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Corporal punishment - Phil's Rambling Rants
December 28th, 2004
03:51 pm


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Corporal punishment
There seems to be a meme going around, where you're supposed to post the sentence "Hitting kids is wrong" in your journal and encourage your friends to do the same.  I feel like writing a few words on the subject.

Hitting a child hard enough to do real damage, or frequently, or without a good reason, is abuse.  Abuse is wrong and should not be tolerated.  (Our society gives way too much weight to so-called parental rights (in these cases, the kids have rights, the parents have responsibilities) in abuse cases, allowing parents who have demonstrated they shouldn't be allowed near their children ever again to keep or regain custody, but that's a different topic.)  However, a rare spanking for a good reason is not abuse; it's an important tool, and the fact that we've completely deprived our teachers of its use and have almost taken it away from conscientious parents is a serious mistake.

The real value of a spanking is not in the actual delivery, it's in the threat.  I was pretty well behaved as a child, not because I got spanked frequently, but because I got spanked just often enough that I knew I could be spanked if I got too far out of line and I knew I didn't like it.  I got sent to the principal's office exactly one time when I was in grade school.  I have no memory at all what I did -- my memories of my childhood are pretty dim and fragmented -- but I clearly remember being told to sit on the bench and wait for probably 20 minutes, with nothing to do except look at the paddle hanging on the wall.  When I look back on the experience now, I realize that I don't know if that paddle was ever actually used.  It wasn't used on me that day.  But I sure thought it was going to be, and the thought of it got me straightened out pretty fast.  I don't remember what actually happened when I did see the principal, but I know I was so relieved that I didn't get paddled that I was ready to promise to stop causing trouble and actually mean it.  When I look back on this experience, I realize that the experience of sitting there on the bench anticipating the paddle was much more effective at changing my bad behavior than either any amount of touchy-feely talking or actually receiving a paddling would have been.  But if I'd been a generation younger, there wouldn't have been a paddle in the principal's office at all, and I would not have believed that I was about to get spanked, so I could not have gotten that lesson.  If all I'd gotten was a talking-to, I probably would have been back the next week, and once I started down that road, who knows where I might have ended up?  The paddle on the office wall was what it took to scare me straight, and I'm glad today I got the lesson.

So, the bottom line is that kids have to learn that there are limits to their behavior and there are times when they have to stop what they're doing and listen to what their parents or stand-ins for their parents are saying.  When they learn that without any sort of physical punishment, that's wonderful, but they've got to learn it, and the threat of physical punishment, made real by actually administering it when the threat isn't enough, can be effective when gentler methods aren't.  Does that mean that it's always OK to spank kids, or that we shouldn't worry about it?  Certainly not.  It's very easy to cross the line from sensible use of spanking to abuse, and that's why it's tempting to just say never do it no matter what, but like most (dare I say all?) other simplistic solutions to complex problems, that's not nearly as good as understanding how and when spanking can be the right thing to do.

I've never had kids of my own and I don't plan to, and some people who have may think that's a good thing in the light of what I've said here, but that's what I believe and I thought I'd say so.

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(4 comments | Leave a comment)

[User Picture]
Date:December 28th, 2004 11:10 pm (UTC)
On the one hand I agree; on the other, almost any basically good, virtuous person will overreact at some point, will hit harder or longer than they mean to, responding to things that are happening in their personal lives rather than administering appropriate punishment to a child. Both I and one of my brothers each remembers a time - a single time for each of us - when dad crossed the line into child abuse. It made a fairly profound impact on both of us.

There is no good way to qualify when someone has crossed that line. To make sure to prevent it, the simplest method was to disallow teachers the use of the paddle.
[User Picture]
Date:December 29th, 2004 01:37 am (UTC)

Re: Corporal punishment

i'm hard-pressed to think of many occasions where hitting a child shows anything but the failure of imagination on the part of the adult. it doesn't teach anything i would want a child to learn. the one exception is when a child hits somebody else -- that's when hitting said child with slightly more force seems appropriate in making zir feel right then and there what it's like.

all my life i've been able to teach limits of behaviour to animals without hitting them. i am pretty sure i could do so with children as well, who can, after all, be reasoned with after a certain age, which broadens the possibilities almost endlessly. i certainly seemed to manage when left to rear my brothers for some years, and that was without having been given the authority that should go with responsibility. i expect better from people who, as parents, have that.
[User Picture]
Date:December 29th, 2004 01:56 pm (UTC)
The phrasing and attitude I've often heard and espoused is that it's the noise, not the pain.

Spanking is not so much a means of punishment as it is a way of getting attention. A loud "pop" to the well-padded (diapered and trousered) bottom of a two-year-old will often get them to stop what they are doing long enough for other behavior modification efforts to be introduced.

To say that this should be abolished because of the potential for abuse is a little extreme - if you think about it, any effective means of behavior modification can become abuse when taken to the extreme. Timeouts in dark locked closets? A "talking-to" which becomes humiliating and offensive?

In the school system where I was grew up, two rules in place to prevent teachers from using the paddle ("the Board", as we called it) in an abusive fashion seemed to work well:

1) No corporal punishment could be given without another teacher as witness.

2) The teacher who determined the punishment was not allowed to administer it.

All this said, the important thing is to recognize when it is no longer an effective behavior modification technique. Each of our kids was different in terms of the effectiveness of spanking - one wasn't fazed by it at all, while another would start crying as soon as you looked at her cross-eyed so it wasn't ever necessary.

It is a tool among many others, not a solution.
[User Picture]
Date:January 1st, 2005 02:25 pm (UTC)
This is always one of those "hot button" parenting issues. But I've stayed firmly on the "no spanking" side of things in spite of a few times when I felt desperate enough to spank but realized that it was exactly that - desperation and lack of control. There are parents who spank and their kids come out fine (whether in spite of or because of is left as a personal decision you'll have to make after reviewing the evidence I guess), there are also kids who get spanked who have serious esteem issues, confusion, lack of intrinsic self control and other problems depending on the seriousness of the hitting. Like it or not, sugar coat it or not, aruge in favor of it or not, and really, I'm not saying that all parents who spank are bad - but spanking is hitting.

I am a firm believer that as a parent I should try very very hard to live as an example to my children and that means that I try very hard not to hit them and then turn around and say "no hitting!". I think that although it can be harder, there are better ways to work through discipline issues and help children learn limits.

I highly recommend the book "123 Magic". It really was a life saver for us. We read all the wonderful Dr. Sears books, and that ilk, and honestly, I love them, I agree with them, and then I can't make it all work when push comes to shove - but 123 Magic is very simple and very effective. The beauty of it is that it is so easy to remember in the throes of a crisis! There's more to it than this but the overall rules are "No talking, no emotion". The idea is that you are the parent, you are already in control as is your job, you don't treat children like "little adults" and try to rationalize or explain, but you don't yell, scream, or otherwise emote at them either, you just matter of factly count them ("That's one.") and when you get to 3 - time out. Anyway - it's a good system and at least one father I know who had real problems with his first set of children because he lost control, lost his temper and spanked too hard is finding it to work like a charm.

I am always torn on "behavior modification" techniques because on the one hand, they can work so easily and effectively at times and on the other hand (to quote Jeannie Oakes) "...the benefits are temporary and the long-term consequences are negative." One of the teachers interviewed in this book Teaching to Change the World says this about using behavior modification systems in her classroom: "...most importantly, I think I'm still waiting for my students to respond from a more intrinsic perspective that I believe should come from their desire to learn and be treated with respect."

Having said all that - parenting is the hardest job in the world and I don't claim to have perfected it, when push comes to shove you gotta think carefully, try things out, and use what works for you. I think what is key is that a parent (or teacher) be reflective and willing to admit a possible need for change.

Thanks for bringing up an interesting discussion.
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