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Sparing the Child

Corporal Punishment Suggests Ownership of People

By Nancy S. Park

America has left its "Leave It to Beaver" days behind. Today, children are seen as growing up too fast, too soon while their parents race the police to get them back on track. As the call continues for a return to "family values," a disturbing side-effect has emerged in the form of growing support for corporal punishment in homes and schools. While proponents say the practice is an effective mode of discpline, the physical punishment of children raises many problematic issues.

Popular influences such-as movies depicting troubled youths, documentaries on babies having babies, and talk shows presenting children out of control all reflect the growing opinion that young people today have a lot more to worry about than losing their lucky baseball caps or breaking lamps while playing ball in the house. By the same token, parents are seen as having to deal with much more than the usual adolescent defiance or mischief-making one might find in the Cleaver residence. Out of this perception comes the disturbing rise of support for corporal punishment in the home and, for that matter, in schools as well. Recent judicial support for a school teacher brought to trial for paddling a student is just one example that the issue is becoming pervasive in its appeal. Our society is increasingly concerned with supposedly degenerating morals among its younger generations. But is corporal punishment really the answer?

Studies in child psychology have repeatedly shown that paddling and other such corporal punishments cause more anger and embarrassment than guilt or remorse. It establishes a behavioral pattern based on fear and the primitive aversion to pain rather than a rational understanding of the child's actions and its consequences, Supporters claim that, for whatever reason, corporal punishment works in halting negative behavior. While this utilitarian perspective may have a certain puritan appeal, it hardly seems like reason enough to teach children we don't have to work out problems with other people, especially if they are weaker than us. All we have to do is use our belts, rather than our heads.

In addition, there is the issue of motivation. While for many, the cliche, this is going to hurt me more than it's going to hurt you" probably rings a bell, one wonders how often hands are raised in a calm and rational decision that this is the only way to keep a child from developing bad attitudes. It is more likely that anger and personal frustration are the prime motivations.

Still, how much can others say about the decisions of parents over their own children? Traditionally, American ideals have held than if one invests a certain amount of time, money and energy into a project, that one is entitled to a certain amount of control over it. In the days of slavery, for instance, owners believed that they could do what they pleased with their slaves since they gave them shelter, food and protection--basically, their livelihoods. While childhood would not be readily equated with slavery, a similarity does exist in that many parents supporting corporal punishment think of their children as their possessions. They feel that, since they are raising them and are responsible for them, no one, including the government, has any right to interfere except in extreme situations. Many claim that they should be able to do with their children as they please. Clearly, though, it is a much more complex issue when that "possession" is another living, breathing, rational human being.

Consider, for example, a husband who felt that his wife was his "possession" given that his efforts paid for her livelihood: her food, rent, health care and other necessities. Today, if he took it into his head to physically reprimand her "for her own good," and claimed it was necessary and none of anyone else's business, there would probably be much more of an uproar than if it were his child. Why is that? Perhaps because children do not have the same voice, socially or legally, that adults do, despite the similarity of their situations with regard to their husbands and parents.

While corporal punishment does not imply abuse, the joint conception of children as property share disturbingly similar characteristics. There are certainly many alternative means of punishing children. Teaching them moral codes and the concept of responsibility for one's actions needn't come so close to undermining those of their parents.

As the ills of society continue to be brought to light today, people are beginning to seek answers in the old adage, "Spare the rod, spoil the child." As they proclaim a few beatings in a child's youth are better than years in prison later, it seems that they are missing better solutions to the problems of our youth. Communication and education go further than coat hangers and paddles, and more knowledge than more fear will take us farther.

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