I consider it a mark of my parents’ humane natures that, as a child past a certain age, I was able to talk them out of spanking me. I hated being spanked. It wasn’t just the sting — it rarely was all that painful — it was the idea that because they loved me, they were hurting me. That always seemed weird. I mean, I understood that if I bad, I should be punished, but bad always seemed somewhat arbitrary. I had this idea that when I became a parent, I would hold a kind of court to determine what had actually happened. Who had done what, because tears and accusations didn’t tell the whole story. And besides that, when my parents did something wrong, nobody spanked them.
Like many kids, I had an elevated sense of justice. I knew when something wasn’t fair. And, yes, I could be stubborn, but only if I thought I was actually on to something. Like brushing my teeth — they were my teeth, in my mouth. Why should someone else force me to clean them by smacking me until I complied? I would resist this tyranny out of principle. And my hair, and my fingernails — those were mine too. Wasn’t it my choice if they looked terrible?
Nobody would spank an unruly adult into cleaning his fingernails. They would reason with him. Look, they’d say. Don’t you think it looks better when those aren’t so vulture-like? And, you know, if they’re shorter, you can play violin and climb trees and catch balls without hurting yourself.
The thing that convinced me to trim my fingernails was a story my dad told about playing baseball. He’d raised his hand to grab the ball from the air, and the ball had passed too high, catching the tip of his fingernail in its flight and ripping it off. Ouch, I thought. Safety first. That I could understand. And after I got cavities in my baby teeth and had to sit through getting them filled, I brushed my teeth religiously. The experience of breathing in decaying tooth dust had convinced me.
Once, in Sunday school, our teacher had us fill out little 3 x 5 cards listing what we thought of punishment. I assume this was somehow connected to the idea of God’s punishment, or else the teacher was running some kind of secret experiment. The question being asked was what form of punishment we preferred. I wrote: talking. When I sat on the couch with my dad, and he explained why it was that I should or shouldn’t do this or that, it made enough sense that I generally complied. I mean, I didn’t want to do bad things; I loved my family, after all. And I didn’t want to put someone else or myself in danger. I remember the teacher being skeptical that “talking” was an actual punishment. And, of course, it isn’t. But it was nonetheless the best method of modifying my behavior. Spanking doesn’t improve kid’s behavior in the long run, at least in their predisposition towards aggression, and it didn’t do much for my actual goodness, insofar as I remember. Spanking just made me more sneaky; I could, after all, devise ways of baiting my sister that would not result in me being spanked but that would really annoy her. And that sort of became the game: annoy her in ways that would not result in my being spanked. You don’t get spanked for laughing. Or for a quick glare.
Spanking doesn’t change a kid’s actual attitude any more than flogging changes an adult’s attitude. It might make them comply with the letter of the law more. It might make them, in a sense, more docile. But all it’s taught is automatic stimulus-response obedience to whatever you decide the law is. There are countless examples of why teaching someone automatic obedience to authority isn’t always the best policy. There has to be reason behind it. Otherwise, it can lead to blaming the chain of command for atrocities, abusive misplaced trust, you name it.
There’s an interesting study, reported by an otherwise conservative news source, finding that spanking is correlated with elevated risk of mental problems. This, of course, doesn’t mean that spanking makes you mentally ill. It could mean, for example, that people who have genetic predispositions for mental illness spank their kids more frequently. Although that’s hardly comforting.
Another study finds that spanking is correlated with lower IQ scores. Which, again, could mean any number of things, none of which are particularly favorable to parents who spank their kids frequently. But to me, it makes sense — if, for example, you are spanking your kids whenever they reach for something you don’t want them to touch, you are training them not to reach for things. As a child, you learn by exploration and mimicry of your surroundings. If you’re constantly slapped for your natural curiosity, then, logically, you’ll stifle your curiosity.
If it’s overdone, of course, spanking can lead to severe physical trauma and even death. That’s extreme, and I don’t know anybody, personally, who spanks like that. I am not so anti-spanking as to think that the occasional level-headed swat when a kid of the appropriate age misbehaves expressly is the same thing as abuse. But neither do I think that spanking necessarily produces better-behaved adults in the long run. Frankly, some of the most terrible people I know were spanked as kids, and I know well-behaved toddlers who have never been spanked at all. And, yes, I know miniature tyrants who have never been spanked as well. What it comes down to is that punishment should be used very, very wisely. You don’t want to send the wrong message to your kids, whether it’s that they get to do whatever they want with no regard to anyone else, or whether it’s that if you love someone, you hurt them when they fail you.
Because I have no children at this point, this is reasonably one-sided. I’m thinking backwards in time, and laterally, into the lives of others, into what I don’t have much experience with. I did discipline my four-year-old brother as a teenager, but I was not allowed to spank him. He had time-outs instead. If he was screaming and throwing a fit, he had them in the garage or the yard (depending on the weather) where I could physically carry him. If you stop screaming, you can come inside, because you’re being way too loud and you’re behaving badly, I would tell him. And I’m not sure if this was actually better than a quick swat, but to my mind, it was an improvement — because a quick swat wouldn’t have actually encouraged him to stop screaming. If someone gave me a quick swat when I was already angry, I would scream louder. Or else I would swat back.