Spank Your Children Well
By Richard Latimer,, August 16, 2010

"I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol, violence or
insanity to anyone but they've always worked for me."

                        — Hunter S. Thompson

Can you hear, and do you care
Can you see we must be free
To teach the children to believe
And make a world that we can live in.
From "Teach Your Children Well"

                        — Crosby, Stills & Nash

There's been some local press lately about a public school teacher cum fundamentalist preacher who sermonizes about the need to spank very young children – for their own good, of course. The very idea of letting someone like that anywhere near a small child should frighten the bejeezus out of you.

It's not so much a question of doing physical harm to the children – this spank-happy pastor is very careful to warn that great restraint must be used to avoid serious injury and, doubtlessly, he practices what he preaches on that score. The problem isn't just psychological, either, although the vast majorityof child psychologists warn against spanking, but goes directly to the nature of morality and, more specifically, Christian virtue.

Richard Latimer

The pastor's wayward children, presumably, are spanked only for "bad" behavior and/or disobedience. The message, therefore, i.e. the moral lesson, is "be good and obey, or you will be punished." That lesson does not, and cannot, lead a child into a true, inner sense of morality, and it tends, rather, to lead into cynicism, hypocritical religiosity and, in the worst case, clinical sociopathy.

True morality, whether based on religious principle or secular idealism, must come from within, based upon a positive impulse to be good, conform to society's legitimate expectations and be kind to each other because that is what we affirmatively want, not simply because we are seeking to avoid harsh treatment at the hands of society or the opprobium of other individuals.

The notion that children can be taught morality by corporal punishment, as opposed to merely modifying their outward behavior, is akin to Pascal's wager. Blaise Pascal, the 17th Century French philosopher, mathematician and physicist, posited what is essentially a "safe bet" as the basis for belief in God:

Let us weigh the gain and the loss in a wager that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing.

Pascal anticpates the doubter's objection that by his nature he cannot believe and, tellingly, his response is simply:

Learn of those who have been bound by you, and who now stake all their possessions. Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed.

"By acting as if they believed!" That's the kicker. Faith in God is not an act, belief is not religiosity or outward ritual. Faith comes from within, and it cannot be "learned" by acting "as if" we believe, simply as a ploy to increase our chances of a Heavenly reward and avoid eternal damnation.

Morality, by the same token, must come from within and cannot be based simply on conforming our outward behavior to gain the approval and indulgence of others or to avoid being punished. Spanking can be very effective as a tool for behavior modification, but that isn't morality. It is, rather, a purely psychological phenomenon known as conditioning, as opposed to a genuine moral or spiritual identity.

One does not become a believer by simply acting "as if" he believed out of fear or by anticipating a reward, and a child does not internalize morality by learning to act "as if" he were virtuous. In extreme cases, that merely turns a wayward child into a sociopathic adult, one who acts appropriately only when he's afraid he might be caught and punished otherwise.

We see such "as if" morality all around us today, in business, in politics and even in churches that cater to the post-Reagan right wing Republican ideology. Sleasy corporate CEOs think nothing of polluting the environment, putting families out of their homes, downsizing workers into poverty and rewarding themselves for doing so with multi-million dollar bonuses, as long as it's "all perfectly legal." That is to say — as long as they know the law can't punish them, or won't punish them as with the Bush administration directing the EPA to terminate several ongoing environmental lawsuits within months after taking office in 2001.

Thus, today's GOP pols fight tooth and nail to deregulate corporate business practices, to keep the CEOs safe from punishment for their immoral but "perfectly legal" transgressions against the environment, their customers and their employees. They've managed to succeed politically because they act "as if" they really believed in the religious right's "values" agenda on issues like abortion, gay marriage, public school prayer and creationism, through pandering and demagoguery.

Equally despicable and hypocritical are the so-called "Christian" preachers on the religious right who support the CEOs and their GOP hack enablers. We saw this plainly in the 2004 national elections where preachers all across the Bible Belt were urging parishioners to get out in record numbers to vote against gay marriage and re-elect that good "Christian" man George W. Bush.

Bush's re-election in 2004 guaranteed four more years of Executive deregulation and catering to the corporate class while pandering to the religious right. That, of course, in the financial and petroleum industries, led first in 2008 to the most devastating economic collapse since 1929 and then, in 2010, the most devastating man-made environmental disaster ever.

That's all o.k. with the religious right, though, because GOP pols act "as if" they hate gays and abortion and "as if" they really long for the return of school prayer and teaching the Creation myth as "science." Besides, for many of them, financial and environmental disaster is a good thing, because it means the end is near, when they'll be raptured up into Heaven while all secular sinners who don't believe in the Revelation myth will perish.

The Cape Cod spanking pastor and others on the religious right are sure to tell you that corporal punishment of children is mentioned in the Bible, which is true, but primarily in the Old Testament. By contrast, Jesus said: "Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not". Luke, 18:16. Jesus' message was all about love and kindness, and this was crystallized in his teaching that when someone strikes us we must "turn the other cheek." Matthew, 5:39.

Spanking is also contrary to Jesus' message in the Eight Beatitudes, which instruct us morally that: "Blessed are the merciful, . . ; Blessed are the peacemakers, . .; and "Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness." Matthew, 5:3-10. This is an unequivocally positive message, telling us how to act affirmatively by being merciful and kind, by making peace and by pursuing righteousness for its own sake. It stands in marked contrast to the Ten Commandments which admonish that "Thou shalt not. . . ."

Thomas Jefferson, one of the prime movers of the Bill of Rights, is less well known for his editing scripture and publication of the Jefferson Bible which repeats all of Jesus' moral teachings as a guide for secular morality while leaving out the miracles. In keeping with the Enlightenment values that inform the Bill of Rights, Jefferson rejected the Old Testament moral strictures, based primarily on negativity and fear of punishment.

The Old Testament contains many imperatives and strictures which we must clearly reject today, in light of either a Christian or a secular morality. In Leviticus 24:13, blasphemy is prohibited, e.g. saying "Goddamit!" requires that our fellow citizens stone us to death. Similarly, in Numbers 15:32, we must be stoned to death for gathering firewood on a Sunday. In Leviticus we are also admonisthed not to plant two different crops in the same field or, in a fashion police alert, not to wear two garments of different materials. That means it's a sin to wear a cotton-polyester white shirt with that silk tie you got for Christmas while wearing a woolen sports jacket no matter how well they go together. And, today, so goeth the spanking of small children as a Biblical mandate.
Spanking only teaches a child that using physical violence is a good method for getting your way in life.

Spanking, as conditioning or behavior modification, is all the worse and contrary to any true moral sensibility because it is a form of violence, i.e. striking another person in anger. There are occasions when children need to be disciplined, and there are occasions in life when violence is necessary to counteract violence. But disciplining a child for naughty behavior or disobedience does not require violence, no matter how benign or well-intentioned it may be or how naughty the child has been. Spanking only teaches a child that using physical violence is a good method for getting your way in life.

Hunter Thompson's quip about drugs, violence and insanity notwithstanding, using violence as a method of getting your way is inherently immoral. That's what the Islamist terrorists were doing on September 11, 2001, when they commandeered jet planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York. Of course, they rationalize that as being a response to the violence perpetrated against their people by armed American forces, or by American supported tyrants in the Arab world based primarily on securing petroleum resources for American oil companies.

In terms of morality, however, it's futile to point fingers as a justification for violence, no matter how necessary one side or the other may perceive their acts of violence to be. Necessity is not the same thing as morality. Whether we act kindly or violently, if it's only because we feel compelled to do so by external forces, we are not acting in any true moral capacity, but only from expedience. That's just another case, in the words of Dana Carvey's Church Lady, of "Isn't that convenient."
Moral instruction...can only be effectively taught by example.

Morality has to come from within. It has to be internalized and that cannot be based on a simplistic desire to be rewarded or to avoid punishment. We can teach morality, Christian or secular, to our children, but not by such an easy, simple expedient as spanking or even milder forms of discipline. Moral instruction is far more difficult than that, because it can only be effectively taught by example.

If we wish our children to become moral adults, we must show them that we are moral adults. That requires far more than simply obeying the laws while doing things that are unkind and self-interested as long as they are "perfectly legal." And it is more difficult than simply doing good deeds for show in expectation of some reward, whether that may be a tax deduction or being raptured up to Heaven. It's certainly more difficult than merely spouting pieties about God, as justification for denying others an adequate livelihood and driving them from their homes.

We must "teach our children to believe," and help them understand how to make a world that we can live in — all of us and not just the select few. That can only be done by showing our children that we care about a better world and by acting accordingly, doing good deeds and being kind, solely for the sake of doing so.



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