Spankings can turn easily into abuse
By Greg Sagan,, July 6, 2010

Jon Mark Beilue asked an important question in a column he wrote for this paper last Friday: When does child discipline become child abuse?

Greg Sagan

The question arises from an incident in which a local police officer apparently struck his own child and then came under investigation by the state's Child Protective Services.

Beilue mentioned that he had had his hide tanned more than once when he was young, and I accept at face value his conclusions that he both deserved it and learned from it. He went on to say that the majority of comments on the topic lamented the fact that parents could get in trouble for "disciplining" a child.

I received "spankings" when I was a child, too, usually from my father and always with a belt. I don't recall ever getting swats in school here, but I know many kids who did and I remember the paddles many teachers used for the purpose, some hung in places of honor in the classroom or office.

As many of you know, my father was a career Air Force officer. By the time we came to Amarillo in 1960 I had already attended schools in El Paso, Maine, Merced, Calif., New York City and Rapid City, S.D. I had also attended both public and parochial schools. In all of those years I felt that I was in danger of being struck by a teacher or administrator in only two places: Catholic school and here.

I also remember the rationalizations for it, my favorite being what I was told was a biblical admonition: spare the rod and spoil the child. As I understand it, "rod" refers to a shepherd's staff. For a shepherd to keep his flock together and on the move for food and water, he would use the staff to guide the animals in his care. I would ask those who embrace the "spare the rod" idea to give some serious thought to how shepherds use their staves.

It's one thing to guide an animal with a long stick, it's quite something else for a shepherd to beat one of the flock with it. The first is guidance, the second is a self-defeating form of cruelty - self-defeating because the animals in a shepherd's care are valuable, and beating them can lower their value. So I have trouble visualizing anyone with responsibility for a flock actually beating a stray.

It's also interesting to consider the root of the word "discipline." The root is "disciple," which I understand to be a follower and student of a teacher or other wise figure. There are many forms of discipline ranging from the physical to the intellectual, but it is useful to consider what lesson is being taught when an adult strikes a child.

Such consideration must ignore what it means to the adult doing it because we can stipulate that any adult will claim honorable motive when confronted with such behavior. Consider what it means to the child.

Children come into this world utterly powerless. If the adults around a baby aren't moved to care for it through the communication device of crying then the baby can perish, and rather quickly. It's the only form of influence babies have. As they grow they study the behaviors of the adults they see, and children quickly draw conclusions about who and what they are, how valuable they are, and what they must learn in order to survive in the world.

A child who grows up convinced that parental rationalization is valid will probably use the same rationalization with his own children, which means the action and the thinking behind it are passed on to the following generation. A child who grows up convinced that parental rationalization is not valid will probably find other, more effective means of discipline.

It is also possible, as Beilue points out, to conclude that the parental application of corporal punishment is a sign of love. And it is at least equally possible for a child to conclude, as I did, that at least one of his parents is crazy.

I've tried it both ways with my own children, but I reached a point when my oldest was about 12 years old when I stopped striking them. I realized that I was doing it out of rage, which was my own problem to confront and not something they caused. My ex-wife continued her own forms of physical abuse of our children until they were big enough to hit her back. Now two of our three children have virtually no relationship with their mother. The third she never struck.

So I view the physical striking of a child as a danger sign, and the danger is as great for the parent as the child.

Greg Sagan is an Amarillo business consultant and freelance writer.


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