The nightmare of childhood

The perfect is the enemy of the very good. And while I doubt this post could be construed as ‘very good’, I’m finally realizing I’ll never get the ‘perfect post’ with the information that I found during my research following Adrian Peterson’s child abuse indictment.

Beware: this is really long.

I’ll begin by addressing Matt Walsh’s post on the whole affair because it is a pretty good example of the arguments made by spanking advocates. 

So let’s take these one at a time:

1) If all physical discipline is abuse, and no distinction can be drawn between spanking and whipping a child until he’s bruised, bloodied, and terrified, then it stands to reason that all verbal reprimands constitute verbal abuse, and no distinction can be drawn between a stern talking-to and berating your kid with vulgar insults and threats.

It’s not okay for adults to go around hitting other adults in order to get a desired behavior, but if they are your kids then swing away, I guess. Especially in public, because that just shows you’re really committed to your child’s well-being.

Civilized society is civilized society because we use words instead of force to solve our problems. Why are we trying to rate various forms of bullying or abuse by saying “well, hitting children as punishment is bad but physical abuse is worse.” Physical abuse is bad, period. Trying to parse spanking from abuse seems easy enough from a third-party, theoretical perspective, but Libby Anne’s post on the subject makes it clear that the message parents send isn’t the one they intend to send.

2) Maybe you respond by saying that there’s nothing inherently wrong with speaking, but there is something inherently wrong with physically touching your kid in a disciplinary and corrective manner. Fine. If that’s your argument then, I ask you, WHAT precisely makes it inherently wrong? You can’t answer “violence,” because that only restates your original premise.

Ah, the famous Walsh false equivalence makes an appearance. He’s saying that spanking is ‘touching your child in a corrective manner’, implying that it’s like grabbing your child’s arm so they don’t run into a road or something similarly innocuous. He’s trying SO HARD to put spanking on the ‘useful tool’ end of the spectrum of discipline when it just won’t go there.

Spanking DOESN’T WORK if your goal is to teach your children. If your end goal is obedient children, then physical abuse works fine – just like it can work to make adults obedient. But it doesn’t make it right.

3) If your dad often became enraged and cursed while he whipped you mercilessly with a belt until you were bruised and bloody, marks all over your body and emotional scars that cut even deeper than the lacerations on your skin, I am sorry that you suffered such heinous abuse. But please understand that, although your dad may have called that “spanking,” it was not. It was assault. There is, I assure you, another version — the real one — where a parent acts in love.

Here’s deal: the parents who abuse under the guise of spanking are the ones who think spanking is okay in the first place. Eradicate the belief that spanking works and is okay and then you undermine those who label their abuse as ‘spanking.’

Libby Anne makes it pretty clear that her emotional scars came without the bruises, blood, and marks all over her body.

In my research on this topic I ran across Dr. George Holden, self-dubbed ‘Dr. No Spank‘. He’s involved with, which links to research showing that “parents who believe in spanking are 4 – 7 times more likely to abuse their children.”

Walsh accuses no-spanking advocates of drawing an arbitrary line between discipline and spanking, yet he draws his own arbitrary line between spanking and abuse.

The history of child-rearing practices shows a gradual but perceptible change in attitudes about children and Walsh is merely one of those who hasn’t changed. The real danger is that his opinion is read by a large online audience who will, at best, think spanking isn’t so bad or, at worst, feel that he vindicates their abuse.

4) Don’t take this post as evangelization for spanking. Frankly, I don’t care if you spank your kids or not, and I can’t tell you whether or not you ought to. It depends on YOUR kid and what works for YOUR family.

Wow, way to take a stand there Matt. Everybody who abuses their kids and calls it spanking is going to walk away secure in the belief that they aren’t an abuser while getting the added bonus of having Matt Walsh’s endorsement.

5) One tip I’ll give to the anti-spanking advocates (and by that I mean people who think no parent should do it, not people who merely choose not to do it themselves): you will not convince anyone if you keep using the ridiculous “how can you tell your kids not to hit others if you spank them?” logic.

This is possibly one of the worst arguments ever formulated to defend any position, because, if applied consistently, it makes parenting virtually impossible. After all, your kid can’t force other people to do chores, he can’t send other people to their rooms, and he can’t impose time outs. I guess that means you can’t do any of that to him.

It’s a valid argument because it’s true. From the American Psychological Associations The Case Against Spanking:

Children who were physically punished were more likely to endorse hitting as a means of resolving their conflicts with peers and siblings. Parents who had experienced frequent physical punishment during their childhood were more likely to believe it was acceptable, and they frequently spanked their children. Their children, in turn, often believed spanking was an appropriate disciplinary method.

Earlier Walsh threw in one of his famous false dichotomies, indicating that the disciplinary options are either spanking -or- timeouts and taking away privileges. As a bonus, according to Walsh, “Spanking can be quick and effective.” Well, it might be quick, but it isn’t effective. And it isn’t even quick, given the long-term effects it has on children.

6) I can’t resist pointing this out. It’s too blatant to ignore:

Anti-spanking is predominately a liberal position. So is pro-abortion.

Wow, he almost made it a whole post without going full Matt Walsh with the “it’s bad, but not as bad as abortion.”

So long as we’re in the land of tortured logic, let’s take it even further. People like Walsh and those at say that parents should have ultimate control over their children and if they choose to ‘properly’ spank then why should anyone intervene. The tag line at is “Protecting Children By Empowering Parents” and the School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) – I lump them together because they share personnel -has done so well at ‘protecting children’ that they made it onto Libby Anne’s radar over a year ago.

There is room for tailored discipline without spanking. The idea that it, as Walsh says, ‘depends on your kid and what works for your family’ is great, but there’s no need for physical abuse to be an option.

There are a number of conservative Christian spanking advocates out there. Two of the more widely read being James Dobson and Michael Pearl. Dobson is far more restrictive in his recommended application, but Pearl is wide open when it comes to child abuse. In his book To Train Up A Child, exhaustively reviewed by Libby Anne, Pearl instructs his reader

Select your instrument according to the child’s size. For the under one year old, a little, ten- to twelve-inch long, willowy branch (striped of any knots that might break the skin) about one-eighth inch diameter is sufficient.

Again, from another study cited by

Another study (page 22) of Swedish, Canadian, Iranian, and Pacific Island mothers shows mother’s negative perception of child increases likelihood that she will use corporal punishment. Children who were perceived to be troublesome, deliberately bad or disobedient, were at greater risk for being spanked.  The study indicates a connection between corporal punishment and our perception of children.

Spanking advocates say children need spanking for proper discipline but in reality a parent’s perceptions and expectations dictate whether or not spanking is appropriate. Parents are only serving themselves when they choose to spank.

7) I don’t know much about Adrian Peterson. I know he’s good at football. I know he allegedly abused at least one of his kids on at least one occasion. I also know that he has out-of-wedlock children by several different women.

So a bonus “it’s not as bad as” argument. “It’s not as bad as having six children with six different women.” It’s even put into so many words by one blogger: Adrian Peterson: Which of his many illegitimate kids will turn out better? The spanked one.

Someone’s sex life doesn’t have any bearing on whether or not they physically abuse their kids. Peterson and his relationships aren’t any of my business, but he has made his child abuse everyone’s business.

I will give Matt Walsh one tiny, faint note of praise: on Twitter he ridiculed some spanking advocates

However he followed up that with this

then got more depressing with this

Modern internet stars are one thing, but it gets REALLY depressing when you start looking at the history of childhood, parenting, child-rearing practices and child abuse.

When I heard of the charges against Peterson I recalled an episode of BBC’s QI: Quite Interesting, which turned out to be Episode 8 of Series I titled “Inequality and Injustice.”

YouTube seems to have closed access to QI episodes unless you’re in the U.K., although Hulu does have three seasons. The major downside to Hulu’s selection, it appears, is that they only carry the shorter version of each show. There are two versions of each episode, a 30-minute edit and a 50-minute edit, and the information I was looking for is in the longer version of Series I, Episode 8.

In this “Inequality and Injustice” episode, the panel discusses the history of whipping boys then moves on to corporal punishment in European schools generally.

Since I wasn’t able to find the longer version of the QI episode, I fumbled around with Google until I found this citation in the text of an academic paper:

One nineteenth-century German school master estimated that he had given 911,527 strokes with a stick, 124,000 lashes with a whip, 136,715 slaps with the hand, and 1,115,800 boxes on the ears.
(DeMause, 1974, p. 41)

The German schoolmaster bit was in the middle of a longer section about child abuse – and here was where it got pretty crazy:

Concerning discipline, I wonder if Bracey misses the point about order in schools when he says that putting a “nice Edwardian lady” in a classroom would lead to “chaos within five minutes, I bet.” Since Edwardian implies English schools and teachers (or at least European), I think the reverse would probably be true. The typical Edwardian teacher (who was male, not female) would establish order in the classroom very quickly, but at quite a cost. Consider what Welsh (1978) had to say about discipline in schools over the past few thousand years:

Lloyd DeMause (1974) wrote, “The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have just begun to awaken” (p. 1). In ancient Greece, the schoolmaster used the birch rod as a means of correction. Homer was flogged, as was Horace, (Scott, 1938, p. 95) and John Milton’s wife complained that she hated the cries of his nephews as he beat them. Beethoven whipped his pupils with a knitting needle, and Louis XIII was whipped upon awakening for the previous day’s transgressions (DeMause, 1975).

The practice of whipping children in the home and at school is frequently justified by Solomon’s dicta: He that spareth the rod, hateth his son; but he that loves him, chastises him betimes. and Withhold not correction from the child; for thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.

The latter, unfortunately, is not always true, as those of us who work with child-abusing parents know. Western schools, particularly those of the nineteenth century, have a history of remarkable brutality. One nineteenth-century German school master estimated that he had given 911,527 strokes with a stick, 124,000 lashes with a whip, 136,715 slaps with the hand, and 1,115,800 boxes on the ears (DeMause, 1974, p. 41) The situation was not much better in England.

At Eton, where the whippings were usually severe, each boy’s bill included a half-guinea charge for birch, whether the boy was flogged or not (Scott, 1938, p. 100). The last attempt to ban corporal punishment in the English schools was in 1972, during the Conservative government, but it went nowhere (Coffey, 1976).

The student’s lot was not measurably happier in the United States and its territories. The New England Primer echoed the English tradition of school floggings:

F The Idle Fool Is Whipt at school

J Job feels the Rod Yet blesses GOD

It’s not as if beating students was a new fad in education. Stacy Schiff cites, in her Cleopatra: A Life

Learning was a serious business, involving endless drills, infinite rules, long hours.

Discipline was severe. “The ears of a youth are on his back; he listens when he is beaten,” reads an early papyrus. Into that adage the playwright Menander injected cause and effect: “He who is not thrashed cannot be educated.”

If the human race has gradually outgrown the notion that children must be physically punished in order to excel academically, then why do children need physical punishment to learn social and moral values?

Granted, it’s not a linear progression across all cultures or with all families. In her book Tiger Mother, Amy Chua writes that she withheld bathroom breaks from her daughter as motivation to master a difficult piano lesson.

Even Holden, Dr. No Spank, doesn’t seek to criminalize spanking even as he’s advocating a spanking ban. His campaign wishes to turn the tide of public opinion against corporal punishment so it is no longer seen as a useful disciplinary tool and fades away on its own.

What frightens me is this excerpt from Pearl’s To Train Up A Child: 

There are child training principles and methods that have worked from antiquity.

No there aren’t. Look at research by Lloyd deMause and his colleagues at the Journal of Psychohistory and you’ll see that we’re treating children more humanely now than ever before in the history of the human species. We’re learning as we go and we’ll only get better at this parenting thing.


1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “The nightmare of childhood

  1. Thank you. This helps me. I am a mother to three lovely boys age 4 and under. They are delightful and they are energetic. Many people tell me to smack them. I don’t want to hit them, so I don’t, and nor does my husband. We are trying to find another way, as our kids learn to relate to each other, their friends, us, other kids and everyone else. It’s not always pretty, but they are people too, they don’t deserve to be hit for every slip up in behaviour. Adults are badly behaved too.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s