When Does Spanking Become Abuse?

Andrew Sullivan —  Oct 2 2014 @ 12:07pm

Two readers offer a startling contrast to this one’s story of trauma and terror:

I’m not often in agreement with Sean Hannity, but I must agree that Adrian Peterson should not lose his career or go to jail over the abuse of his kid. I don’t see a whole lot of people asking us folks who were actually hit. The courts. The judges. The politicians. The do-gooders, tolerant of everybody except those they deem unworthy of tolerance and understanding. Hardly anyone seems to think that the opinion of the victims should matter the most.

Is it a crime? Should it be a crime? I don’t know where to draw the line, and I’ve been there. At my ripe old-age of 62, I still vividly remember my father hitting my oldest brother – strapped spread eagle to his bed – until his back was covered with deep scarlet welts. I remember my legs shaking so much as it happened that I could hardly stand. I remember my mother smacking me over and over and over again with a fly swatter – her choice of punishment weapon. I remember my father putting a cigarette in my face, threatening to burn me with it.

And never ever ever would I have wanted my father to lose his career or to have to go to jail.

Do the people who propose this actually believe this would have made our life better? It would have done the opposite. Thank goodness that there was no Internet back then, and thank goodness that the media seemed to concentrate on real news and investigative reporting instead of the human interest stories they concentrate on now.

It surprises people that survivors of childhood violence love their parents. Why shouldn’t we? In the same way that I love my country but still feel free to criticize her, and would do anything to protect her, I can criticize my parents (and I freely do), but I fiercely defend their right to have lived their lives the way they saw fit and not to get thrown in jail for it or lose their financial means of support.

I survived – scarred, mutilated and torn – from a war waged everyday during my childhood. To take away my father’s livelihood or jail my parents would have been like dropping a nuclear warhead upon us. I doubt that I would have survived the chaos that ensued from that kind of retribution from society. This “Gotcha” mentality that exists today is just another example of destroying the village to save it.

“Scarred, mutilated and torn” is light-years from a swat on the butt. Another reader:

God damn it, Andrew. When I was a kid, my mother hit me. Repeatedly; always. My brother and I knew it was coming. She did it out of anger, and in an attempt to correct our incorrect behavior. Rarely did it achieve the latter goal, but given the nature of our disobedience – which was sometimes flagrant – she was right to be made, and we indeed deserved to be punished.

And as ineffective as the hitting was, want to know what would have been even less effective? The “time-out”; the “Go sit in that chair and think about what you did.” We would have outright laughed at that, my brother and I – punishment that isn’t really punishment. Well, the hitting forced us to actually respect my mother. Getting punishment that wasn’t really punishment would have diminished that respect.

So while I feel for your reader who seems to be describing her own PTSD at having been punishes, and while her punishment far exceeded what I had to endure, must we really go down the forever a victim road here? She writes of how corporal punishment is a way to try and intimidate, dominate, and control – and you know what? That’s true. Particularly disobedient children need to have their spirit broken. They need to understand authority – because if they don’t, they’re sure going to learn all about it later on.

A parent who spanks his or her child WITHIN REASON (and your reader’s case is that her corporal punishment wasn’t within reason – or was it that all corporal punishment is the moral equivalent of what she endured?) … that parent is saying: In life, there are rules, and you must respect them. And if you don’t respect them, there will be consequences – in this house, and out there in the broader society. For based on the nature of your misbehavior, the broader society is unlikely to respond with, “Now you go sit in that chair and think about what you did.”

When we talk about the coddled generation, or “Generation Wuss,” as Bret Easton Ellis calls it, it’s no coincidence that this generation – the fragile flowers, unable to handle real adversity – is the first one to have been raised in an era where corporal punishment, even the mildest forms, was increasingly regarded as barbaric. And I’d ask: is this generation, then, any better off, any better behaved, are they more respectful of authority, are they more disciplined – or is the opposite in fact true?

“Disobedient children need to have their spirit broken”? Jesus. And regarding the reader’s flip comment about society unlikely to punish people by putting them in time out: is society instead supposed to beat them into submission? Hitting people, especially when those people are small and defenseless and dependent on your care, is such a lazy and cruel way to discourage bad behavior.