till we get home. You’re gonna get an ass-whupping!” But what would you think of a man who said that to his wife?
I was on the subway once and the woman across from me smacked her tiny son repeatedly for crying. I didn’t do anything about it, because in our society there’s a sacred line drawn around parenting decisions. I felt I lacked moral authority, and that if I tried to stop her other people in the car might turn against me and defend her.
But consider the case of Rep. Bob Etheridge, who slapped around two college students who tried to ambush-interview him:
But what if the cameraman, or the young man he dragged around by the arm, had been his 7-year-old son? Why should we consider it assault when a grown man hits another grown man but good discipline when a grown man hits a defenseless small child? It doesn’t matter that the child “deserves” it or “might learn from it.” Lots of people deserve an ass-whupping; that doesn’t make it the right thing to do. Or as Chris Rock once put it: “You know what they say: ‘There’s no reason to ever hit a woman.’ Shit. There’s a reason to hit everybody — just don’t do it. There’s a reason to kick an old man down a flight of stairs — just don’t do it.”
To hit my son, I think, would be to allow myself a particularly satisfying way of ending an argument — one that I’m not allowed in any other sphere of life — for no better reason than that I’m bigger and the law permits it. I think that kind of indulgence softens your character and leads to moral weakness, as surely as sugary drinks soften your teeth and lead to cavities. It makes you a person less able to deal with the real world, and it teaches your kid that you are periodically a failure of an authority figure whose only recourse is to violence.
That’s not the relationship I want to have with my son. When he looks back on our life together, I know he’ll see a huge number of failings, places where I could have done better. But I hope he won’t see me as an ineffectual buffoon who felt he had to use force to get someone a sixth his size to stop throwing french fries in the McDonald’s.