I have enormous respect for National Review correspondent Mona Charen. Today was a low point. I’m not writing this to jump ugly on her but to point out some common cheap shots and shortcuts in the whole discussion of parents and their choice to spank their children.
Here’s her post at National Review. I reproduce all of it, so I won’t be accused of taking things out of context. Key passages are highlighted by me.
Is It Ever Okay to Spank?
Why would anyone defend using violence to teach children right from wrong?
The image of Adrian Peterson’s son’s legs has ignited a welcome cultural conversation. This is unusual. Most of these contrived “conversations” are efforts to take one headline and shoehorn it into a narrative that liberals want to advance, usually about race and racism. Those “conversations” are never truthful.
But the discussion of a four-year-old boy’s wounds has elicited some brutally honest commentary.
Writing on CNN.com, Steven Holmes blasted what he regards as excessive tolerance for spanking and child abuse in the black community. He dispatches the “I was whipped and I turned out all right” excuse. Holmes cites the abundant research showing that “spanking inhibits the learning process . . . It leads to anger, depression, violence and alcohol and drug abuse. It breeds hostility toward authority . . . and spawns other antisocial behaviors.” Physical punishment, he continues “is associated with legions of sullen, angry, violence-prone boys . . . ”
Peterson advanced the “mean streets” argument. “I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents . . . ” Holmes replies: “This may have been true for Peterson. But what also could be true is that the streets may not have been so mean if they were not populated by so many kids who are angry at the world because, among other things, they were spanked.”
Physical punishment is almost as common among whites. Some conservatives defend spanking because they see critics as liberals who seek to undermine authority across the board. Doubtless, some are — and some liberal parenting approaches are enough to make you want to take a switch to the adult! (“Dylan, how would you feel if someone cut your fingers with scissors?”)
But to quote Mother Teresa on the subject of abortion, “Don’t resort to violence.” Of course there’s a difference between a swat on the bottom and a beating with a tree branch or electrical wire. But, frankly, why would anyone defend using violence to teach children right from wrong? We don’t do it with puppies and kittens anymore, for heaven’s sake.
Some research suggests that 66 percent of parents admit to striking their children, and 30 percent of those say they’ve spanked children as young as one year old. Picture a 1-year-old; just struggling to get to his feet; wobbling between the coffee table and the sofa. Is there no way, other than violence, to teach him not to pull the cat’s tail?
This is not to deny that kids can be extremely provoking, and that they are in dire need of limit setting. There is no harder job. When one of our sons was having behavior problems, we enrolled in a course for parents of children with autistic-spectrum disorders. We thought we had tried everything (except hitting of course). We hadn’t. Kids with this condition, we were told, don’t distinguish between good attention and bad attention. Acting out gets the notice they crave, even if it’s in the form of a reprimand or a time out.
One way to cope was to “catch them being good “ and then praise them lavishly. Their need for attention would be filled up with approval. Working toward rewards (tokens for clearing their place, making their beds, putting their shoes in the mud room) that could later be cashed in for prizes helped them plan for the future, delay gratification, and receive positive feedback. Did it work 100 percent of the time? Of course not. Did we sometimes resent having to establish these elaborate rituals for tasks that ought to be simple? Yes. But if we had hit the boy, his already fragile ego might never have recovered.
Studies have also shown that verbal abuse can be as damaging as physical violence. Children who are ridiculed or belittled by their parents, dismissed as “stupid” or “idiotic” just for doing childish things, are as prone to negative outcomes as those who are physically assaulted.
Some parents are abusive because they’re bad people. But many well-meaning parents may be harming their children in the misguided belief that hitting or insulting them instills important virtues, or at least does no harm. They might want to think again.
The first outrage in this piece, abundantly illustrated by the highlighted portions, is making “spanking” synonymous with “hitting,” “whipping,” and “abuse.” They are not synonymous.
I was spanked as a child. As a small child. Simple explanation? My dad told me, “I stopped spanking you as soon as I could see in your eyes that what you had done was wrong. There was no more need for spanking.”
Here’s how the process went. Though I’m sure there were occasional casual disciplinary swats to the bottom when I was a toddler, spankings became official when I could speak and comprehend parental instructions. The first time I defied something I had been told not to do, I was told not to do it again or there would be a spanking. The next time I did it was usually when my dad was at work. (My mother was a notorious “rat.” Wait till your father gets home, she’d say.) We didn’t have elaborate rituals. We had elemental justice. Simple as could be.
He’d come home, there would be a hushed conversation, and then he’d march me up to the bathroom. He wasn’t angry. He was stern. As if he had his judge’s robes on. He’d remind me that I had been told not to play games with the plumbing or whatever it was (once stuffed towels in the upstairs sink, turned on the water, and sent a waterfall through the ceiling) and that he now had to administer a spanking. He always said it hurt him more than it did me, but he was inexorable. He sat down on the closed lid of the toilet and bent me over his lap. He never pulled my pants down. The point was not humiliation. It was the carrying out of a sentence. He gave me three or four stiff spanks. They hurt, but not to the point of actual pain. They stung. There were never any marks. There was no need to look for any.
What there was was sense memory and a conscious memory of the tiny but intensely unpleasant drama a spanking represented. Afterwards, depending on the severity of the offense, the session might conclude with me being sent to my room for a time or a serious faced hug from a loving dad. “There, it’s done. Be good. Okay?” My parents were never shy about praising us. No more than they were shy of making us behave. Discipline is not all punishment. It’s molding. My dad and I were okay in those years.
Okay. Meaning we loved one another despite his occasional disappointments in me. But he was the first one who suspected I was a writer. He read a fourth grade essay of mine describing a calendar picture and he said it was beautiful. Something he couldn’t have done. But he could also do things I couldn’t. He was an artist, a portrait painter, but he didn’t believe in himself. He demanded that I believe in myself. Perhaps too much.
As I said, we were okay back when I was a tadpole.
[btw forget the attempt to pass discipline questions on to cat and dog analogies. In my experience, cats let children do terrible things to them with no retaliation. Up to human parents to stop. Dogs are a different story. Like cats, they never punish children, but I’ve also never known a puppy who didn’t get swatted on the behind when you could catch him in the act. That’s not violence. Like parental yelling, it’s a form of communication. Without it, dogs would never learn to do their business outdoors. The only transferable rule is, don’t use an implement. Only your hand. The hand that both loves and objects. No newspaper swats. The newspaper is never a symbol of love. My dad’s reasoning. Why he scorned belts and switches as well as newspapers. Don’t make young’uns cringe at the sight of newspapers or willow trees. The hand that chastises you should also be the hand that tousles your hair or pets your head. And cats have to be protected from their own perverse behaviors…]
As a tadpole, there were also times when I had to sit in a corner. My mother and the more reliable babysitters were confident in exacting that sentence because the penalty if I attempted escape would be a spanking.
All in all, I doubt if I ever had more than a dozen spankings. And I don’t recall feeling resentful. Before sentence was passed, I always got my say. And my dad listened to the excuses dutifully. But the law is the law, and the rule is the rule. (He really did listen. He told me later he had had a couple of fake spankings based on dubious testimony from my dad’s older sister. You smack the toilet lid and the kid cries out. I never got this dispensation. Always guilty as charged.)
My sister got spanked just one time as I recall. For kicking me in the stomach. But she responded earlier than I did to the idea of right and wrong. And she could cry at a whipstitch.
Does any of this sound like “hitting?” Of course not. To be honest, my dad did hit me once, in anger, when I was long past the age of being spanked. I was maybe eight or nine, and my sister and I had ignored my mother’s deflections about the two or three beers my parents enjoyed of a weekend afternoon in a conversation with my paternal grandmother, who was something of a rigid Episcopalian prig. We laughed and made jokes about opening another beer, which seemed like a lot to us because our Coca Cola rations were normally a single bottle. When my dad got home, he was furious, embarrassed, and completely unfair. Nothing in our experience had informed us that there was anything wrong about adult beverages. Our parents were good people who took care of us every single day. I can still remember him locking me between his knees and staring angrily into my eyes. “Why would you do that?” he asked. I had no answer. Then he punched me in the jaw.
It wasn’t a hard punch. I’ve been clocked harder by sixth grade classmates. But it was his knuckles against my face and I have never held it against him. Not even in the moment. It was a breakthrough moment. My dad is human, vulnerable, not perfect, and what I do can hurt him. I hurt him. I saw it in his eyes. My ego was never fragile. It grew when I knew I had to look out for him the way he looked out for me.
So. That’s hitting. Very different. And a far cry from beating or belting or lashing or switching. (A willow switch is hardly a “tree branch” btw.) But I’m not scarred by it. Or made violent by it. Which leads to some points I feel must be made about the kind of mentality Mona Charen exhibits in her misbegotten piece.
We’ve turned the parent child relationship upside down in the last half century.
A time when children were to be seen and not heard. Transition to today, when you cannot shut them up. All the popular entertainment shows depict children from earliest ages on living in a state of utter contempt for the old, out of touch dinosaurs their parents are. This has led to more personal ruin than anything traditionally stern parents can do.
All children need real discipline, but the need increases the more children’s living environments bring physical dangers into their lives.
So what do you do when your two year old daughter insists on wandering off the curb of your suburban house into the street? Reason with her? Explain why what mommy says has to be obeyed instantaneously? Forget it. What do you do when your two year old daughter insists on wandering the sidewalk in a neighborhood where drive-by shootings are commonplace? How do you establish the simple obedience required to keep them alive? Show them morgue photos or bend them over your knee?
Children under the age of three are not conscious enough to appreciate the blandishments of modern psychology.
They can pick out a snake or a car in a picture book. They can’t imagine being bitten by a poisonous snake or run over by a car. They can’t conceptualize their own death or shocking pain. Do you really think you can schmooze her into appreciating the dangers of wandering into the woods or chasing a ball across the street? Good luck. Probably doesn’t matter in the gated communities of Connecticut. It matters here in Salem on Walnut Street. My wife refuses to drive on Walnut Street because there are little kids squirting everywhere untended. I’d like to spank them myself. I go 15 mph on W Street, eagle eyed and amazed that the newspaper doesn’t have a toddler death every day.
The biggest mistake parents make is treating their children like precious cargo rather than growing humans.
No, they’re not your friends, which is also a huge mistake parents make. But they’re likewise not inert objects it’s your mission to carry and ferry and coddle into adulthood. So tired of the car seat fetish, which begins in the pram and continues to the age of first exposure to marijuana and porn in middle school. It’s all bullshit. Prevent all risk and you create an unstoppable yen for risk deferred. Your job is to be parents, to set and maintain rules, and to make demands on their minds and characters that enable them to arbitrate risk issues from an early age, with a modicum of disciplined intelligence. Kowtowing to children, catering to their whims, cutting their meat, buying them lavish electronics and shoes and clothes, and respecting their usually deceptive privacy is nothing but a cop-out.
What so few parents do these days: Look them in the eye.
Really really tired of hearing contemporary parents discuss their children in the third person while they are present. Equally tired of watching parents talk at their children rather than to them. Amazing that multiple generations of parents who never grew up themselves find it hard to remember that children are sentient, conscious beings very early on. I’ve never forgotten it. You can get their attention. You can talk to them. But you can’t allow yourself to be deflected. They’re great at it. But they concede readily when you treat them like human beings and expect real answers. They may not like it. But they at least get more honest. And sometimes you have to be prepared for the fact that they really don’t care, feel no empathy, have no beliefs, and don’t expect to have meaningful lives. What they learned in the pram with its five-point belts and the objectification of their lives by doting parents who never tried to have a single real conversation with them. Shammadamma. Look them in the eye. Try it. See the person or the shark. If there’s a person in there, try to reach it. If there’s a shark, ignore all the Hollywood blather about “my child no matter what.” Time to save the rest of us from your catastrophic screw-up.
The popular culture proves my prior points. Has for many many years.
My chief exhibit is all the early films of Steven Spielberg, who was obviously raised according to the modern Spockian (Benjamin Spock, that is) principles Mona Charen is still clinging to. He loved to make movies featuring youngsters. All of whom paid no attention whatever to what their parents said. I literally couldn’t stand to watch any of them. The kids always needed to be taken down four pegs or more. And it’s not done. You can see the same culture at work in every single SyFy end of the world movie. Kid who is told to stay home and immediately hits the streets. Kid who is earnestly entreated to stay put in the safe haven or hospital while dad tries to the save the world and instantly lights out to the worst part of the crisis. Inevitable result? Building falls on them and suddenly they want daddy to save them. World nearly not saved because child-subservient dad abandons his post with the fate of earth in the balance to rescue a spoiled brat who never paid the slightest attention to anything he said.
Pretty much where we are as a culture at this very moment.
Without deliberate acculturation and moral training, children default to the state of functional sociopaths. And you can lose them forever by the age of six.
P.S. Multiple outrages in the subject essay by Mona Charen. Most I’ve illuminated. Forgot the final one. The reference by Ms. Charen to Mother Theresa and abortion in this context was inexcusable. Commenters on her piece were eloquent about it. Read the comments. Many of them were spot on.