The hard truth behind corporal punishment
By Michael Hickmon,, June 18, 2009

In the wake of recent violence in the ongoing culture war, the conciliatory tone of Ron Tate’s piece on corporal punishment was welcome, as was his suggestion that both sides should try harder to understand one another. However, to borrow his phrase, I’d like to contribute some further food for thought.

Mr. Tate’s description of his own childhood likely resonated with many of his readers, however it must be noted that his personal experience was hardly universal. My own experience with corporal punishment came at the hand of a man who was deacon at our Baptist church, which taught the importance of spanking with an object rather than a hand, and of continuing until the child’s angry wails of protest became broken cries of repentance.

The same is still taught in many churches today.

Welts and bruises were expected, and if a child couldn’t master the instinct to twist away from the blows, it was his own fault if he sustained the occasional bleeding laceration. I screamed and cried every way I could think of, but there were times that nothing sounded right to him, and spanking went on until I was too exhausted to make any noise, no matter how hard he hit me.

Neighbors called the cops, but there was nothing they could do.

Child-abuse was limited to a short list of serious injuries: broken bone, skull fracture, permanent loss of use of a limb, eye, or vital organ. Beating a kid with a belt for an hour, even on top of bruises and scabs from prior whippings, didn’t count.

The litany of such abuses and the fervent opposition to child-whipping that such atrocities inspire is not a new development, but goes back through history in an unbroken line, stopping only when the records run out. The debate didn’t start with liberal academics thirty years ago, but was already hundreds of years old when New Jersey banned paddling from public schools in the late 1800s.

Mr. Tate’s editorial repeats, practically verbatim, one half of the arguments made in New Jersey papers six generations ago. But it isn’t rhetoric that has been gradually eroding support for spanking for the last several hundred years; rather, the spanking philosophy is a victim of itself. In spite of all attempts at regulation, the practice has been and remains plagued with serious abuses.

The predictable result is an ever-expanding group of adults who despise the practice, the parents who did it to them, and the social and religious groups that tolerate and promote it.

Like most spankers, Mr. Tate underestimates the depth of the rift between us. I was tortured for the first nine years of my life; the police might have intervened, but couldn't because protecting another adults right to slap a child on the bottom was more important.

That the slap he defends is utterly trivial makes it more offensive, not less. That society benefited from laws that abandoned me to my fate is not a justification but a further indictment. That anyone thinks this point is worth raising illustrates how little a person who has never been tortured can understand about the experience.

Simply, there is as much common ground between us as there is between a slave and the people who profited from his captivity. I don't deny that society once profited from spanking. I say they profited by tolerating evil which should have been prevented. I find that despicable.

By my estimation there is little to admire about the “way we were.” The situation today is a vast improvement, and is quickly moving in the right direction. To me that doesn't mean a world where every measured swat is vilified as the equivalent of child abuse, but rather one in which responsible adults say with conviction that they would rather give up spanking than let their right to do so ever stand in the way of protecting a child from abuse.

Writer-activist Michael Hickmon lives in Leesburg and is in involved in lobbying and public education efforts related to corporal punishment and physical abuse of children.

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