Spare the rod, spoil the child?
The Adrian Peterson case is rightfully focusing attention not just on the National Football League but on society in general and our attitudes toward discipline and punishment.
As surely as genetic factors, those attitudes have become inculcated in generations of people. What’s more, those attitudes can be just as difficult – if not impossible – to change as the genetic/familial influences that help make us who we are.
In the 19th Century and earlier, the beating of children using tree switches, belts, whips and other devices too hideous to mention was common – a way to get “bad” children to mind their “good” elders. We now view such beatings for what they were – vicious, inexcusable cruelty against innocents.
In the mid- to late-20th Century, an attitudinal divide opened between those who advocated spanking (ranging from mild to severe) and those who condemned any type of physical punishment against children.
In the late 1940s, along came a man named Dr. Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician whose book Baby and Child Care (1947), sold like hot cakes, second only to the Bible. Spock’s “No Spank” advice to parents was one of the hot slogans of the 1950s. It spawned national forums and neighborhood debates. Many parents of Baby Boomers took Spock’s advice to heart and stopped spanking. Naturally, that led to accusations of molly-coddling – so much so that the “no spank” dictum was later blamed by some people for the rebellious, anything-goes behavior of youth in the 1960s. The rod had been spared, and the children had turned into selfish monsters, some claimed.
That debate – to spank or not to spank – continues to this day. It surfaces in conversations:
“If you spare the rod, you’ll spoil the child.”
“Spanking can cause trauma in children.”
“That’s what kids need these days – a darned good licking!”
“Spanking does no good. It just makes kids meaner.”
“Some of these kids have it coming! But these days you can’t spank them. They’ll tell their teachers, and the parents will get arrested.”
“When we were young we got spanked plenty of times. Never did us any harm. In fact, it did us a world of good. Made us mind.”
When I was a pre-teen in the 1950s, spankings (using hands or belts) were quite common, at least in my middle-class South St. Cloud neighborhood. So was washing out a sassy kid’s mouth with soap and other milder forms of medieval punishments. Oh yes, way back when I drooled my share of soap bubbles. I also got paddled in seventh grade for disobeying my wood-shop teacher. Such punishments didn’t seem to faze us kids. Water off a duck’s back.
However, looking back, I can now see how cruel were the more severe punishments, with a few neighbor kids now and then showing welts or bruises after being “whupped by the old man.”
I also see now, with the benefit of hindsight, how child spankings or beatings were part of a culture of violence, some of it against women. Many a summer night, we could hear cries and screams from across the street. It was the sound of that husband beating his wife, and we kids learned to block it out with the dismissive remark: “Yup, the Mrs. is getting hit again.” That, far as I know, was the only really brutal example of abuse in our neighborhood. However, there were occasional incidents of lesser abuse we heard about from kids – some husbands shoving their wives, slapping them or punching them.
In my opinion, “whupping” kids should not be excused or tolerated. All it does is model bad behavior and feed into a culture of aggression, the foolish notion that anything not to one’s liking can be spanked, whipped or beaten out of a child – or an adult. Such punishment is typically nothing but a lashing out by someone not in control of their emotions. You can see it in grocery stores when mothers, frustrated by whining or bawling kids, practically attack their children, spanking them with cruel ferocity. I usually think such mothers are the types who never use positive ways to discipline their kids – thus their “screaming brats” throwing tantrums in the cereal aisles of supermarkets.
I think a spank or two on the butt won’t harm children, not at all, but we shouldn’t forget there is a fine line between spanking and whipping. It’s good that people are now re-examining the old rationales and excuses used to justify all forms of domestic punishment and violence. It’s time civilized people learn to spare the rod – to use enlightened methods of persuasion rather than the whip, the fist or the gun.