The Unsound Logic Behind Spanking
Beating Children To Teach Them To Be Kind

By Michael Pastore (BNW-053199-B1310)

Brief New World columns, features, and essays are Copyright (c) 1999 by Michael Pastore. All rights reserved. For information about reprinting this essay, in print or on websites, Please contact Youthtopia by email
A short time ago, in an essay about school violence -- titled "Fear and Closing In Our Nation's Schools" -- I ventured a prediction that I hoped would never come to pass. I stated that as an over-reaction to the recent spree of school shootings, a number of adults would try to crack down on children's behavior by reverting to old-fashioned authoritarian remedies.

These slap-'em-silly remedies didn't work in the good-old days and they won't work now. In practice and theory, 'Spare the rod and spoil the child' has proven to be both harmful and false. Like fool's gold it glitters, it deceives the ones who look for easy answers, it has no value in the honest world.

I have called this approach the "Do-it-or-else!" method of child management. It hangs around the use of force, threats, anger, unfreedom, and punishments. It is quick, it is unthinking, it takes no skill whatsoever to apply -- and it fails each and every time.

Days after my essay was written, the state of Louisiana passed a law which demanded that schoolchildren say "Yes sir, Yes ma'am" and "No sir, No ma'am" to their teachers. I recalled a fourth-grade teacher of mine who demanded the same hollow courtesies. When she faced the class, the children dutifully replied "Yes, Mrs. Forcer." But every time she turned around or left the room, the consequences of her mismanagement were instantly revealed. Students quietly called her every imaginable swear word; students made gestures which demonstrated their true feelings about her military-style of class control. These natural feelings were caused by Mrs. Forcer's hostility, by her domineering attitude, and by her obvious lack of joy each time she entered the solemn class.

Let Louisiana take the prize for senseless actions in our schools, and give Oklahoma the black-and-blue ribbon for stirring violence in our homes. On May 26 the state of Oklahoma passed legislation that adds a striking line into their statutes. This line reminds parents that they have the right to discipline children by spanking, paddling, or whipping with a switch. Ironically, on that same day (May 26), a judge in Media, Pennsylvania ordered that a 20-month-old infant be kept on life-support systems. This child -- blind, deaf and insensitive to pain -- had been hospitalized after he had allegedly been shaken by his dad.

Two days later, on May 28, Nevada joined the pro-hitting crusade, when a bill passed the State Senate (and is pending approval by the Nevada State Assembly) which permits parents to spank their kids.

Thankfully, protests against these foolish actions have already begun. One of America's finest child-rights organizations is called PTAVE (Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education), directed by Jordan Riak. PTAVE has helped spread awareness by collecting essays and articles about the problem, and posting these on the PTAVE website,

Another group standing up for children is called Children's Institute International, CII ( CII has criticized Oklahoma's action, and published a new survey which shows that only 8% of parents polled believe that spanking is the best way to discipline a child.

Bertrand Russell, the Nobel Prizewinning philosopher and educator, said that two things are needed to save the world: "Love and knowledge." While we hesitate to doubt the good intentions of legislators in Oklahoma and Nevada, clearly they lack knowledge about the nature and the needs of modern kids. Overwhelming evidence from authors, physicians, the American Medical Association, children's organizations, and independent scholars -- all demonstrate irrefutably that hitting a child does, or is likely to, cause physical and emotional damage to the child.

Those of us who have worked extensively with children and young adults can also affirm that attempting to use force to control children's behavior -- by hitting, threatening, yelling -- is thoroughly ineffective. In fact, using force frustrates the child, never addresses the root of the problem, and usually aggravates the anti-social behavior we seek to change.

Gazing into the crystal ball for Oklahoma and Nevada is a sad but simple task. I regret to predict that if the use of force, in homes and schools, becomes more prevalent in those states, serious consequences will transpire. There will be:

1. More physical injuries to children, by parents who have lost control.

2. Chaos in the classrooms, as teachers grapple with the impossible questions of when to use force and how much force to use.

3. More lawsuits from parents whose children have been hit by teachers. More lawsuits by children whose parents have injured them by using force.

4. Greater force needed each time to dominate the child's behavior.

5. Emotional injury to children, who, rightfully, cannot understand how someone who says they care about them also strikes them.

6. More fear in children, more resentment in children, more mistrust between children and adults.

7. Children -- as a direct result of this unwholesome atmosphere of trustlessness -- who are less likely to confide in and talk to the adults who practice force.

8. More children, inspired by the example taught by the switch, who use force against other children.

9. More children likely to grow up as child abusers, sexual sadists, and masochists.

10. Less talking and communication, since force becomes the thoughtless and easy way to handle any situation.

11. Less attention focused by adults on finding and practicing the creative and nonviolent methods for living with and working with kids.

12. More frustrated children, and children with deeper frustrations, and therefore more children committing all varieties of violent deeds.

Every adult who spanks or strikes a child admits that he or she has failed that child. He or she has failed to communicate with that child, failed to respect that child, and failed to be respected by that child. Strike a child and you will lose that rapport between two human beings that is the essence of all love and education. Strike a child and you might be feared, but you will never be respected. Fear will rarely prevent a child from misbehaving. Fearful children will grow up to be adults crippled by fear, and will never find true fulfillment or true happiness.

The advocates for spanking have been making a fundamental mistake in logical thinking. They see only two paths: Either spank the child into submission, or don't spank and let the child wreak havoc on the world. There is a third way, a golden mean, between parenting-by-force and non-parenting. By non-parenting I mean spending little or no time communicating with, sharing with, and caring about your child.

The third way for parents is to spend time with their children, every day, talking together, playing together, learning together. For teachers, the third way is to control their classrooms not with threats, but by caring about each child, and by making their subjects so interesting that children learn to love to learn.

The third way is the way of love, the only way that teaches, the only way that works. It begins with a commitment, by every parent, to the two simplest resolves: 1) I will never hit my kids; and 2) Every day I will spend time with my children. From these two seeds, all other answers will blossom forth.

There is still hope for Oklahoma and Nevada and Louisiana, in the common sense of an old proverb: No matter how far you've traveled on the wrong road, turn back.

Until then, these three states -- and any states foolish enough to join them -- will wear dunce caps and sit in the corner of the school for social progress. They have regressed to an uncivilized era 200 years ago, when children were treated as mere possessions, when the needs of the child were not yet understood, when the rights of the child remained abused, ignored, unrecognized.

Michael Pastore is the author of a number of books about working creatively and nonviolently with children, and an essayist who writes about culture, literature, childhood, education, the information revolution, and sustainable living. His weekly column Brief New World appears every Monday at
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