While I am disheartened by the cultural tolerance of all sorts of violence that remains in the U.S.—and then particularly in my home region, the South—I am deeply puzzled by a distinction between the public discussions surrounding the NFL’s twin scandals so far this season related to domestic violence and child abuse.
In the domestic violence public discourse, one refrain is prominent: “No man should ever hit a woman.” As well, although some people do support a husband’s right to hit his wife (often calling on Biblical passages, however manipulated), that perspective has been given no credible space in the controversy, and domestic violence has not be framed as a debate.
However, in the child abuse discourse, the public and media have embraced the issue as a debate, and those endorsing some appropriate use of physical punishment of children have been given space as credible perspectives.
Justification for spanking or paddling children, and the concurrent claims that those practices can be distinguished from abuse, include two dominant lines of reasoning: one is (again however manipulated) calling on Biblical scripture (“spare the rod, spoil the child”), and another is personal reflection: “I was spanked as a child and I turned out OK.”
Corporal punishment continues to be relatively common and widespread in homes across the U.S. and even legal in public schools in about 20 states, most of those in the South.
That corporal punishment is legal at all in the U.S. is a scar on a country that continues to hold itself up as exceptional, a country that invokes God and Flag as if its people have some moral authority over the rest of the world. But the two typical justifications above simply fail when unpacked.
Biblical justification for all sorts of unjustifiable acts—slavery, most notably, but racists stances as well—certainly make claims that hitting a child can be viewed as Christ-like nothing more than twisted theology.
But the common-sense personal arguments remain pervasive, despite the weight of research that leads Jessica Samakow to clarify:
However, there is overwhelming evidence that physical punishment is both ineffective and harmful to child development. Former HuffPost Senior Columnist Lisa Belkin has argued that the word “debate” should be left out of the spanking conversation, because the science against it is so clearly one-sided.
“There aren’t two sides. There is a preponderance of fact, and there are people who find it inconvenient to accept those facts,” Belkin wrote in a 2012 column.
So I want to focus for a moment on my South—where I spent my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by teaching throughout the 1980s and 1990s in my hometown. Consider for a moment my first-hand account of how children were commonly raised over those four decades, and also consider that the vast majority of these children grew up and “turned out OK”:
- Many of us were spanked, paddled, and even beaten with belts until welts were visible on our backsides and legs. These acts of corporal punishment were also part of our school experiences—large wooden paddles, some with holes drilled in them to make the case more clear. As a student teacher in the early 1980s (and although my university would not allow us to witness or participate in corporal punishment), I was placed with a teacher who, while 6 or 7 months pregnant, would take middle schoolers out in the hall and paddle them.
- Many of us sat in homes and cars while our parents chain smoked.
- During my childhood years, most of us rode in cars with no seatbelts.
- Most of us rode our bicycles for hours a day without wearing helmets.
- And in my South, many of us who were white were raised in homes aggressively teaching us racist and homophobic beliefs, typically grounded in Biblical principles. Once while I was teaching high school English, a student wrote a persuasive essay arguing against interracial relationship. The student’s support was simply stating, “It’s in the Bible.” I refused to accept the essay on the grounds he didn’t have evidence for his claim, and after a few rounds of my stressing that if that were true, he would have to quote and cite his evidence, his father, enraged, asked for a conference. With the student, my principal, and me in the room, the father explained that he and his son had reached out to their preacher who assured them the Bible did denounce interracial relationships, but that he was unable to find the scripture.
I tuned out OK, and so did most of the children who lived these childhoods. But does it make any sense to argue for any of these practices to continue—including hitting children?
Absolutely not. And anyone who does is confusing their own nostalgia (they turned out OK because of these experiences) with the stark reality that they turned out OK in spite of these experiences.
As Jeb Lund examines, those justifying the hitting of children because they were hit are likely dealing not with the credibility of the practice, but their own demons:
The pernicious, toxic and inescapable lifelong effect of being disciplined physically – either to the point of abuse, or to the point that the distinction between acceptable and unacceptable blurs in your mind – is that you almost have to say you turned out fine, just to redeem the fact of being who you are. That you “turned out fine” is the only way to make sense of having once felt total terror or uncontrollable shaking rage at the sight of one (or both) of the two people expected to care most for you in the world. The thought that you might have ended up relatively OK or perhaps even better without all that fear is almost unbearable: the suffering only doubles if you admit that it truly had no purpose.
“My parents spanked me and I turned out OK so I support spanking” has the moral equivalence of “My parents raised me to be a racist and I turned out OK so I support raising children to be racists.”
If you use corporal punishment on your children because your parents practiced it with you, the truth is you didn’t turn out OK. You have failed to learn the lesson that often we must set aside the mistakes of those raising us in order to create a better world, especially a better world for children.