photo by Wesley Fryer
As a parent, you want to teach each child that he or she has control of his or her body – that no one may touch him or her without permission. And especially that nobody has a right to use a position of power to touch him or her without consent.
So what message are we sending to girls when we spank them? What message are we sending to boys? That if you have enough power and, at least in your own mind, a justification, you can control someone else’s body?
Yes, spanking is a traditional and long-standing practice. But so was dating your secretary or other direct report, once. Both practices could stand a lot of rethinking.
While seeing your employees as a potential dating pool might seem like a holdover from the era of “Mad Men,” the recently public allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Al Franken and many others show that we still have some distance to travel in making sure women’s autonomy is respected – and that those who violate it face consequences in the moment, not years later.
Corporeal punishment, however, has even more ground to cover. In 2016, two-thirds of American parents told the General Social Survey they agreed that “Sometimes a child just needs a good, hard spanking.” That number has dropped in the past decades, but it is still much too high.
Yet it is easy to believe when reading the comment section of the same Wall Street Journal article that cites these survey results. The article more broadly reports on a study attempting to measure behavioral outcomes of children whose parents spanked them compared with children whose parents did not (controlling for variables to the extent possible). The researchers said their data suggested spanking, if anything, increases the risk of future misbehavior.
The comment section, however, was full of readers eager to scoff at these findings. Many writers argued that they, their children or both turned out just fine – often not despite spankings, but because of them.
Do children do fine after being spanked? Sure - most of them, most of the time. I was raised in the era of widespread corporal punishment, and I think I turned out OK. But I also raised two now-adult women, and I am very glad that they have no memories of me ever raising a hand to them in anger.
For the record, I never needed to. I think it is lazy parenting to physically discipline a child, especially when there are so many other creative and grimly fun ways to do it.
When the girls were little, we used to drive to Orlando to visit the city’s theme parks. Sometimes the girls would act up in the back seat, as children will. I would then announce that if they didn’t behave, we would skip the theme parks and proceed directly to the Orlando Oncology Museum. My daughters weren’t dumb. They suspected that there was no such thing as the Orlando Oncology Museum. But they had a nagging worry that there might be, and they had no doubt that if it did exist, not only would I find it, but I would read all the text on every single placard (which is what I do at museums). They didn’t take the risk; behavior immediately improved.
More frequently, bedtime stories were the vehicle through which to encourage behavioral reform. We were usually in the middle of a book at any given time, and one penalty for felony childhood offenses would be to withhold that night’s reading. That was pretty effective, too.
Another surprisingly good technique was simply slowly counting aloud to three. Even when my daughters were old enough to know that nothing much would come after three – except possibly “four” – they would still usually stop arguing or misbehaving before I got there.
Most children are programmed to want to please. Yes, they test boundaries and occasionally cross them. But they want to know where those boundaries are. When those boundaries are clearly defined, life is easier for everyone involved. Of course you have to pick your battles. Sometimes you let your kids get away with the small stuff. But that means that when you really do throw up a barrier, they are more apt to respect it.
No parent needs to hit a child, and no child needs to be hit. In any other context, this behavior would be treated as assault. There is a difference, too, between physical intervention to protect yourself or someone else and the deliberate infliction of pain as punishment. In the places where corporal punishment is still even conceivable in a school, it should promptly be outlawed. Fifteen states expressly permit corporal punishment in schools, and an additional seven do not legally prohibit it. Advocates for laws prohibiting the practice are working for change in most of these places, however, and it can’t come soon enough.
We can’t have it both ways. We cannot raise our children to understand that they must never impose and need never submit to bad touches, when we deliberately inflict bad touch and call it parenting.