Paddling: A Legacy of Violence
By Tom Johnson
April 2003
It comes as little surprise that the great majority of school paddlers and witnesses were themselves paddled, strapped, switched or otherwise severely spanked in the course of growing up, sometimes in a fashion that distinctively resembles their own M.O. of corporal punishment. Were it not for these striking parallels, it might seem adequate to theorize that on account of the beatings they once took, these adults have a high degree of repressed childhood anger, along with a lingering sense of humiliation, and therefore are more drawn (consciously or not) to the easy, institutional "power trip"/anger vent that whacking errant students provides. It's unlikely, however, that displacement is the only horse pulling the cart, as it were; the psychology behind child-beating is usually more complex than that.

For example, some c.p. practitioners may have developed a serious fetish for this brand of punishment as a direct result of their early encounters with it and are therefore particularly drawn to any job which involves spanking (though strongly preferring a position more respectable than what the underworld of adult entertainment might offer). In one case not long ago, the headmaster of an English primary school was prosecuted for having secretly spanked a number of students during his long career. Although in court the defense claimed there was no sexual motive in these spankings, his victims effectively refuted that claim by recounting some sinister details. According to London's Daily Telegraph, "Psychiatrists said [the headmaster's] problems were rooted in his childhood and [he] spoke of the incidents giving him 'a cosy kind of feeling.'" It is left for readers to infer that the headmaster was, like most of his generation, spanked as a child, and from there it seems all but certain that spankings he got back then somehow shaped his adulthood longing to spank kids.

While fetishism is one of the most disturbing links between childhood exposure to spanking and growing up to spank children, there are several other links which likely pertain to a larger segment of school paddlers. For many of these adults, an initial thrashing took place at a very young age, making it an especially powerful event in their development that continues to influence them all their lives. Some degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may actually result from one incident of severely painful spanking (or in some cases, from a series of lesser incidents).

It is common for those with PTSD to have a wish to reenact the traumatic experience, and this undoubtedly contributes to the "cycle of abuse," a well-known, if not completely understood, phenomenon in which adults who were abused as children are prone to commit similar abuses, or at least passively support such behavior. Thus the sickness, when left unaddressed, tends to get passed down through the generations even without much cultural reinforcement--although a great many abuse victims do break from this pattern. (Of course, when it comes to school paddling, there is often plenty of cultural reinforcement, at least at the local level, so that a principal who rejected the use of it would be defying tradition and risk alienating numerous colleagues, friends, relatives, and neighbors.)

Possibly many would dispute that spankings which don't cause critical injury can nevertheless be severe enough to qualify as abuse, let alone a trauma on the order of causing PTSD, a condition often associated with "shell-shocked" war veterans. Fewer, however, are likely to argue that purposefully inflicting pain and humiliation--of whatever degree--comes just as naturally to those who never were treated that way as to those who were. Especially not when the people who treated them that way include important figures such as parents, grandparents, and teachers.

To begin with, these caretakers are some of the earliest and most present role models a person usually has, so there is a natural rooted tendency (rebellious streaks notwithstanding) to imitate them, for better or for worse. This influence becomes especially strong when the person holds a comparable position as an adult (although it's not unheard of for a child to unexpectedly take it upon him or herself to spank a misbehaving younger child.) If a principal's concept of discipline was founded on butt-beatings in both the home and school setting, chances are good he will see butt-beating as fulfillment of his disciplinary role, if not the very consummation of his title and authority. In his mind, giving swats is what a principal does. Should school paddling no longer be allowed, he may feel terribly compromised or even that the natural order of things has been upset in some way.

Often going along with this psychological itch is the principal's reluctance to see any serious problem with a practice once engaged in by people to whom he is greatly indebted--specifically, the people who raised him, fed him, clothed, housed, and protected him, lavished him with loving attention and generosity, saw to his health, education, and socialization, and generally made his adult achievements possible. To suggest that their method of "loving correction" was unwise or unfair may seem like an ungrateful slap in the face, and perhaps also a departure from their deeply held religious values which spanking supposedly represents. By the same token, it may seem like kind of a nice tribute to emulate his parents' model of child-discipline, perhaps swinging a paddle "just like my daddy used to." (Less sentimentally, some people are brutally conditioned from an early age to never dispute their parents in any way, so that even as independent and physically safe adults they don't dare question their parents' mindset--especially not on behalf of disobedient children. For these people, it's less about gratitude or affection than about trained fear.) And while he may not feel so beholden to those who paddled him at school, he can't very well rebuke a school policy his parents approved or even encouraged, not to mention primed him for, without indicting them as well.

Last but not least, the principal's self-image as a past recipient of corporal punishment may be at stake in his decision to be a user of it. He may have long accepted, as many do, the declarations by his elders that the paddlings he got, despite the unpleasantness at the time, were his "just deserts" as well as good for his character. For him now to conclude that paddling is not really the pure justice and positive discipline it's cracked up to be would probably cause troubling doubts about his own experience. Maybe some of those paddlings he got weren't really warranted, or at least not the bruising severity. Maybe his gym coach wasn't honestly that concerned about teaching him a valuable lesson but just liked whaling on kids for whatever reason. In this case, it would follow that he (like probably many of his peers) was actually, and despite the rules he'd broken, a victim to some degree.

For all the advantages victim status can have in gaining sympathy, deflecting blame, or winning money through lawsuits, at some basic level people do not like thinking of themselves as victims. It can feel very disempowering, especially for those who have to exert a lot of inner strength to cope with the effects of what was done to them. (The more damaging or sinister the victimization is, the more it threatens to define a person's identity, at least in the minds of others.) Sadly, there is also a stigma attached to being a victim of certain types of crimes, and most particularly sexual violation. As we've seen, sexual violation can definitely register with victims of paddling, even though they may focus their complaints on the physical brutality. While this is in general especially true for female victims of male paddlers, men who were once paddled or spanked in a religious school by a priest or minister who is charged years later with sexually abusing boys may see those punishments in a new light. Moreover, people may downplay sins committed against them to spare themselves the emotional burden of having something major to resent, or to avoid further conflict when they'd prefer to "just get along" with the offending party. What sometimes makes victimhood in the case of school paddling particularly hard to accept is that the person in question not only was wronged but persistently failed to recognize any wrong against them.

Maybe our once-paddled principal cheerfully accepted the notion that he fully deserved what he got, eventually to look back on those beatings with nostalgia (more likely if he enjoyed most of his school experience during those years) and on the men who beat him as "good guys" (which perhaps they were in many respects) who weren't afraid to "lay down the law." With the benefit of greater hindsight, newly gained perspective and honest reflection, however, the wrongness of these paddlings--and the self-serving nature of the paddlers' disciplinary rhetoric--may appear obvious, so much that on top of feeling disillusioned he feels a bit foolish. It's bad enough to be a victim without having been duped in the process, or a "chump," as some might say. The prospect of this self-reproach, combined with the loss of an easy answer ("I had it coming") to the pain and anger he felt while being beaten, the probable lack of recourse against the paddlers now after all these years and the scoffs his belated complaints would get from a lot of people, can scare him away from the benefit of greater hindsight, newly gained perspective and honest reflection with respect to corporal punishment. Instead of questioning the justice of it, the principal finds it easier to validate the way he was treated by treating his students the same way. After all, it sure doesn't seem fair that he had to take all those "licks" if today's kids don't have to take any.

Along with disquiet at the thought of having been paddled unjustly, there may be anxiety over the psychological risks linked to severe physical punishment. For those who follow the debate closely, it's become something of a cliché to hear spanking proponents assert that they were spanked and "turned out all right." Such a claim by an individual, however sincere or ostensibly true, has limited value in making the case for a general practice; that would require looking at how other people who were spanked turned out. Especially in light of this argumentative shortcoming, it's reasonable to wonder if some who announce their "all rightness" do so as much for self-assurance as to defend the use of spanking.

For those who've been paddled just once, let alone on several occasions, granting that this form of punishment can be harmful (without necessarily going beyond the pale of acceptable use or severity, we should emphasize) is to open the question of whether they themselves were harmed by it in some way. Whether or not this possibility rings true to our school principal or to those who know him, it may prompt him to take an uncomfortably close look inward at his thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The flaws he may see, regardless of how many different factors have contributed to them--some kids, of course, have maladjustments before corporal punishment enters the picture and would arguably face trouble in life even without ever being hit--can make him all the more self-conscious whenever there is public focus on the psychological impact of paddling. For this reason, as a defense mechanism, the principal may turn a willfully deaf ear to these concerns, paddling kids in part to convince himself, if not others, how confident he is there's no real danger in it and therefore no reason to wonder if he bears any emotional scars.

So rather than "dishonor" his father and mother, abandon long-held beliefs, and at the same time cast himself as a gullible or possibly damaged victim, a principal will often "go with the program" of paddling at his school, or seek to establish such a program if it's not already in place there. In fact, he may be quick to embrace the idea of spanking kids in whatever context seems remotely appropriate.

Of course, even without all this psychological and cultural baggage or, for that matter, any fear of professional or legal repercussions, it's still going to be a lot more difficult for a principal to denounce paddling once he has taken that road. This is simply because of the universal human aversion to admitting one has done something significantly wrong. Unfortunately, there is a definite susceptibility, especially among male paddlers of teen girls, to become progressively worse offenders the longer they've been paddling, in terms of both motive and how they conduct themselves. (This degeneration may often even reflect, at least in part, their having acquired a taste for inflicting pain that amounts to true sadism.) As their "habit" develops and intensifies, so does their denial that there's anything bad about it.

None of this is to say that genuine hope of maintaining school discipline, or even of saving a particular student from antisocial tendencies, never enters into the paddling equation. We cannot be blind, however, to all the less noble and deeply personal reasons that typically weigh against exploring more humane approaches to child management.

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