Classism and Corporal Punishment

The Adrian Peterson controversy started a national discussion about parental discipline techniques. What Peterson did is obviously over-the-top and deserves the condemnation it has gotten. But I understand why there has been push-back. The argument has focused mainly on racial differences in discipline styles, but to me this seems more like a class issue.

I fear to tread here, because I have no children myself and my position is complicated. I grew up in the white working class, where it was assumed that all families spanked. My parents stopped when I was four, not because they were against the practice in general, but because it didn’t seem to work very well on me. I have no memories of being spanked. (I’ve heard my father tell the story of the last time he spanked me. He seemed more traumatized by it than I was.)

Having watched most of my professional-class friends raise children without spanking, I think that’s what I’d recommend if anyone thought my opinion was worth seeking out. But I’m appalled at the level of classism I hear whenever this issue gets discussed. Lots of otherwise thoughtful people talk as if working-class parents routinely beat their kids up for amusement.

Here’s what I observed growing up: For the vast majority of the households I knew, spanking was part of a well-thought-out system of discipline. It was rare — used only when a series of lesser punishments had failed — and relied more on its symbolic value than the physical pain inflicted. It was not supposed to be done in anger. (That was the whole point behind, “Wait till your father comes home.”) My friends were not going to the emergency room or showing up at school with visible welts and bruises.

Child abuse seems to me to be something else entirely, and it happens in families across the class spectrum. Slapping your toddler’s hand when he reaches for the burner on the stove is a completely different thing than breaking his collarbone because you had a bad day. It’s not a difference of degree.

In every era, the upper classes rationalize why they are better and more deserving than the lower classes. Usually there is some core of truth behind their justifications. (In Victorian England, the upper classes could quote fine poetry, sometimes in Latin or Greek, which is an admirable skill.) I-never-raise-a-hand-to-my-child has taken on that role in our era. There’s a core of truth; in general, professional-class discipline probably is better for the child than working-class discipline. But this class virtue is being exploited for the sinister purpose of justifying class differences in general: Those working-class barbarians. No wonder they live in squalor.

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  • Roger Green  On September 29, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Not surprisingly, I have something to say on this. When my late father suggested corporal punishment for my nieces (one of whom was 18!) by their mothers (my sisters), I balked at this, though I had no children at the time. In retrospect, I stand by that.

  • Kenneth Sutton  On September 29, 2014 at 12:48 pm

    My class trajectory is similar to yours, Doug. I too know I was spanked as a child but have no particular memories of it, and so were my cousins. I have trouble getting upset at the idea that a parent might spank a child. (I do not, for the record, think anyone else than a parent or guardian should ever administer corporal punishment.)

  • R.Parker  On September 29, 2014 at 10:10 pm

    This is a complex issue that cuts across multiple socio/cultural lines. It is not simply a race issue, or a class issue. There are certain predictors that make it much more likely that parents will choose to use corporal punishment – the key one being religiosity: religious parents spank more frequently than other parents. If you control for that one factor, then other factors (regional – i.e. the South; and racial, i.e. black) seem to fall away. I say this as an Assyrian Christian married to a black Southern baptist raising our biracial children – our history, for both racial and religious aspects, seems to predict spanking, but we don’t spank. We have in the past, but we stopped long ago after learning about the psychological effects of spanking and the better discipline methods out there.

    All that being said, what disturbs me about this discussion is twofold: first, we pretend that this is a black community problem (Mr. Barkley in particular enraged me with his baseless assertion that every black parent would be in jail) when it is clearly an American problem; second, that we talk about it as if the only issue is where/why the disparity lies – i.e., why black/poor/religious/southern people spank (as if others don’t, in high numbers) without really addressing the real issue: is spanking effective? Even if it were effective, is it acceptable? In other words, why is it illegal to hit anyone except your own child (who has the least measure of protection from you?)

    • weeklysift  On September 30, 2014 at 7:29 am

      The you-couldn’t-do-this-to-an-adult argument has never struck me as very strong, because parents of all sorts do a lot of things to their children they couldn’t do to anyone else.

      If you carried an adult to your car, while she kicked and screamed “No! No! No! No!”, then strapped her into some contraption she couldn’t get out of and drove away, that would be kidnapping. If you did the same thing to your child, it would be a trip to the dentist.

  • Brent Holman  On September 30, 2014 at 2:16 am

    I was spanked, hard and often, & it was very effective, because the actions that led to being punished were almost always dangerous stupid, idiotic things I did that could have messed me up for life, & or cost a lot of money we did not have.
    I turned out OK. Really I did. No, Really. I’m currently caring for my mom, since she can’t drive anymore. We’re kinda like friends, and always have been.
    My dad was a wannabe drill instructor, but I knew why he acted that way, after someone parked a truck bomb under his office, before he was done using it, he became disillusioned with the University, Madison, and my older brothers, and somewhat bitter. I didn’t blame him, and we ended up pretty close.
    I don’t have any kids, & I imagine if I did I would only spank them for doing dangerous things, not for breaking a lamp.

  • thebhgg  On September 30, 2014 at 4:52 pm

    There’s a lot of spilled ink (electrons?) on this. Without question the best thing I’ve read so far is William Saletan’s comments on Slate:

    The most interesting two points: 1) corporal punishment has negative effects, not positive ones, and 2) when it is rare and stigmatized, those effects are worse.

    I had a conversation in an online forum (I read it on the Internet, so I know it’s true) with someone who grew up in Singapore. He claimed it is a very accepted part of the culture to beat children with a switch far beyond what is common here. Parents talk openly about when to introduce “Mr. Stick” to their children (is 3 too young? 4?) but no-one seriously questions the inevitable meeting.

    And this young gentleman described how his peers don’t stigmatize anyone for getting beaten. It happens to everyone!

    Compare this to the feeling of shame adults in the US experience when they openly admit that, as children, their priest molested them. The feeling of being ‘damaged goods’, or of being at fault, of deserving this, and the reaction people have of horror (too easily confused as horror at the victim instead of horror at the act or the perpetrator) is a large part of the continuing pain the person must confront and process.

    This makes it a very difficult thing to extinguish (I am speaking of corporal punishment). As it gets more and more rare, and less and less acceptable for parents to talk about (and children to admit to) it will transition from being “getting spanked” to “being abused”. And maybe for a time it will shift in the other direction (I make no moral judgements for or against corporal punishment here). But if the current trend towards less punishment continues, it will cross a line and go underground, where it will wreak its worst effects on those people already at disadvantage.

  • thebhgg  On September 30, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    > There’s a core of truth; in general, professional-class discipline probably is better for the child than working-class discipline.

    Baloney. Your classism is showing. The world is more complicated than that.

    Compare good and poor value systems at high and low levels of the economic ladder. With imagination, you’d think of variations of all four categories:

    * Good values, high on the economic ladder:
    Lots of access to extra curricular activities, like summer music camp, expensive athletic programs, emphasis on “doing one’s best”. High parental involvement, emphasis on academic achievement, and high amounts of community work (kids volunteer in local soup kitchen, run food drives, carry UNICEF donation bags instead of candy collection bags at Halloween.)

    Punishment focuses on restitution to the wronged and apologies to the offended.

    * Good values, low on the economic ladder:
    All the same as above, except lesser access to extra curricular activities.

    * Poor values, high on the economic ladder:
    Low parental involvement in mental/emotional life of children, and substitute material goods for parental interest. Instil sense of entitlement in children (“If you have money, you can pay to get anything you want, and to get out of punishments”)

    Punishment focuses on taking away privileges that the child is normally entitled to (no parties this weekend, driving privileges revoked).

    * Poor values, low on the economic ladder:
    Absent or overworked single parent with few economic options. Punishment is fear based.

  • Rebecca Trotter  On October 4, 2014 at 5:07 pm

    The problem, it seems to me, is that people who abuse very frequently start off with the intent to discipline and lose control of themselves. Many abusers fail to even recognize that their actions have gone from normal discipline to abuse. So we can condemn abuse, but by accepting corporal punishment we are making abuse far more likely to occur and remain undetected. Really, due to the potential for abuse, corporal punishment should not be used by anyone who has experienced trauma, witnessed violence, has anger issues, is over tired, hungry, stressed or suffers from a physical or mental health issue which compromises emotional regulation. That encompasses a huge number of people. In light of this reality, it is my belief that corporal punishment should be generally discouraged.

    • thebhgg  On October 5, 2014 at 12:02 am

      > corporal punishment should not be used by anyone who … is over tired, … stressed …

      So, that pretty much describes ALL parents, no?

    • weeklysift  On October 5, 2014 at 7:44 am

      Rebecca: While not taking anything away from the points you’re making, now imagine that you’re a corporal-punishment parent who has carried out your discipline plan successfully. You’ve controlled your temper, even when you’re tired, stressed, angry, and so forth. Your kids are turning into fine young people, and you’re justifiably proud of the job you’ve done.

      Then some professional-class know-it-all — who probably doesn’t even have kids, or has a nanny to help raise them — lumps you in with the child abusers because you swatted your kids’ bottoms about once a year each until they were 10 or so.

      And the verbal abusers, who unleash the most awful psychological attacks on their children because they don’t control their tempers when they’re tired, stressed, and angry — they’re on the side of the angels.

      Picture how that makes you feel, and you’ll understand where the heat of this argument comes from.


  • By Appeasement | The Weekly Sift on September 29, 2014 at 11:26 am

    […] This week’s featured posts are “A Conservative Lexicon with English Translation” and “Classism and Corporal Punishment“. […]

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