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Turning the Other Cheek on Spanking

There are two things I know for sure about spanking:
(1) It’s wrong.
(2) I’ve done it anyway.

Americans have an odd relationship with corporal punishment. On the one hand, we are an enlightened country that professes civil rights for all citizens. We don’t allow business owners to beat their workers. We no longer tolerate husbands who wallop their wives. We even want reassurance that “no animals were harmed in the making of this film.”

But on the other hand, we don’t want anyone telling us how to raise our children. California lawmaker Sally Lieber felt the sting of this double-sided reasoning recently when she proposed a bill that would make it illegal for parents to swat their young children on the rump. Snarky late-night TV hosts mocked her. Traditionalists played the “How dare you?” card. Fellow legislators — including Democrats — refused to back the bill.

So Lieber proposed instead a narrower bill that would punish parents for hitting kids in the head, whacking them with a stick, whipping them with a belt — but would not interfere with a good, old-fashioned thwap on the tush. Hard to argue with a bill that basically reiterates existing laws against child abuse, but Lieber may come up short on votes. How can our government pinpoint the line between “cruel” and “justifiable” forms of discipline when many parents don’t even know where it lies for us personally?

Sure we’ve come a long way from the rod-sparing, child-spoiling days when a good paddling was believed to “drive the devil out” of our young’uns. And while some families still believe spanking to be a reasonable, and even loving, way to teach self-control, we progressive moms and dads consider any form of corporal punishment to be archaic. Barbaric even. We like to quote Isaac Asimov, who said, “Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.”

“I really don’t believe in spanking,” proclaimed a friend of mine, a mother of two with a Mensa IQ. “But sometimes I feel like I have to because nothing else is working. I’m not proud of it.”

“When my son was a baby, I remember thinking I would never touch my kids,” added a guy I know, a Buddhist father of three. “Not long after, I slapped him on the face. I couldn’t believe I’d crossed that line. But it can be very difficult to remember your own philosophy when your kids have driven you way, way, waaaaay past the point of utter exhaustion.”

Lots of parents agree that a swift swat is reasonable punishment for a toddler who reaches for a hot stove or darts into traffic — namely, when we can’t afford for an important safety lesson to be learned via natural consequences.

But hitting children to make them obedient? To earn their respect?

I’ve always thought parents who use spanking as a regular form of discipline — “premeditated spankers,” you might call them — were cold-hearted. But is it really worse than slapping our children despite our beliefs? Are those of us who resort to it better parents than those who rely on it?

I spanked my 3-year-old once, after he’d spent the entire day lashing out in frustration: shoving my legs, throwing a toy at my head. When I announced it was bedtime and he slapped my face, I lost it. I turned him over and gave him a solid BAM! on the butt, muttering something absurd about how we don’t hit in our house.

We were both shocked into tears, and I’m not sorry he learned how demoralizing it feels to be hurt by another human being — but I’m sorry he learned it from me.

More than anything, though, I regret the second lesson he learned that day, the one that was unintentional but surely packed more punch than the first: She with the stronger right hook wins.

Published inColumnsParenting

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