Written for the Evansville Courier, Feb. 1998
You'll never hear spanking defended by someone who was raised without it. It seems to me that in order to strike a child, even to consider such an option, one has to have been exposed to the practice in one's formative years--getting it, witnessing others get it, and hearing the standard rationalizations that are offered for its use.
Let's examine a few of those rationalizations.
"Spanking teaches respect for authority." This is a favorite of parents of juvenile delinquents, their own predicament notwithstanding. The more they attempt to assert parental authority through spanking, the more contemptuous of authority their kids seem to become. Finally, when the children grow too big to get spanked, expect to see the heavy guns roll in: the police, the courts, the juvenile authorities, boot camp.
Even convicts on death row--the most spanked group of any-- staunchly proclaim spanking's purported benefits because "if ya don't whop yer kid, God only knows where he'll wind up."
"Spanking teaches right from wrong." Indeed, it teaches that the person who can hurt us is "right." It teaches us to watch out for the guy with the stick, and makes us strive to become like him--to get our own stick as soon as possible so that the rules of "right and wrong" will be in our favor. This model is not good preparation for life in a democracy. It's a poor model for achieving peaceful relations with our neighbors, with co-workers, with family members, our spouse, our children. It's bad for the health. I'll concede, though, habituating children to rule-by-force is excellent preparation for the boxing ring, for trench warfare and for life in the penitentiary.
"It never did me any harm." One hopes. Folks who make this claim aren't eager to seek a second opinion. Deep down, they recognize that self-diagnosis is inherently suspect. When people announce, "I was spanked and I turned out okay," I'm tempted to supply the omitted qualifier, "....except for my smoking habit, my alcohol problem, eating disorder, sleep disorder, hypertension, hot temper, problems on the job, marital problems, messed up sex life, and my bad relations with my parents and with my kids. Otherwise, I turned out just fine."
Consider the fact that I (like many of my generation) grew up in a house where the walls were painted with lead based paint and one household member was a smoker, and I turned out okay. Does my survival tell us anything about the effects of exposure to lead and tobacco smoke? Can I ever know how much better I might have turned out had I grown up in a less toxic environment? Spanking, like lead based paint and nicotine, is something future generations can well do without.
So what is the answer to the spanking question? All we have to do is put the old habits on hold for a moment while we examine the evidence and think about what that evidence teaches. Gentle, thoughtful, reasonable parents tend to raise gentle, thoughtful, reasonable children; bullies tend to raise bullies. There's no mystery in that. You don't need a degree in psychology to understand what's going on.
Parents whose relationship with their children, starting at birth, is built on tenderness, trust, respect and reasoning seem to have a much easier and happier time of it--and so do their children--than those who rely on intimidation and force. This doesn't mean that nurturing, nonviolent parents are guaranteed a perpetual smooth ride. Anyone who expects children to behave like potted plants every minute of the day shouldn't have them in the first place, but stick to gardening instead.