Should we ban corporal punishment?

Red states allow corporal punishment in schools. White states have banned it. (Image: Business Insider)
Red states allow corporal punishment in schools. White states have banned it. (Image: Business Insider)

Yesterday Slate ran a thought-provoking article entitled “When Abuse Is Not Abuse.” The subhead was “Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal.” The accompanying comments run the gamut of opinion.

It was rather remarkable to see how much times have changed — or not changed — since I was a kid. And to see how attitudes about corporal punishment vary across the country.

For starters, there’s the provocative “beating your kids” in the subhead. Normal people would not condone “beating” kids, which I think of as something done with fists or blunt objects and causing bruises, wounds, bleeding, etc. Emergency room injuries. But many, many parents would and do condone spanking or whipping or switching and consider it a normal form of punishment far short of a “beating.” I, for one, was not particularly shocked or concerned when I first heard about Peterson switching his son. At least, not until I saw the pictures.

You see, when I was growing up in Oklahoma, switching was, I assumed, a fairly standard, accepted practice. When a child misbehaved, nothing got his attention quite like the sting of a green switch across the back of his bare legs. My siblings and I were occasionally threatened with such punishment when Mom got particularly stressed out with the five of us. We knew she was serious when she homed in on one of us and told us to go out to the yard and cut a switch. Imagine the fear engendered by having to create the instrument of your own punishment. The thought alone resulted in instant obedience. I don’t recall any of us ever actually being switched.

This was, mind you, in a white, upper class, well educated household in the late ’40s and early ’50s. It seemed perfectly normal to us. Mere spankings, of course, were routine. Everybody spanked their kids. Spanking an unruly child was perfectly normal. It was how one made a lasting impression about something very important, like don’t ever run into the street again. It certainly didn’t rise to the level of “beating.”

So when I first heard Peterson, a resident of Texas, had switched his son, I thought little of it. I hadn’t heard of such a thing since my childhood, but I imagined only a couple of red marks across the boy’s legs. Multiple lashes severe enough to cause bleeding is an entirely different matter. But it raises the very interesting question of how how far a parent can go in punishing his own child. Parental rights are sacrosanct — until the parent violates the law. So when does spanking, switching, or paddling become beating, assault, or abuse, and therefore illegal?

Taken beyond the home, the next step is corporal punishment in schools. It’s still acceptable and common in many parts of the country. Should it be? Should it be illegal? And who decides?

When I was in school in the ’50s, the disciplinarians in most schools were the vice-principals. And most had paddles. And students who were sent to the vice-principal for discipline might end up being paddled as a punishment. It was not uncommon to be offered either detention/suspension or three swats with the paddle. Boys in particular thought it a badge of honor to take the swats without flinching or crying. Short of the vice-principal’s office, one might be subjected to a rap on the knuckles with a teacher’s ruler.

My great awakening came when my son was perhaps three or four years old and I swatted him once on the butt with the back of a hairbrush, something I’d been threatened with when I was a child (I don’t recall it ever actually happening). I was absolutely horrified to see a bruise on him the next day. I never laid a hand on him again. And neither did anyone else. They’d have done so over my dead body.

So yes, I’ve long been opposed to corporal punishment. But society and the authorities must be very, very careful in deciding when to step between a parent and a child and deem that parent’s punishment a crime. Most parents are probably emulating their own parents, and such generational behaviors can be difficult to change. A particularly fractious child might earn a spanking (open hand on clothed bottom) from a concerned parent, but more than that, or any corporal punishment at all from a non-parent should, in my opinion, be subject to outside intervention. If not, then we are condoning, enabling, and perpetuating violence in our society.


Related on Pied Type:
There’s child abuse and then there’s child abuse

20 thoughts on “Should we ban corporal punishment?

  1. As a parent who went through the same sort of process that you did, I can tell you this: corporal punishment gives you an immediate (favorable) response to your problem. In other words, you get the outcome you want and you get it immediately, if only temporarily.

    Unfortunately, the long term outcome will not be the same. In the long run, violence begats violence. If you want to create a violent adult, then by all means, allow corporal punishment for the child.

    1. Not only does it get an immediate response from the child, it’s also very satisfying to a parent who is angry or frustrated. It’s difficult to mete out thoughtful, appropriate discipline when angry, frustrated, or scared (as when a child has just run into the street).

  2. In Peterson’s case, he went well beyond any reasonable definition of corrective punishment. The photos clearly show he assaulted the child. He openly admits to beating the boy. Whether or not he is convicted of any crime, the league should end his career right now.

    1. And yet (playing devil’s advocate here), does the league have the right to punish him for something done away from work that had nothing to do with his playing football? In the wake of the Ray Rice case, the NFL had better be doing a whole lot of soul searching right now.

      1. I think those who circumstances and their talents set them up as public figures and role models for youngsters need to be held to a higher standard. I understand the idea of separation of work and outside activities, but I don’t think it should prevail in cases like Peterson’s. Our U.S. Forest Service policy when I was active was to suspend employees who were accused of illegal conduct (such as abusing children) until the legal process was completed. That seems a prudent policy to follow, and the NFL might do well to go there.

        1. Sounds like a logical approach. Suspension until the legalities are settled one way or the other. That’s still likely to keep a lot of players off the field. Legal proceedings can take a long time, certainly longer than a 2-game suspension (ie, two weeks).

  3. Your post is pretty well balanced.
    I’m a bit upset that so many seem to be saying this punishment is either “Southern”/regional and/or a method for black families/poor ignorant parents. This was/is a common method of discipline.Lots of jokes and illustrations of the woodshed out back and kids.
    Is all the noise just another social agenda and one “family” trying to force their philosophy on another?
    It’s a very fine line.
    Parents should have the right to determine punishments.
    BUT, like you, bruising and multiple slashes, bad welts, slaps across ears or face are a bit over the line. Parenting classes – yes. Child abuse and prison, no.
    (But sitting 1-5 yrs olds down and talking to them is stupid: little kids are impulsive, not thoughtful. Cause and effect doesn’t develop until later. Talk, talk, talk may clarify things to the parent – but the kid hears “blah, blah, blah, if I promise can I go play? OK promise”)
    Angry parents sometimes don’t realize how hard they are punishing. Those old phrases “count to 10 before doing anything in anger” and “never act in anger” came about for a reason.
    (My dad used to send us to our rooms to sit in the dark/shades down while he decided out punishment – usually a hand paddling over clothes – a swat or two….but that time sitting waiting…hours it seemed – it wasn’t was the worst. And then he’d come in and say something like “It’s going to hurt me more than you” and you just knew it did – that was just horrible that you let him down….and it always seemed he thought the adult didn’t do right for you to choose to misbehave…Guilt trips were a big thing as you got older and too big to paddle…seemed to work. And as far as I’m concerned, after first grade, the window for swat being effective closes pretty fast. Use other methods.)
    Did you have to go and cut the switch? And trim it up? Older kids knew to choose an older branch which would fracture and break….the green ones are more flexible and do whip around harder. A few twig swats might leave a few scratches – but less cuts and pain than walking through a briar patch or brush with bare legs. But not a good idea to do “whoppin’ “with pants down, but not like breaking a kid’s bones.
    It looks like this poor guy really is making an effort to have his son behave – but was too rough.
    The sad thing is now his son – and others will learn they can have the upper hand if threatened with punishment: they will say “touch me and I’ll report you for child abuse”….and kids learn quickly and will/do think that way.
    Parenting skills are not the NFL’s concern. This whole thing is smoke screen to get people off the story of knocking girl friend unconscious in elevator and dragging her off and not even having the decency to pull her skirt down. Different motives completely. No one should lose sight of that.

    1. I wondered about the “Southern” thing, but being from Oklahoma, I thought there might be some validity to it, and the map seems to confirm it. It’s difficult, when you’ve been around something all your life, to appreciate it from a different point of view.

      I don’t recall ever actually cutting and trimming a switch, but I certainly remember being threatened with having to do that. I wasn’t punished very often. Just knowing I’d disappointed my parents was punishment enough. I don’t think I knew enough to have picked a brittle switch. Didn’t see enough switching to have learned that lesson.

      Not punishing in anger is tough. I’m guessing I was angry when I swatted my son with that hairbrush. Far too easy to be too harsh when using an instrument of some kind — switch, paddle, hairbrush, belt. It’s too easy to misjudge the damage you may be inflicting. Best stick to hands on bottoms.

      Excellent point about the child’s age. They are at first too young to be reasoned with, to understand a discussion of dangers, ramifications, rules. And yet one must somehow impress on them that for safety’s sake, if nothing else, there are certain things they must not do.

      1. I think just the stories about switching kept a lot of us out of trouble. Lots of threats, but rare among our house and friends, too.
        Hard being a parent – even more difficult now.
        Good post – knew I could count on you to do it.

          1. Looking more into the subject. It seems the NFL would be wise to offer anger management and impulse control classes. Apparently there’s wiffs of other bad judgement in discipline – “whoppin” a kid in the car seat behind you? Seriously?

            (And I don’t like his use of the N word directed at the child’s mother – if it’s a bad word, it’s a bad word for everyone at anytime. Kids pick stuff up fast.)
            Look, there’s a difference between discipline and hitting out of frustration or anger(a beating) – and that needs to be clear. And if the behavior can’t be corrected in less than 3 cautious swats, it’s not going to work so don’t do it.
            You may note his attorney is a well known expensive defense lawyer who get people out of stuff.
            Disturbing stuff

  4. As an English boy growing up in the 30’s and 40’s it was the excepted thing, you erred, you paid. A “boxed ear'” or a “clip around the ears” was the normal punishment for boys. The clip was just a slight punishment the box was for something more serious.

    At school the teachers both male and female had canes which they used when required. The usual punishment was 3 cuts across the palm of your non writing hand, ( you had to be able to keep writing after) however on one occassion I did receive 6 to each hand from the HeadMaster, which I thought unfair at the time. I was 10 years old.

    When I arrived home from school my mother of course could see I’d been caned asked me why and said “serves you right” at least she didn’t clip my ear. She asked if I’d cried and I told her of course not and she told me ” good, men don’t cry” .

    When moving up to Secondary School the backside was caned not the hands, depending how serious trousers stayed up or were dropped.

    I don’t think it didn’t me any permanent harm.

    Very understanding mother 🙂 🙂

    1. Hitting a child really only teaches a child that hitting is okay to do, especially if you’re a parent. (Except as noted above where a child is too young to understand anything other than a swift smack on the butt.) I suppose one could think of striking a child as striking the next generation. We need to stop that cycle.

  5. I’m pretty old, old enough to remember the “old” days, and in all of that time my opinion of hitting a child for any reason is that (a) it teaches the child that hitting people acceptable behavior, and (b) regardless of who does it and for what reason, unless the reason is self defense, it is a crime in every state in the Union. It’s official name is assault and battery.

    1. Ah, but it’s not a crime in every state in the union. Not unless it rises to the level of assault and battery, and not unless someone files charges — not something a young child is likely to do. The other parent might, but I imagine parents tend to agree on what constitutes acceptable punishment (spanking, switching, etc..) and what constitutes a beating severe enough to warrant reporting the spouse.

  6. My mom missed out on a successful career by not publishing her ‘switching’ techniques. From time to time I had to go outside and find my own switch. And sometimes if it didn’t meet her criteria I had to go back outside and try again. Loved my mom to death and as far as I know it was a successful means of discipline where I was concerned. Seems I can remember little red marks on my legs but normally it didn’t take more than three or fours seconds and her point had been made. 🙂

    I didn’t have children myself and quite honestly I don’t know how I would have disciplined them if I had. Probably a paddle but I am thankful I am not raising a child in today’s society. I certainly don’t condone actions such as those taken by Peterson.

    1. You’ve described quite well my remembrance of switching. It stings, it will leave red marks for a short time, but that’s the extent of it. Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas mentioned here. Definitely seems to be trending in southern or Bible Belt states (with their conservative biblical interpretations?) at least as a practice we remember from childhood.

      My adult son is the light of my life and my proudest achievement. However, there were definitely times I didn’t think we’d survive each other. Parenting is very hard work.

... and that's my two cents