A Nation of Abusers


A flashback:

The first semester of our last year of seminary, my first wife and I lived in a one-bedroom apartment in married student housing next door to a fellow student and his wife. We had a toddler, they had two pre-school aged children. They were friendly Texans, and we got along well at first. One day I was visiting them when I noticed a paddle hanging on the wall. The husband saw my eyes on it, and chuckled, making a joke about how nothing else would get his kids' attention. I may have smiled weakly, nervous about sharing my real feeling about hitting a small child with a piece of wood. I know I became uncomfortable with these people from then on.

As the semester progressed, both our child and their children had trouble sleeping. One night I was up with Sarah, who would not go down in her crib, when I heard screaming from next door--probably what was keeping her awake. I could just make out enough of the words to realize our neighbors were trying to get their children to stay in their beds--which were in a windowless closet.

Time went on, and the screaming became a nightly event. One day I opened our door to head down to the university center and check my mail, and found the neighbor's little boy bent over in our doorway, his father about to give him a whack with the paddle. I can't remember how I reacted; I hope I asked him to please do that in his own space, but I'm afraid it's more likely I gave a fake laugh, closed the door, and stayed inside to fume.

The screaming escalated, and finally we approached the head resident about it. He brought the couple down to his room so they could see their accusers. We had betrayed them, it seems, a far worse thing than what they were doing. They may have been issued some kind of warning. We moved to a different room, so as not to have to awkwardly bump into them as often, everyone graduated, and we left Texas, glad to be done with that savage place.

Flash forward to the present, and a cascade of stories about professional athletes beating their wives and children. Even as the outcry leads teams to finally suspend these abusers, it is met with a chorus of defenders, people who insist that spanking is as American as baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie.

Of course, that's what they once said about slavery, that "peculiar institution" that included whipping among its many tortures.

Americans spank their children with frightening frequency. Conservative Christians insist (see the "Proverbs" paddle above) that spanking is actually mandated by the Bible. Christian parenting guides go into great detail about how to lovingly spank a child into better behavior. There are still hundreds of school districts that feature paddling as part of their discipline programs.

I attended two of those districts in the 1970s. When my family moved from New Hampshire to Idaho, my parents were shocked to learn that Idaho schools still paddled misbehaving students. They had talks with the principals of every school their sons attended, informing them that if there was to be any corporal punishment, it was their job, as our parents, to carry it out. Just call them up, and they'd take care of it.

Even so, I found myself on the wrong side of a paddle in the seventh grade. I was obsessed with getting a good grade in biology, but had come up against a mental block that had me worrying I might not: metric conversions. Idaho's answer to teaching the metric system was having students memorize conversions between metric measures and their English system equivalents, most likely so if we ever did come across those socialistic metric thingies, we could turn them back into good old pounds, bushels, and pecks. I struggled with these numbers, just couldn't get them down. On the day of the test, knowing I didn't have the numbers, I surreptitiously slid my textbook into my lap, found the page with the conversion chart, and began filling in the numbers...

Only to have my test paper ripped out from under my pencil and loudly torn in two by the teacher. He'd caught me. He stomped back to his desk, sat down, and stared at me as I stewed in my own juices, humiliated, knowing my test score had just turned into a zero, and my grade would suffer accordingly. After several minutes, he got up, walked down the hall, and came back to the doorway with my math teacher. He beckoned to me. I got up, my knees weak, and walked out into the hall. "I can't believe it," whispered the math teacher on seeing me. "Do you know what this means?" asked the science teacher. "It means I won't be on the honor roll," I sobbed out. He ordered me to bend over and touch my toes, then delivered five hard swats.

I went back into the room, tears flowing from my eyes. I pulled a notebook from under my desk, and wrote an apology letter, dropping it on his desk as the bell rang before stumbling out of the classroom. I cried through math class, cried all the way home. When I came through the door, still in tears, my mother asked what had happened. "I cheated on a test and got paddled," I sobbed.

There was hell to pay, but not for me. My parents could see I'd more than learned this lesson. They had a session with the principal, called the teacher on the carpet--he'd never paddled anyone during the period I had science, had never even warned us it was a possibility--and extracted from him a promise to let me take the test over. I studied hard, got an A, and made it on the honor roll.

You could say that the paddling taught me a lesson, but considering the reversal that followed--my apology letter had also made a difference--what I really learned was to be contrite when caught misbehaving. I also acquired a psychic scar that is still with me. The physical pain was, I think, gone by the time I got home, though the following year, the math teacher who'd witnessed the paddling was himself suspended for leaving bruises on a student he had paddled.

And what about my parents? Their deal with all those principals was, after all, that they would do the punishing if their children deserved it. And they did. They believed in spanking, but used it sparingly. I only remember being struck twice by them, though there were probably other times when I was too young to remember. On one occasion, it was just my father being fed up with the bickering in the back seat, reaching back and slapping me on the leg. In his anger, he hit me harder than he intended. I was wearing shorts, and the slap left welts on my bare skin. I remember that moment almost 45 years later for the pain it gave me and the embarrassment I felt over having a hand print on my thigh.

I understand that, psychologically, it's been demonstrated the only thing children remember of corporal punishment is the pain and humiliation, that it is an exceedingly inefficient way of teaching behavior. I've also heard many an older adult reminisce about the good old days when kids learned how to behave at the receiving end of a hickory stick, a ping pong paddle, or a hairbrush. I can imagine the threat of such violence keeping some children from being naughty in the same way jail time may be a deterrent--and yet American prisons are filled to overflowing, and children continue to misbehave, even in homes where tannings are still dealt out. Sometimes all it takes to get a misbehaving student to shape up is a warning that I may call his father about how he's acting, and the fear in his eyes tells me that if I do, he'll be lashed by more than a tongue when he gets home that night.

You've probably guessed by now that I'm not in favor of spanking, paddling, or any other method of beating the naughtiness out of a child. It doesn't accomplish what it's intended to, it does lead to children growing up to be as abusive to their own offspring as their parents were to them, and it infuses what should be a nurturing relationship--whether it's parent-child or teacher-student--with violence. With all that said, I also understand where the urge to be violent originates. My children could, at times, drive me nuts, exhausting every benign weapon in my parenting arsenal; and still they would bicker, whine, complain, refuse to help with the simplest of chores. At other times they could be lovely, of course, but when they weren't, I found myself at times driven to the point of yelling at them, slamming my hand down on tables, struggling to get their attention, and thinking that maybe a swat on the rump might not be such a bad thing. I gave into that urge a time or two. If I did, I know it accomplished nothing but to further alienate that child from me. It may have broken up the fight, but it also left both child and parent emotional wrecks, weeping over what it had come to. I think that's how it was with my parents: for all their protestations to the contrary, they really didn't believe in hitting us, and only did when they were driven over the edge by our behavior.

For spanking to be delivered lovingly and correctively, it would have to be administered by a serene adult who can calmly explain why this must happen, who then did so with restraint. There may be parents who can consistently spank in this way, but I've never seen one. All the spankings I've witnessed were doled out with at least a dollop of anger--which eliminates any possibility they were rational, intentional, or systematic.

In fact, outside of sado-masochistic relationships, the very notion of loving corporal punishment is an oxymoron. It's violence, using it on a child or spouse is a form of abuse, and we of the 21st century should give up pretending it's anything but that.

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