Corporal punishment (Part 1)

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When I started working in the schools as a school psychologist in the 1990’s, I knew that corporal punishment was prohibited in many the schools, but I didn’t realize that people in society (parents) considered it to be abusive, violent, and beneath them.  We had two children at that time, one was three and the other was an infant.  Our first child was well behaved and so we only had the need to use spanking maybe a half dozen times.  My wife and I never gave even an unconscious thought to the idea that spanking our child was violent or abusive.  After all, we grew up in a society where they did it in the schools.  In fact, it was a part of life and growing up.  So what happened?  Why was it now such an evil, unconscionable act?

We grew up in the 60’s and 70’s, and paddling was part of the school day.  If you did something serious or bad enough, you knew you were going to get paddled.  In my school you went to the principal’s office and sat and waited.  During this time you sat in guilt and regret, wishing you didn’t do it, waiting for your punishment.  You knew you did wrong and you were going to be punished.

My wife and I don’t recall having any negative feelings toward our principal’s.  We didn’t feel anger, hatred, fear, or any such feelings.  In fact, we had respect for him as an authority figure.  Sure kids may have horsed-around some in the classroom (nothing like today), but when the principal walked in the room you snapped to attention, so to speak.

After working in the schools awhile I encountered parents who would proudly boast that they would never spank their child.  Of course, the reason I’m talking to this parent is because their child is misbehaving and the principal, teacher, and parents can’t get him to behave.  Even when I was younger and new to the field, it was a no-brainer to me.  He needed a paddling.  He needed to know that there was a real punishment to his naughty behavior.  These adults seemed to think that after all their praising, cajoling, time-outs, problem-solving, and reinforcement of other more desirable behaviors failed, that I was going to be able to talk this child, or “counsel” him into, quitting being naughty.  Go figure!

In working with parents like this, I noticed that they interchanged the words spanking and hitting; actually, they used the word “hit” most of the time.  They explained to me that they did not want to teach their child violence. And if their child had hit another child, they didn’t want to use violence to stop violence.  They didn’t want to teach their child that hitting was “ok.”  So of course, after discussing ways to manage their child’s behavior, which they were unable to manage, it became apparent to me that the one thing they did not try was spanking.  When asked, these parents usually reported that their parents spanked them.  So they were spanked.  I then asked them if they are violent.  Invariably they informed me that they are not violent.  I was at a loss.  Was I the only one not seeing the break in logical thinking here?

Whenever I have the chance, I ask people my age and older than me about spanking or whippings when they were young.  Their memory of it usually was that it was a normal part of growing up, and even pointed out that they respected their father because he might give them a whooping.  And interestingly, these people aren’t violent, and don’t beat their children.  I was in a conflict.  What I was hearing in the popular media, from the “experts” in education, and parents was different than history, intuition, and common sense.

Naturally, with my education and training as a school psychologist, I wondered why corporal punishment was effective.  First of all, I believe corporal punishment is only effective at the elementary school ages or younger, and should not be used beyond that age range.  Younger children don’t have the same cognitive abilities, thinking skills, or reasoning ability as older children.  For example, hypothetical thinking, truly understanding the concept of the future, and planning are beyond the capacities of younger children.  Therefore, such practices as grounding, the threat of taking privileges away, actually taking things away (toys, etc.), don’t have the same meaning to younger children as older children.  To a three year-old grounding doesn’t have any meaning.  Although it may seem like it, taking a favorite toy away probably isn’t much of a punishment (or a short-lived one at best) because it’s very easy for a young child to find something else enjoyable.  Any parent knows that a young child can have fun playing with a rock.  Parents know that you can buy an expensive toy for your child and she ends up playing with the box it came in.  Whereas with older children (adolescents, teenagers), certain things have more meaning.  Grounding a teenager can be a very meaningful punishment to them.  This privilege may not be easily replaced.

Younger children are limited to “reasoning” on feelings, emotions, impulses and desires, whereas older children at least have more of a capacity to consider consequences, delay gratification, and think logically.  They are much more concrete and tangible in their thinking.  When a young child does something wrong that is serious, they need to know that mom is very upset or angry.  Talking, time-outs, or taking something away isn’t always effective.  A spanking makes it very tangible, very real, and very understandable.  It says, mom is very upset and whatever you did was bad!  It also involves feelings and emotions.  Taking a toy away or a time-out may not be that emotionally charged.  This is not to say that taking a toy away or a time-out may not work on some occasions, or be useful at times.  This depends on the child, and the offense.  For example, if two siblings are arguing, and bothering you to tattle on the other one, and you tell them to go into separate rooms.  This may work.  However, they may gravitate toward one another and resume arguing, and pestering you.  Any parent knows this could continue and drive you nuts.  Well, you may be busy and have something important to do.  So do you keep separating them, and perhaps “reasoning” with them, or do give them a good swat and let them know that this is going to stop now.

There is also the issue of practicality in your discipline.  If you have clear rules, are consistent, and follow-thru with the predetermined consequences, then your day should go smoothly.  However, not every day is the same, and sometimes your routine is broken.  Situations occur that can’t always be planned for.  After all, we are dealing with children and all of their emotions.  Some experts say if you’re getting stressed to take a time-out and step back for a moment.  Well, you don’t always have the time for this.  Or, the situation may be urgent and you can’t take a time-out for yourself.  You may need your child obey your direction immediately, or you will have to get their complete attention quickly.  Young children often don’t understand the urgency of a situation.  Sometimes you may not have time to follow through with a predetermined consequence.

Behavior and respect for authority in the schools and homes has definitely taken a major turn down the wrong road.  There does not appear to be any sign of turning back.  In school and at home we keep trying all kinds of new ways to discipline, but the one thing that we are told to never, ever try is spanking.  However, let’s consider how things were before we made that turn to stop spanking.  Kids in generations before this turn in our society would never have dreamed of doing the things that kids today do to simply pass the time.

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