Now, just let me say that I’m not some anti-spanking purist. I wish I could say that I’ve never so much as swatted my children on the heinie (although the rare swat is the extent of my version of spanking). In a more ideal world I would never hit one of my kids. But my children just aren’t that good (ha!). However, there is little that sets me off more reliably than people who think that kids wind up in prison because their lives lacked corporal punishment or a proper fear of authority. Idiots think that. Blathering, know-nothing idiots. I’m sure that somewhere in the juvi system there are 10 kids who were simply so spoiled that they thought they should be able to do whatever they wanted to do – including sticking up little old ladies. I mean, some people are born with tails. Strange things happen every day.* But I never met one of these unicorns of the juvenile delinquent world myself. Nor heard tell of one. But I promise you every single kid I met and didn’t meet in juvi had been on the receiving end of lots of spankings. And a goodly number of them were glad to be facing prison rather than their disciplinarian. The reality is that if you never discipline your child they will almost certainly wind up being vile human beings who everyone hates. But they won’t wind up in juvi.
Every time the subject of spanking comes up, I am always amazed at how attached people are to the idea that if you do not hit a small child, they will be terrible people. Just on it’s face, it’s a dumb idea. All children need discipline, of course. But discipline means teaching, not spanking. An occasional spanking MIGHT qualify as discipline. But there are a million other ways of teaching. (Frankly, I find that spanking can occasionally be helpful in getting a kid to stop a particularly noxious behavior. But it doesn’t teach anything!)
Now, I know that some people will insist that spanking does teach things. In fact, I once had a conversation with a man who I really respect where he tried to make just that argument. To demonstrate, he told me a story about the time that he was walking into church and had blithely opened the door without realizing that there was a little old lady behind him who he should have stepped aside and held the door for. As he was about to walk in, his father reached out and walloped him so hard he saw stars and told him to let the lady in before him. “And that taught me to be sure to hold the door and let ladies go in before me.” Now, this person is one of the best people I know. I think his wife is ridiculously lucky. So I said to him, “do you really expect me to believe that if your father had just pulled you aside and given you a stern talking to, you would be slamming doors in the face of little old ladies? Maybe knocking them over in their walkers in your rush to get through first? If your father had just yanked you away rather than nearly knocking you out, would you be shoving moms walking with a cloud of toddlers off the sidewalk as you went by? Really?” Which is the mistake that many people make; they assume that because some lesson got taught with a spanking, it was the magic spanking that did it. Which is silly. At best the spanking means the lesson doesn’t need to be repeated quite so many times.
Of course, many of you have probably rightly surmised that the kids I met in juvi had been on the receiving end of spankings that went well beyond being knocked upside the head. Which is true. These kids had been beaten with belts and extension cords and chairs and fists and sometimes even stabbed. Their “spankings” could go on for many minutes or even over the course of hours. One kid told me how his mom would find an empty parking lot at a nearby forest preserve so other people wouldn’t hear him screaming. Another told of alcohol baths to minimize welting and bruising after being beat. More than one got passed around to different relatives so social service workers couldn’t find them after a teacher saw their bruises and reported them. Kids wind up in jail because they’re spoiled my ass. Idiots. Not only did physical discipline and fear not keep these kids out of jail, it was often a direct contributor to their delinquency. In fact, the terrible discipline problems seen in many inner-city schools can be traced directly to the harsh punishments these kids receive at home.
Now, people who live in poor, high crime areas generally want their kids to avoid going to prison. And just like those idiot commentors on the internet, they believe that spanking a kid and putting a fear of authority into them is a necessary first step. Few people simply enjoy beating children. Nearly always, the sort of abuse that the kids I saw endured started with a parent who understood almost nothing about normal child development and began spanking early and often in order to make sure their kid was brought up right. However, the problem with spanking is that it doesn’t actually teach anything and second of all, the kid becomes immune to it fairly quickly. The first time you smack a kid’s hand it’s a shock and the kid freaks out. The 20th time? A small price to pay for a chance to climb on the counter. So, kids keep misbehaving and parents have to escalate in order for the spankings to continue suppressing the undesired behavior. Which creates a great vicious cycle in which parents become increasingly frustrated and intent on forcing compliance. Since most parents really believe that spanking works, when it doesn’t work they assume that it’s a sign of a really rebellious child who needs a bigger dose of the cure. Or you could do like my mother-in-law did and just go straight to extreme measures to make your kids so afraid that they never act up. In your presence, anyways.** Except that jails are filled with kids raised this way including more than one of my mother-in-law’s kids.
The problem, which carries a warning for those of us who think we can spank without becoming abusive and get the desired results, shows up when these kids go off to school. A child who has been controlled by fear quickly figures out that the teachers at school cannot do anything nearly as bad as what they are used to at home. So once they aren’t afraid, the fact that they have never actually been taught how to behave and why they should (other than to avoid pain) comes out. They start acting up. The school struggles to deal with their behavior. The parents don’t really trust the schools because they have their own issues. Or if they are the sort who will beat the bejeezus out of a kid who acts up, either the kid just learns to stop short of “calling home to mom” offenses or the school officials hesitate to get the parent involved, knowing that it will result in abuse. Then when a kid who is difficult to manage gets on the streets, the gangs often swoop in. They like kids who act out and are so used to getting their ass beat at home that they take their initiation lumps with pride. And they are very upfront about the fact that they will put you in the hospital if you step-out-of-line. Which makes the belt wielding mom look like child’s play to deal with. At which point the mother who started off thinking she was going to keep her baby out of jail loses any control she ever had over the kid. (Obviously issues of trauma, lack of empathy towards others – especially the weak, the normalization of violence and other matters all have a spanking related role to play here. But that’s a book and this is just a blog post. I’m just skimming.)
I want to be clear that I am not claiming that child abuse is universal in poor, crime ridden areas. Or that there is no difference between whipping your kid with an extension cord and a firm hand to the backside. However, both the person who loses control and goes to extremes and the person who just issues a firm hand to the backside intend to deter bad behavior by making its outcome unpleasant enough not to be worth it. In other words, at least at a very minor level fear is being created in order to bring compliance (or “teach a lesson” if you’d prefer to put it that way.). Personally, I am with Herr Einstein: “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” Sure, fear of consequences can work in a pinch. But ultimately our goal is to raise people who actually want to be polite and hold doors and not run around trying to shoot rival gang members or be the playground crack provider, non?
So, that’s the #2 top lesson I learned in juvi. Spanking does not keep kids out of jail.
*Cue 6 year old freaking out
**And there’s the 2 year old hitting someone with a broom. See – I told you I’m psychic! ;p