The Best Threads Of 2014: “When Does Spanking Become Child Abuse?”

Andrew Sullivan —  Dec 28 2014 @ 8:35pm

Over the next several days, we’re going to highlight a handful of the best discussion threads that were sparked f739cac8_adrian-peterson-child-abuse-4or driven by your emails this year. Reader threads provide some of the most riveting and valuable content we post on the Dish, and they remind us every day how our readership is unmatched on the web for its wisdom, eloquence, and candor – qualities that are rare to find in any comments section.

Our first thread in the retrospective series – “When Does Spanking Become Child Abuse?” – stemmed from the story of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was indicted for beating his four-year-old son with a tree branch (seen here and to the right). The first reader email to emerge was by far the most powerful – “Psychological Suspense That No Child Is Equipped To Manage” – and it opened the floodgates of the in-tray to dozens of other stories of spanking and outright abuse, falling all along the continuum of corporal punishment. Read the whole thread here. Below are many more emails on the topic, aired for the first time:

I wonder how many of your readers who oppose spanking are parents – and what proportion of them have dealt with strong-willed children determined to do what they want, time-outs and rescinded deserts notwithstanding. Beyond this, the number of readers who think a quick jolt to the butt is the equivalent of child abuse astonishes me.

But I suppose it shouldn’t. In a society where sex with an uneasy partner who never actually says no is “rape” – that is, is the very same thing as violent assault and physically coerced sex – we have also broadened the definition of “child abuse” to mean both what Adrian Peterson did, and what the dad who whacked his kid on the butt to keep the boy from running into traffic did. Is grabbing a child’s arm and telling him to stop making a scene in public also child abuse? And who gets to decide these things – a dispassionate system of law, or parents who consider themselves oh-so-enlightened who deign to tell tell the great unwashed that a quick whack on a misbehaving child’s behind is essentially the same thing as burning him with a cigarette or scarring him with a switch?

Another reader puts it well:

I have been following this thread with fascination.  A few years ago my wife broke off all contact with her parents, because she had been spanked perhaps 5-10 times by her father until the age of 12.  Her mother and father are extremely kind and loving parents otherwise.  But my wife feels that those 5-10 spankings constitute abuse, and she will not speak to her parents, or let them see their only grandchild, until they accept that what they did was abuse. They steadfastly refuse.

Now many of your readers may consider this an over-reaction, and that is precisely how her parents feel. But I have been with my wife many years now, and I no longer doubt how deeply wounded she was by what she experienced as an abject humiliation and betrayal of trust.  And I see this more clearly as a result of reading the letters you have received on this topic.  So I would submit that the answer to the question “When does spanking become abuse” is easily answered: when the child being spanked experiences it that way.  And to those who would scoff at that definition, you should consider whether you are willing to bet any future relationship with your child or your child’s family on whether you are right.

Another reader’s story:

I grew up in the South and spanking was “normal” in our household; but my mother and father were never brutish or brutal with us; and never hit us in anger. However, my dad taught me the best lesson on one “spanking” occasion.

I had been told not to drain any oil from our oil tank (I used it to clean paint brushes). Well, I did. My dad noticed the paint brushes in a jar of oil beside the tank. It was clear I had done it. He asked me if I did, and I lied, saying “no.” He knelt down beside me and held my shoulders so he could look into my face; and he asked me several times if I had used the oil, and I always denied doing it. The proof was right there! I was about 10 years old, and even I knew my lie was bald faced and stupid. He finally said to me, “If you tell me the truth, I will not spank you. If you lie to me, I will. Now, did you use the oil from the tank.” Again, I denied that I had. I saw his face go very blank and his stare lengthened. He was thinking. Then he said, “I know you would not lie to me, so I believe you.” I was crushed and shamed beyond belief.

I have never forgotten this. A spanking would have been forgotten immediately. And I never lied to him again.

Treating a child like an adult, once they are able to reason, is a good bet. It’s also good when parents know when this point is. Spanking should never become the fall back mode of communication.

Another:

I was glad to see a reader bring up school-based corporal punishment, as my memories of Bein’ Whooped are almost entirely paddle-based and at the hands of an overly-aggressive junior high P.E. coach.

In my Tampa junior high, the Troubled Teen had two disciplinary choices affectionately known as “Three or Three”: You could take three days of suspension, which went on your permanent record and (worse) alerted your parents, or you could take three licks with the paddle, which did neither of those things. Writing this now, I find a queasy sort of sadism in the nod-and-wink transaction between school and student in this hush-hushed ass-whopping option: “We won’t tell if you won’t, son. So bend over and let me spank that ass,” seems tawdry and a bit sick from a 30-year remove. At the time, facing three days of parental scorn and no TV for a month, it seemed a bargain at twice the price.

That is, unless you get busted for selling black market Jolly Ranchers the week your principal is out of town and his replacement is the world’s most stereotypical gym teacher, with oak tree arms and a Maker’s Mark cask of a chest who had no sense of his own colossal strength.

I should have known something was amiss when my paddling that day required a fucking witness. No joke, the outer lobby secretary had to stand in the coach’s office and watch as I received my paddling, I guess to make sure I wasn’t accidentally beaten to death or crippled from the ass down when Gigantor tucked in. I found this odd and unsettling until the first lick, which did two things simultaneously: Made me forget about everything and everyone in the world save the searing pain across my upper thighs, and dropped me to my knees in a bleating heap of penitence I have never forgotten. I would have done anything, anything, at that moment to save myself the final two-thirds of that beating. And though the coach helped me back to my feet kindly and without bravado, he took his last two licks, each worse than the one before, each a healthy splash of gasoline on a blazing ass-fire.

I had to stand in the outer office for half an hour, clutching the secretary’s desk and blubbering quietly to myself as my knees quivered and my thighs burned, before I could master the art of walking back to class. I wish I could say that was the Spanking That Turned Me Around, the last of my checkered high school career, but alas, I was a recidivist to the end.

My 12-year-old daughter, whose Perfect Precious Snowflakeness I defended to loud shouts of derision in a previous post, has been spanked exactly twice in her life: Once for playing with matches and again for nearly sticking a knife in an electrical outlet. Both were the mistakes you get with a curious mind attached to nimble fingers, so the spanking was meant to shock more than hurt. The house remains standing and she hasn’t yet electrocuted herself, so Bravo, Parent says I!

Another notes regarding the school angle:

Nineteen states still have some form of corporal punishment in schools on the books:

cp map

About 200,000 students are disciplined in this way in schools every year, and these students are disproportionately male, black, and often disabled.  It seems obvious to me that if we don’t want parents using corporal punishment, we should at minimum be banning it in our public schools.

Another offers some advice:

To the reader who resorted to spanking to prevent his/her son from running in front of cars: while I understand the frustration and worry that must have occurred, I wonder why you never thought of putting your son in reins? It can be effective for little ones. I think there are creative ways to keep your children safe or modify behavior without resorting to spanking.

Another relays some wisdom from Montaigne:

Thought you might be interested in ​including​ this passage from Montaigne’s essay, “Of the affection of fathers for their children”​: ​

​​I condemn all violence in the education of a tender soul which is being trained for honor and liberty. There is a sort of servility about rigor and constraint; and I hold that what cannot be done by reason, and by wisdom and tact, is never done by force[…]. Leonor […] is over six years old now, and has never been guided or punished for her childish faults […] by anything but words, and very gentle ones. […] I have seen no other effect of whips except to make souls more cowardly or more maliciously obstinate.​”

And a final reader story touches on the theme of sexual humiliation addressed here:

Thank you for the thread on spanking. The ongoing discussion comes at a critical time for me, as my wife and I are wrangling over how to discipline our daughter, who recently turned three.

I was raised by a single mother after my parents divorced when I was five. Mom went from being the stay-at-home mother of two boys (less than a year apart) to a single parent with an M.D. ex-husband who chafed against the divorce settlement and made our lives very difficult financially.

I know, now, that my mother was depressed when I was a child. She had married my dad right out of college, less out of love than out of the desire not to return to her parents’ dysfunctional home. And now she found herself alone, raising two boys, with little money and no help. It’s a recipe for disaster, but to her credit, my mother managed to get us through it. But did she spank us? Yes, she did.

I’m not writing this to either condemn or excuse my mother’s use of corporal punishment (she had a wooden ruler, or maybe it was a piece of wooden moulding, which came to be known as “the slat”). She didn’t hit us often; “the slat” was more than anything else an omnipresent threat, there to keep us in line. My brother and I would find and hide it whenever mom left it, and us, unattended.

Perhaps ironically, Mom’s wooden enforcer was not involved when things reached critical mass, when I was probably 7-8 years old. I had done something wrong – serious, I’m sure – because Mom announced that she was going to pull down my pants and spank my bare ass. I went into panic-overdrive mode, not at the idea of being spanked, but at the humiliation of Mom attempting to pull down my pants to do it. I struggled, and I lost it, and I hauled off and punched my mother right in the mouth. It was one of those moments you can never forget or take back. We both burst into tears. I didn’t get spanked, ultimately, and I think at that moment we both realized that hitting doesn’t solve anything – it makes everyone feel worse.

I’m 50 now, and my first/only child is a beautiful, intelligent, feisty toddler of three years. It’s difficult to hold back from reacting physically when a toddler is kicking, slapping, and elbowing, typically over mundane issues like bedtime, wanting to watch more TV, or not wanting to go pee pee. I don’t believe that hitting a child is sending the right message, that a three year-old has sufficient self-control to be fully accountable for her actions, or that violence is an acceptable solution or response. My wife disagrees, but has never hit our daughter in front of me.

Last week I picked up my daughter from her preschool, and as I strapped her into her car seat she said to me “Mommy hit me, like this” and slapped herself, hard across the face. My heart broke.

It’s 2014. My wife and I are equal partners in life and in parenting. I can’t tell her how to discipline our daughter. She knows how I feel about it, and I know she feels like I’m too easy on our daughter. She’s only three, for christ’s sake. Wish us luck.