First published in The Humanist, November/December, 1988.
Forty-eight hours. In the next forty-eight hours, you could board an airplane and, after a short stop to sun yourself on a beach in Hawaii, make your way to the People's Republic of China, where the corporal punishment of students is forbidden. You might choose to ignore the famous advice of Horace Greeley and go east, good person, go east. Board a plane at O'Hare and travel to the United Kingdom and Ireland, where the corporal punishment of students is forbidden. Make your way to the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Switzerland, and Austria, where the corporal punishment of students is forbidden. Move on to Denmark and Sweden, where the corporal punishment of students is forbidden. Then, cross behind that political veil, the Iron Curtain, to the Soviet Union, where for over seventy years it has been forbidden to use corporal punishment in Soviet schools.
Forty-eight hours. You have chosen to forgo exotic travel to foreign lands to spend the next forty-eight hours at home in the land of promise, the land that boasts of its devotion to children, our United States of America. You have chosen to occupy the next forty-eight hours questioning why, in 78 percent of those united states, it is still legal to strike a child in many of our schools. You will ask why a seventeen-year-old honor student, brutally beaten until she hemorrhaged, was told by the august Supreme Court of North Carolina that any punitiveness is justified. No North Carolina school board may forbid any teacher from hitting any child with any weapon for any reason.
Forty-eight hours. In that time you will question the sanity of events in a rural Georgia community. An emergency room physician sees the welts and deep purple bruises on the thighs and buttocks of a twelve-year-old and does what he must do under the law: he reports a possible case of child abuse. The county social worker arrives and finds that the injuries did not occur at home but were the result of a spanking administered earlier in the day by a teacher who had used a wooden paddle. The boy had misbehaved in a gym class. The social worker told the boy's father that if he had beaten his son, he would probably be in jail. The teacher's abuse is protected by law.
Forty-eight hours. You will find that corporal punishment of students is not an exclusive practice of the South or North or East or West. Corporal punishment is legal in most places in thirty-nine states. It is an outlawed practice in eleven states and in individual school districts in many others--St. Louis and Chicago, for instance. It is outlawed in New Haven, New Orleans, Phoenix, Portland, Little Rock, Dade County (Florida), and many other individual school districts within states where paddling teachers are otherwise protected by law. Despite these advances, over half of American school children sit in classrooms where the paddle is a threat and where their psychological well-being is in harm's way. According to federal estimates, corporal punishment is resorted to in this nation some three million times a year.
In the next forty-eight hours, you will mull over this tradition of school spanking as you have at other times in other places and as I have in years past. So often, defenders of corporal punishment in the schools will rationalize that they were beaten in the classrooms of their youth and ask others to just look at the good it did them. I understand what it is like to be slapped around in the classroom. I could live a life of five hundred years and never forget the sting of the heavy wooden ruler wielded by Sister Alonzo. She ruled over the eighth grade, but her terror was felt by first and second graders who knew well her cruel reputation. I can remember, in lower grades, averting my eyes lest in her capriciousness she would single me out for punishment for some unknown transgression. Did it do me some good, that stinging ruler laid upon my palm? If it did, I wish God, in his kindness, would make me aware of the benefits that did accrue. I remember the classroom of Sister Alonzo as being the most unruly, chaotic place I have ever been, despite the heavy wooden ruler and its frequent use. I can't remember what I learned there. I must have learned something other than the cruelty of violence.
Despite the fact that our Constitution protects the religious freedom of all of us--fundamentalist Christian to atheist--by separating church and state, we find some people referring to religious dogma to justify public policy. In the next forty-eight hours, I am sure you will hear the quote, "He that spareth the rod hateth his son...," from Proverbs in the Old Testament. These words are not God's but Solomon's. Despite his wisdom, Solomon failed as a parent and raised a failure of a son, a violent ruler who was deposed by his people. In Deuteronomy, there is advice for parents on how to handle a rebellious son: take him by force to the elders of the city "and all the men of the city shall stone him with stones, that he die:" Anybody been to a good stoning lately?
Perhaps in the next forty-eight hours the most astounding revelation for some of you may be that corporal punishment of students does not work, does not, in fact, achieve its stated goal of the establishment and preservation of discipline in the classroom to create an environment for learning. It does not do what it is supposed to do. Why, then, do teachers resort to corporal punishment? Do they enjoy beating children? Usually, no, but one of the great dangers of the practice is that some teachers and administrators do derive pleasure from beating children, and the most horrific results accrue from such aberrant behavior. Protected by law, such individuals can only be restrained by administrative procedure and, in extreme cases, by the courts.
Why, then, do otherwise enlightened and even kindly appearing teachers use corporal punishment to enforce discipline? The answer may be that it has always been available to them. It's a shortcut. It usually stops the unruly behavior at the moment, temporarily. It is a shortcut in the same way that corporal punishment by parents is a shortcut. It has no positive permanent effects that we know of. It has many negative effects. It teaches violence as an appropriate solution to problemsolving. It teaches this lesson to the child being beaten and to his or her peers even when the beating takes place outside their presence. They feel it in the next room or down the hall. Cruelty is not mitigated by distance; the psychological harm is done to all in the class and the lesson of violence is well learned. The most important point, perhaps, is that it does not achieve the stated purpose of maintaining discipline because it is treating the symptoms, not the underlying causes, of unruly behavior.
In the next forty-eight hours, you should come to realize that the use of corporal punishment is a failed practice. The child displaying unruly behavior is a child crying out, "Help me! Help me!" He or she may be ill-fed, hungry, or physically or emotionally abused at home. The child may be abused by parents, siblings, foster parents, parental boy friends, girl friends, aunts, uncles, and every being in his or her life. The child comes to school and we ask him or her to be quiet, curious, and excited about learning, but such behaviors are foreign to the abused child's state. Unruly behavior is a cry for help, and we answer such pleas for compassion and understanding with the end of a paddle. Teacher or parent, you cannot whip the hurt out of this child. His or her behavior continues and worsens and leads to failure after failure. He or she grows to adulthood and becomes another of our modern and enlightened society's losers--miserable and a burden to all of us.
In the next forty-eight hours, I know you will be armed with the knowledge that there are alternatives to the use of corporal punishment--alternatives that maintain classroom discipline and provide an environment for learning and a place for effective and rewarding teaching. What more could a teacher want? What more could concerned parents want?
I say that parents should want more--a lot more. The elimination of the use of corporal punishment in every classroom in this nation and the creation of an environment of learning in each such classroom is, for me, just a beginning. I ask for more. I ask that our schools play a far greater role in our nurturing system. I ask that our schools be not only a place to learn but a place to meet the complete developmental needs of our young people. I ask that our schools play a greater role in the emotional and cultural development of our children as well as carry out their function to develop our young people intellectually.
The children of America are at greater risk today than at any time in recent memory. Changes in society and changes in family structure have diminished many of the traditional resources for nurturing our young people. Two-thirds of our children live in homes where both parents are working away from home. Twenty-three percent of our children live in single-parent households, and almost all of these single parents are women working hard to make ends meet. Incredibly, 20 percent of the children of this great modern land of promise and plenty live below the poverty line. Thanks to fast jets and fast cars, many of us live far from our birthplace, far from our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins--the people who used to babysit and help raise our children.
Mother comes home from work to a house without a spouse, tired and depressed. She is faced with the chatter of her latchkey child, about whom she has worried all the livelong day. Weary, she snaps at her child, telling him or her to shut up and go watch television. She has no one to comfort her, no one with whom to share the burden of parenting. Her mother is a long-distance telephone call away, and even a night call is more than she can afford. She is so alone and lonely. She doesn't mean to treat her child this way but she is so tired. Her child is the one who comes to the classroom the next day and is unruly. Instead of paddling this child into temporary submission, why can't our teachers be trained to recognize a child with problems and have at their disposal the referral sources for psychological help or family counseling? Why can't a teacher be trained to recognize the withdrawn child as a young human being in need and have at his or her disposal the resources for saving that child's life?
The training of teachers and administrators, the referral sources, and the identification and counseling will take money. We will probably need to decrease classroom size to allow teachers to meet the emotional as well as the intellectual needs of students. Money, money, money. But isn't the future worth such an investment? Perhaps we shall be required to spend a few hundred dollars per child per year. Would we rather wait for that unruly child to become a functional illiterate, an emotional cripple, a burden to the state, or wait for him or her to don prison gray at a cost of thirty-five thousand dollars every year? We must invest in our children today or pay the really big bucks to cover our mistakes for years to come.
Do we have a choice? No, we do not. We must invest in our children or lose our future--something we cannot afford to do. Americans are a better people than that.
We must work toward our immediate goal: the elimination of the pernicious and failed practice of corporal punishment from every classroom in our land. Then, we can work to make our schools a vast family support system in which the emotional development of our children will be assured.
The time is now. The Netherlands, China, France, Spain, Austria, Denmark, Germany, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Switzerland, Sweden, and the Soviet Union have led the way. It's time for the United States to catch up with what the rest of the world knows. Corporal punishment is a failed practice--destructive to our youth and to our future. The time is now. Let us abandon for all time the corporal punishment of our children.
Also read TRY SOMETHING THAT WORKS by Bob Keeshan.
Bob Keeshan is one of the foremost figures in children's broadcasting as a result of his role as the host of "Captain Kangaroo" for nearly thirty years. His program has won six Emmy Awards, and Keeshan was honored in 1979 as Broadcaster of the Year by the International Radio and Television Society. Keeshan has served on the board of directors of the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse since 1984. He devotes much of his time to over a dozen charitable and civic organizations.
See Bob Keeshan 1927--2004 -- TV friend to children as Captain Kangaroo, Chicago Tribune, January 24, 2004.
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