“Psychological Suspense That No Child Is Equipped To Manage”

A reader shares a harrowing series of stories and insights on corporal punishment, which at times borders on torture:

This email is too long, Andrew. But I don’t know another way to do it. Those last sentences in your post on “The Racial Divide On Spanking Kids” are packed with the stuff I’ve been struggling with all week. I’m sending this because I took so much time to write it. I’ve been close to tears often this week, and I suppose it’s a way of defending that tenderness.

“Discipline”: It was a belt or a switch in my house, except for the handful of times I was slapped. I hail from a poor, white, fundamentalist family in Texas. Sometimes we managed to get a hold of the bottom rung instead – lower-middle class, or is it upper-lower class? – but it wasn’t ever a very firm grip. I think that matters, our economic and social status – how it operated on my parents, their sense of self, their sense of control and agency, their standing, that fuzzy line between “poor” and “trash,” the dependable hierarchy at home of respect and obedience. But I can’t unpack all of that, and I don’t know what it would mean for anyone else if I did.

Whenever I got caught swearing – or if someone told my mother I’d been swearing – I had my mouth washed out with soap. In practice, even this is a stupid and violent thing to do. Really, the logistics of the sink and the soap and the faucet, the mouth and the hands, the gagging and spitting and crying – it’s jammed with aggression. I was six the first time.

Mind you, I never once swore at my parents. Not once. I swore at other kids or my siblings, and as I was the youngest by a decade – this was all mimicry. In truth, I was a freakishly good kid, but only because I wanted, more than anything, to keep out of the way and get through the day unnoticed. As all the evidence shows, this stuff doesn’t work: I’m a committed swearer to this day – but, well, there’s a time and a place. You learn that sort of thing over time, not over a sink.

Before I was tall enough to choose my own switch, my mother would get it herself. And the period of time that marked her absence, waiting for her to return with one, was filled with terror. It is a kind of psychological suspense that no child is equipped to manage. I certainly wasn’t. I remember that waiting period much more vividly than I remember the pain of being struck, repeatedly. (Does anyone “spank” a kid once a session? Isn’t it always part of a series?) I can hear myself crying and screaming, I can see myself touching the welts later, the stippled blood, but it has none of the embodied force of that terrible, terrible waiting.

When I was finally made to get my own switch, it was a kind of relief. Maybe because I felt I had some control? Alone and outside, it was nice to get lost in the concentration required to choose the right switch, the one that might hurt the least. (I’m choking up now, typing this. All week it’s been like that, following the national reactions.)

Anybody who thinks that hitting a kid with a switch is remotely related to “spanking” or “swatting” or “discipline” is full of shit. It’s a violent, strange, lacerating affair. Where the length of the switch lands can’t be controlled; anyone who’s used one – or been hit with one – knows this. Adults don’t get to shrug and claim they didn’t mean to lash a child’s scrotum or face or breasts. A child will automatically jerk and twist and try to shield herself when someone is striking her with a switch. (Whipping posts were useful because they prevented this very dance. One could aim better, land the strike with precision. Become a marksman.)

A child is also typically being grabbed and yanked with the parent’s free hand. It’s chaotic. Shit is going to go wrong. You don’t know where the next blow is going to land. That’s what makes it so terrifying for a kid. And a switch is like a whip – it is a whip: each lash has stages; it curls and snakes and bites. The sound of it, both a rip and whistle – awful.

As a kid, I was not only hit with a switch; I was “paddled” with a board (in school), hit with the belt, and slapped. But nothing had the psychological impact of the switch. Every blow was new and surprising and fresh. A switch is unpredictable. That is its nature. That is its power. Any offending adult who claims not to know that is a liar.

My father never hit me. I don’t know why. He beat the shit out of my brother and sisters. My mother didn’t intervene.  And then one day he stopped. Cold turkey. Later, perhaps motivated by guilt (her other children were his stepchildren), my mother would scream at him to punish me, but he wouldn’t. I can still see him shaking as she screamed, pushing the belt into his hands. I don’t know how I knew it – I was too young – but I did know: he was trying to control himself. He was shaking from the effort required to resist. And I remember perfectly those minutes of fear and confusion: Why does he look afraid? Why does she want him to hurt me? Is he going to? Why does she hate me?

Almost ritualistically, it ended with her grabbing the belt, crying and yelling both, and “spanking” me with all she had. My father always, always, left the room. I feel certain they would tell you, or anyone taking a survey, that they spanked us and disciplined us. Yes. That is was their responsibility, and their right.

I graduated high school in Texas in 1986. Students were still “paddled” in the principal’s office then. It was a long board with three holes drilled into it. It had a handle. We would bend over, knees straight, and put both hands on a chair. For the girls, a secretary was called in to observe. I worked half days my senior year and so was ineligible for detention. After three tardy slips and without the option of detention, I was paddled. I can faithfully report that it didn’t help me get to class on time. I was already a tired kid, overwhelmed and depressed, living in a chaotic house. I couldn’t always get it together or keep it together between work and school and home. Corporal punishment didn’t change that.

I will say that the boys in my high school got hit a lot harder. A lot. I remember leaving class with a bathroom pass once and seeing a boy I didn’t like – he frequently taunted me in front of other students about my small breasts – alone in the hallway, returning to class after a “paddling.” His walk was slow and stiff. He was in real and visible pain. He looked humiliated, and like he’d been crying. And I remember feeling confused because I had the urge to comfort him – him of all people.

Mostly I’ve been wrestling a lot with how all these terms have been conflated in the media and between people lately: “spanking” and “discipline” and “punishment” and, let’s be straight about it, flogging. The bravado and the gallows humor: classic (mal)adaptive coping strategies for all manner of survivors and people living or working in violent, fearful, unpredictable environments – soldiers, the hazed, the bullied, the ostracized or marginalized, ER nurses, cops. I sense it sometimes, how tough I can feel – or toughened. I took it. I made it through. Man, can I take things. There’s something haughty in the feeling. Triumphant. A badge-of-honor quality to it. But I know it’s an overcompensation. I know it’s a coded admission of my vulnerability and my anxiety about feeling helpless, of how my early dependence and vulnerability was exploited.

Maybe it’s transference, but I swear I could see the very same brew on Hannity’s face during this piece. He repeatedly invokes his father and the ways he was punished by his father. He sounds almost like a battered spouse (or, say, an abused child), claiming he deserved what he got, making excuses for his father. There’s even a pleading tone in his voice – do not take away this guy’s career, don’t put him in jail. But who is Hannity really talking about? Who should be spared and protected? Because for almost the entire clip he’s been talking about his father, and himself as his father’s child.

There’s something poignant and terrible about that merry reenactment with his belt. Slapping it against the desk. Even the certified guests seem to be dazed by the simultaneous demonstration and disavowal. But wait, now he’s snapping the belt. And snapping a belt like that at a child is nothing but a calculated form of emotional torture. I remember it well. I remember it physically, everything in my little body starting to rev and jack-knife. Snap. Snap. Snap. It’s nothing to do with discipline; it’s everything to do with domination, control, intimidation. (There’s this, too: Some people just like this shit. Same way some people like making and seeing their dog cower.) Either way, it’s pretty much condoned in our culture.

If you’re the sort of person who needs to idolize your parents your whole adult life; if you can’t navigate the necessary distance from which to admit their inevitable mistakes and weaknesses; if you can’t simultaneously love them and admit your own honest anger or pain, the dark ways you’ve been formed, too; if you need a rationalization for how you also “discipline” your children – well, then, I guess you talk a lot about how fine you are, or how you deserved it, or how harmless and necessary it is and the rights we have to it – all this “spanking” and “discipline” – maybe you brag about it a little, and you take off your belt on live TV and snap it for all the world to see, because, hey, everybody’s all right. The kids are all right. Right?

The Racial Divide On Spanking Kids

In the wake of the Adrian Peterson case, various threads are emerging. Josh Voorhees investigates the race angle:

The perception that black parents are more likely to employ corporal punishment than their nonblack counterparts is borne out by academic research. In one study that examined 20,000 kindergartners and their parents, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that 89 percent of black parents had spanked their children, compared with 79 percent of white parents, 80 percent of Hispanic parents, and 73 percent of Asian parents. There is no single reason why blacks are more likely to turn to the rod for discipline, but the numbers are correlated with factors that include socio-economic status, religious upbringing, and even the heartbreaking feeling that, as it’s often put, “I’d rather my child get a beating from me than from police.”

Still, it’s important to note that while black parents might be more likely to spank their kids, they’re not alone in raising a hand to administer punishment—the rates for white, Hispanic, and Asian parents in that University of Texas study are all above 70 percent.

Michael Eric Dyson had a deeply moving piece today – on the roots of such violence in the slavery era. I learned a lot. Money quote:

The lash of the plantation overseer fell heavily on children to whip them into fear of white authority. Terror in the field often gave way to parents beating black children in the shack, or at times in the presence of the slave owner in forced cooperation to break a rebellious child’s spirit. Black parents beat their children to keep them from misbehaving in the eyes of whites who had the power to send black youth to their deaths for the slightest offense. Today, many black parents fear that a loose tongue or flash of temper could get their child killed by a trigger-happy cop. They would rather beat their offspring than bury them.

But the rates are not that much higher than for whites. Maybe it’s another function of the greater levels of and tolerance for physical violence in Jacksonian America. Aaron Blake has some data to back that up:

[A] funny thing happens when you look at race within the South. Then, you find, the gap between black and white is smaller. Here’s the eastern/Atlantic portion of the South:


Clarence Page brings a personal perspective:

Regardless of how much some of us look back with wistful nostalgia on our own spankings — as my Alabama cousins and I jovially recalled at a recent family reunion — corporal punishment poses more hazards than it is worth when compared to many nonviolent alternatives. …

I tried spanking our son in his preschool years, but he’s too much like me. He only grew more angry and defiant. But the kid was terrified of timeouts. The prospect of spending more than 10 seconds in solitary confinement — away from friends, TV, books, computer or video games — brought instant compliance.

I have to say that what surprises me is the joviality about it. Maybe that says something about the lack of permanent psychological scars; or maybe it’s a way of coping with them.

Spare The Rod.


Responding to the Adrian Peterson scandal, Harry Enten provides the above chart:

There is a large gap when it comes to religion. The subsample on religion has been included in the GSS only occasionally, yet there is a clear divergence. Born-again Christians are, on average, 15 percentage points more likely than the rest of the population to agree that spanking is an acceptable form of punishment.

Amanda Marcotte expands on the religious angle:

Christian conservatives defend the practice of spanking children, even with weapons, by saying that parents are not supposed to do so in anger.

“You want to be calm, in control, and focused,” writes Chip Ingram of Focus on the Family and that a parent who embraces corporal punishment “is not an angry, insensitive person with a big club and a vicious agenda.” This echoes a common refrain from parents to justify spanking, that they don’t do it in anger and they reserve it for serious infractions that require a lot of time and processing so the child doesn’t do it again.

Unfortunately, parents are overestimating their own abilities to keep it in check. Researchers at Southern Methodist University strapped audio recorders onto the arms of 33 mothers to see if and when they used spanking, and found that instead of retreating to a quiet space to calmly administer a spanking, mothers who spank are just hitting in anger and frustration. Kids got spanked for finger-sucking, messing with pages of a book, or getting out of a chair when they weren’t supposed to. Parents who spank say they do so around 18 times a year, but the SMU researchers found it was closer to 18 times a week.

The Other NFL Abuse Scandal

Vikings running back Adrian Peterson has been accused of beating his kid. Amy Davidson runs through what appears to have happened:

This preschooler wasn’t paddled or, as Peterson put it to police, “swatted”; he was whipped with a stick and left with open wounds on his body. It’s also not obvious that Peterson has been at all straightforward. (This is something a jury or judge will work out.) In his statement, Peterson said, “I have to live with the fact that when I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child, I caused an injury that I never intended or thought would happen.” This is apparently a reference to the specific wound to the child’s scrotum and a particularly ugly one to the leg. (In another text message, he told the boy’s mother the same thing, adding, “Got him in nuts once I noticed. But I felt so bad, n I’m all tearing that butt up when needed!” He also wrote that she would probably get “mad at me about his leg. I got kinda good wit the tail end of the switch.”) Peterson claimed to the police that he hadn’t noticed that the “tip of the switch and the ridges of the switch were wrapping around” the boy’s thigh.

Amanda Hess, who strongly disapproves of such punishments, notes:

Reactions from around the NFL imply that “love” is a valid reason for beating a child. “I got a ass whippn at 5 with a switch that’s lasted about 40mins and couldn’t sit for 2days. It’s was all love though,” Arizona Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett tweeted in Peterson’s defense. Added New Orleans Saints running back Mark Ingram Jr.: “When I was kid I got so many whoopins I can’t even count! I love both my parents they just wanted me to be the best human possible!”

Khadijah Costley White asks for less emphasis on race:

[I]f you think the media coverage of men like Ray Rice or Adrian Peterson make black people look bad, then just think what it looks like when you defend and justify their abuse. …

More than 1,500 children died from abuse and neglect in 2012 alone, most of them younger than four. So, all of those folks upholding Peterson as a symbol of black male oppression or denigration need to take a step back. The bruises on that little boy’s body are not symbolic. His fear and trauma are not due to some grand media conspiracy. And hiding and rationalizing violence against weak and helpless people represents the very worst of humankind.

Louis CK says that better than anyone:

Jazz Shaw defends Peterson, with some limits:

Assuming that Peterson is sincere in his recognition of having taken the punishment with the switch too far and has learned from the experience, perhaps he and his son can move forward with the understanding that improper behavior will still bring a punishment, but it will be scaled to a reasonable degree. Absent more evidence, it doesn’t seem to be our place – at least in my opinion – to deem him an unfit parent or to lock him up and throw away the key. (Though some reasonable degree of punishment for the father may still be in order. That’s for a court to decide.)

We should note, however, that another report has surfaced at Deadspin claiming that he causes a facial scar on a different son. You may assign whatever level of credibility to Deadspin that you wish, but some other sources are picking it up as well. If this turns out to be a recurring situation, the picture changes.

Regardless, Jonathan Cohn thinks the NFL is going to have to pay. He suggests “setting up a foundation whose mission was to fund domestic violence research and services”:

League owners could pay into the fund, at first with a one-time endowment gift and subsequently with ongoing contributions. In the future, when players commit acts of domestic violence and serve suspensions, the wages they relinquish could supplement the funds.

Will Saletan was hit by teachers as a kid:

Corporal punishment teaches itself. Peterson thought he was teaching the opposite. According to reports, he was punishing his son for pushing and scratching another child. He says he explained this to the boy. “Anytime I spank my kids, I talk to them before, let them know what they did, and of course after,” he told investigators.

But when you hit a child for hitting another child, the hitting does all the talking. That’s the upshot of a recent study of more than 100 children and their parents. Every parent who approved of spanking a child for hitting a sibling passed this belief on to their kids. And 79 percent of kids who came from homes with lots of spanking said they’d hit a sibling for trying to watch a different TV show—almost the same scenario that led to Peterson’s beating of his son. According to the researchers, “Not one child from a no-spanking home chose to resolve these conflicts by hitting.” The kids absorbed the model, not the lecture.

Zooming out, Freddie questions the left’s response to abuse cases:

The recent scandals involving NFL players Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson, for me, have revealed again this central contradiction in contemporary left-of-center thought. We have broad consensus on the left wing that we imprison too many people in America and that our police forces, in general, are overly aggressive and overly protected from punishment when they are guilty of abuse or corruption. And yet there’s also a constant impatience with any advocacy of due process, the presumption of innocence, or rights of the accused. I encounter this personally most when I am looking at Facebook or comments on websites like Gawker. People that I know to be self-identified as left-wing, or online groups that tend to be left-wing like the commenters at Gawker, are nonetheless convinced that every celebrity defendant is guilty, before the process has been given the chance to play out. Yet that due process is one of the only checks we have against the aggressive policing that, after Ferguson, we are trying to fix.

Update from a reader:

Whatever the merits of Freddie’s comments in other contexts, it’s hard to see why the presumption of innocence, due process, and “innocent until proven guilty” have much application to Rice and Peterson. For one thing, Rice has apparently escaped prosecution through the diversion program; for another, the existence of the tape, coupled with his admissions, leaves very little doubt indeed about what actually happened.

Peterson hasn’t escaped prosecution yet, but there’s still not much reason to withhold judgment as to the facts of what happened: between his own statements, the text messages, and the photos (the authenticity of which has not, as far as I know, been challenged).

So aside from a reflexive need to attack the “left,” it’s not clear that these two situations have any relevance at all to his professed concern about “aggressive policing,” or Ferguson either. If Freddie wants to complain about the left’s supposed tendency to assume that every celebrity is guilty “before the process has been given the chance to play out,” perhaps he should find better examples?