Tag Archives: class

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.