About nine o’clock Renee sent her son off to bed to one of the small bedrooms in her shabby basement apartment. It was me and three other guys there that evening, sitting in a circle on beanbags and a shag carpet. Renee’s son was about six, and soon began fussing about being sent to bed. One of the older men said Renee should make a recording of her son’s whining so she could click PLAY every night and save her son the trouble of doing it over and over again. Renee yelled toward the bedroom for her son to go to sleep, but he kept whining. She yelled that she’d spank him if he didn’t go to sleep, but he kept whining.
She had an implement she’d used to spank her son, but I can’t remember what it was. It may have been a mirror. Not exactly a belt, nor a paddle. The business end was material I recall as an ornately crafted piece of leather. Renee had been fiddling with this as she sat in the circle with us, after she’d gone to the bedroom and we’d heard her smacking her son, who began whining again later in the evening, causing Renee to yell that she’d spank him again.
“I’ve been naughty, spank me too.”
“I’m gonna spank the both of you.”
Renee looked a bit like Janis Joplin, but prettier and with bad teeth. She looked nice in jeans. She once told me that in high school she’d fallen while trying to walk seductively and had been laughed at in an unkind way by a group of teenage boys. I thought this ironic as Renee didn’t seem to have trouble attracting men. Indeed, one of the men that night, irritated that her flirtations hadn’t been directed to him, muttered that her I’m gonna spank the both of you remark was “bullshit”.
“I don’t care if my son turns out gay”, she’d said once – this almost twenty years ago. And of course, that evening someone slyly remarked about spanking and sadomasochism. To this she’d sighed and said, “Well, I just hope I don’t turn him into a serial killer”.
I tell this vignette to convey that most parents who’ve used corporal punishment are not anywhere near monsters. Not monsters like some say Judge Adams is –referring to the Texas Court-At-Law Judge seen beating his daughter in this violent and graphic video.
“Candlelight vigil mode” seems the universal response to this kind of child abuse. Reporters furrow their brows and speak in hushed very concerned tones. Yet “candlelight vigil mode” is compensation for the laissez-faire attitude our society otherwise takes toward hitting children, so long as it isn’t “abuse”. I first saw the video – which Andrew Sullivan called “sickening” – on Andrew’s blog, the Daily Dish, the same blog in which he’d earlier made this offhand remark about “caning” in school:
In my high school, caning was routine for misbehavior. The cane hung on the wall above the headmaster’s desk. It made even a dressing down seem threatening. But it wasn’t Asian style: and usually on a clothed bottom. One friend stuck a notebook in his underpants and didn’t disguise it too well. So he got it raw. He asked not to sit down when he came back to class. Request denied.
It’s hard to tell what Andrew Sullivan thinks about corporal punishment of children; he doesn’t say. But the tone – speaking this time of an incident not videotaped – seems to have a mirthful when I was a lad in jolly old England quality to it. And even if that’s not how he meant it, the media overall often approach what we euphemistically call “spanking” with a tedious air of forced levity – in what I’d call “tongue in cheek mode”.
But the problem with the tongue-in-cheek/candlelight-vigil dichotomy is that it’s based on the assumptions that “minor” corporal punishment of children is harmless in itself, and that it’s unrelated to the kind of abuse meted out to the daughter of Judge Adams. Both assumptions are false. Consider, for example, this exchange between Anderson Cooper and Hillary Adams:
Anderson Cooper: This tape is extraordinarily difficult to watch. Is it… Did this kind of thing happen a lot to you?
Hillary Adams: A lot of people are asking that and, uh, well, the corporal punishment was just corporal punishment when I was younger and… but then it escalated and got worse and worse over time until, when I was a teenager it started turning into full-blown abuse like… similar to what you see in the video…
I have a couple of thoughts about this. First, it’s common for abuse to start out as “just” corporal punishment. As Murray Strauss has noted, “Clinical work with abusive parents has shown that much physical abuse starts as an attempt to correct and control through corporal punishment.” (Beating the Devil Out Of Them, Murray A. Straus, Lexington Books, 1994, p. 85) As was discovered after Sweden enacted a ban in 1979, banning corporal punishment outright can nip abuse in the bud:
[R]ates of child abuse appear to have declined; the number of referrals to St. Göan’s Hospital in Stockholm, which receives all child maltreatment cases, had declined by 1989 to one-sixth of the 1970 rate. By the mid-1980s, Swedish rates of physical discipline and child abuse were half those found in the U.S., and the Swedish rate of child death due to abuse was less than one-third the American rate.
So banning corporal punishment reduces the amount of full-blown child abuse. That’s an important point, and one for which proponents of corporal punishment don’t have a good answer. But most corporal punishment doesn’t escalate into full-blown abuse, and that brings me to my second point.
In the interview, Hillary Adams said the corporal punishment was just corporal punishment when I was younger. For a moment, imagine what actually happened when Hillary Adams was younger – when the corporal punishment was “just” corporal punishment. Now, contrast that with what feminist blogger Jill Filipovich (who is against corporal punishment, by the way) said about her own experiences with “spanking” as a child:
I was spanked very occasionally as a child, although I use the term “spanked” loosely… I was definitely never hit hard enough to hurt and I was never hit on any other part of my body, and I would guess that the “spanking” happened fewer than five times in the course of my childhood. “Go sit on the stairs” was a much more common punishment.
On a moment’s reflection, it’s obvious that Hillary Adams’ experience of so-called “non-abusive” corporal punishment was worlds apart from Jill’s. For Jill, being “swatted” a few times was an utterly trivial thing. And if that’s all we were talking about, I’d just shrug and say, “Well, who cares?” The problem is, the sanitized version offered by proponents of corporal punishment – “a few taps, never done in anger” – is a Trojan horse. Once you accept that parents have a right to hit their children, you open the floodgates. And by that, I’m not talking about the progression to full-blown “abuse”. That’s a terrible problem, but set that aside for a moment. Corporal punishment – the infliction of pain but not injury – is harmful in itself. It’s harmful because the reality of corporal punishment is more onerous than the misconception propagated by the “two taps never done in anger” canard, in part because that’s not anywhere near where the law actually stands on the issue of corporal punishment. For example, the Texas Penal Code, with which Judge Adams is presumably familiar, says this:
Sec. 9.61. PARENT-CHILD. (a) The use of force, but not deadly force, against a child younger than 18 years is justified:
(1) if the actor is the child’s parent or stepparent or is acting in loco parentis to the child; and
(2) when and to the degree the actor reasonably believes the force is necessary to discipline the child or to safeguard or promote his welfare.
The limits are that the force can’t be “deadly”. It says nothing about hitting in anger. I can’t help wonder if Judge Adams might have restrained himself a bit if the law in Texas looked more like this:
Children are entitled to care, security and a good upbringing. They shall be treated with respect for their person and their distinctive character and may not be subject to corporal punishment or any other humiliating treatment.
– Swedish Children and Parents Code, ch. 6, 1 (tr. Swedish Ministry of Justice)
Of note, there’s nothing in the Swedish law about hitting in anger either. Hitting is categorically prohibited, because “hit, but don’t overdo it” isn’t an effective way to protect children from psychologically damaging corporal punishment.
There’s also another peculiarity I’ve seen in the way corporal punishment is defended. Imagined harms from a ban are often hinted at, rather than fully articulated. For example, someone will say:
“If a child is trying to put his hand into an open flame, and his mother smacks his hand away, I wouldn’t call that child abuse.”
That’s not a fully developed argument against a ban. Rather, it’s a description of a behavior that “shouldn’t be called child abuse”. Now, if you consider why the speaker wouldn’t call that child abuse, it’s easy to imagine the arguments being hinted at in the previous statement:
(1) Children would harm themselves, because parents would no longer be able to prevent dangerous behavior.
(2) Good parents would be prosecuted, lose custody of their children, and face criminal penalties.
What’s interesting about the fully articulated argument is that it’s testable. Corporal punishment of children has been fully banned in:
Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Kenya, Latvia, Moldova, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden, Tunisia, Ukraine, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
Some of the countries listed above have banned corporal punishment relatively recently. But Sweden has banned this practice since 1979. It’s been 32 years. If hitting children were vital to maintaining a good society, we would expect that in Sweden the rot would have set in long ago. So here are some questions: (1) Have Swedish children harmed themselves because their parents couldn’t prevent dangerous behavior? (2) In Sweden, have well meaning parents like Renee been thrown into prison and lost custody of their children?
These questions need to be asked and answered if we’re going to continue to allow children to be hit with impunity. Vague discomfort with the idea of a ban on corporal punishment ought not be sufficient to deny children a non-violent upbringing.
A final vignette: I had teacher in junior high, a man in his thirties. One day he told us that his father would be coming to visit our class in a few minutes. “My dad’s a good guy,” he said to the class, “a little rough with me sometimes when I was a kid, but…” And then the teacher stopped in mid-sentence, glancing upward toward the ceiling, as though in self-rebuke, as though thinking I’m not sure I should have let that last part slip out.