corporeal punishment of children

Her Killers

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There is a laundry list of her murderers: The failed social/ political system that denies mentally and drug sick folk civilized long term easy access to inpatient mental care– we leave that to jails and streets in the ‘village’– where people preach but don’t care to get involved or to pay; Inherited DNA that both gives and takes away– (her family history included violence and homicide); and a violent drug- sick environment. Yet she was hard working and brilliant becoming wealthy until suffering increasingly severe psychotic episodes during the last 35 years of her life.

The list includes physicians who thoughtlessly gave her narcotics and other toxins for headaches; the famous Stanford Neurosurgeon who hacked her temporal lobe, even after all the rest of the neurologists and neurosurgeons proclaimed her deep brain cyst was benign–it would have been prudent to take serial CT scans. He neither mentioned hacking her temporal lobe, nor finished the operation, but took off for SE Asia letting an underling botch the closure that required two further repairs; and the long series of physician killers who prescribed aderal and ritalin, whose effects are almost identical to cocaine but faster and longer acting. The last killer-prescriber  declared to the court, despite pleas from her family, that she was not a danger to herself or to others– just hours before she shot herself. 

Add to her killer list the men who–while not altogether well or drug free– suckered and sucked her dry and spit her out; and in her last long sad 15 years, those men who moved on her when she was sick, alone and lonely in a little mobile home; the last was named Fenwick, a creation of her psychotic, paranoid, and drugged mind who  became real, and shot her with the gun she herself put to her head.

Her first killer, however,  was also a physician who, with some exceptions, was an absent father. It was a time when many physicians did not belong to one family, but were priest-scientists, benefactors of humanity, whose family was the world.

I was that physician, blindly devoted to my own grandness, ambitions, and responsibilities. I was ‘called’. In marriage  I ran from confrontation; when my resentful  wife squandered our money I remained silent, arrogantly self-contained. She always had full day help five days a week, while I put in 14 hour days because I hoped to continue my work with children of migrant farm workers. The ‘because’ was my contribution of course.  Always exhausted, and marinated in self importance, I tended to withdraw into myself.

A parent has no idea how parental anger may be interpreted by a child. I had been spanked as a child, but that never troubled me; though my father was an angry man, I was the benefactor of unconditional love from four grandparents with whom I spent at least several months every year. Yet I firmly believe that corporeal punishment of children is wrong; deadly wrong. It also is training in adult violence.

I very clearly recall an episode my daughter left buried in extensive in hand written autobiographical notes. I had spanked her in anger over- nothing; she told, and defended, a lie. What child wouldn’t when facing an angry father? A specific detail not recorded there is one I hate to even think about: Her bedroom was upstairs. After spanking her, I felt terrible, and apologized. But later I went up and found a mason jar with a stool in it. I can see that mason jar even now, and can only think that she was too terrorized to go down to the bathroom.

I was- and am- so shamed that I never spanked a child again. Yet I was her first killer; and there is no cure for either of us.

Corporeal Punishment of Children

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The First Lessons in Violence

Perhaps no one since Mark Twain has been so effective in the intimate one-man show style as Bill Cosby. He sits alone on a bare stage and talks, gesticulating with an unlit cigar, occasionally walking about to exchange comments, or humorous insults with his audience, while hitching up his baggy, sagging sweat pants. Much of his material consists of first person observations about his childhood, and family, which he represents as very different from the Huxtable family of TV fame that introduced average Americans to civil and sophisticated middle class family blackness. The night I see him his audience is largely made up of older people who can identify with his stories of ‘Whuppins’ and his mother’s colorful threats of punishment in response to misbehavior; she promised some form extermination. Cosby’s performance is brilliant classic comedy in which a sensitive topic is dealt with obliquely through humor. It seems likely that both Cosby and some  in the audience are relieved to escape into comedy when the subject matter is too serious to speak of; like corporeal punishment of children. We know a child should be treated with at least as much consideration as a pet dog! So we laugh in order not to cry over whupping.

I was raised when spanking of children was considered a parental duty or a virtue:
“Spare the rod and spoil the child!”

It was often administered with a dose of rather cynical regret:
“This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you!”

And cloaked in exaggeration and humor:
“Speak roughly to your little boy and spank him when he sneezes;
He only does it to annoy, because he knows it teases. Be quiet, Pig!”


Alice and the Duchess, John Piniel, 1865

Yet ‘spanking’ is a euphemism for striking a child, even though in an adult striking—or sometimes even touching– is considered an assault. Corporeal punishment is, somehow, acceptable in a child but not an adult, even though the child is relatively powerless. Spanking is nominally intended to discipline; to punish; to correct; to improve future unwanted behavior, or even to protect children from the danger.
We are well aware that a dog can be made aggressive by physically harsh treatment. Yet we, as a society, seem more offended by striking of a pet dog than a child. In fact, corporeal punishment is a child’s first lesson in the primordial value of physical violence. It teaches a lesson, the first of many, making clear that might is right.

During youth and adolescence, aggression becomes righteously Darwinian, directed at those who are different from the norm: weak, ugly, dull, foreign. It can take the form of hazing as a rite of passage for the newcomer or the outsider who hopes to prove worthy of acceptance: high school freshmen boys religiously ‘head flushed’ at the nearby gas station; joyous humiliation of college freshmen, or fraternity and military recruits. We tend to take such things as the norm; and, fortunately, serious consequences are rare. Yet hazing’s uglier form is mob violence, rioting, lynching, hate crime, and gang violence including rape.

While often nominally anxious about violence, we don’t act that way when we delight in violent movies, electronic games, TV shows, and degrading literature. We claim that our Constitution protects the right to act, dress, or speak in hostile ways. We tend to look the other way, to ignore or deny alleged, suspected or unproven violence that is hidden in the home. We hope not to get involved.

We remain a society that accepts, rewards and honors aggression. Certainly aggressive violence pays in our most honored and popular ‘contact’ sports. Pays Big Time! Perhaps one can justify that sort of violence. But not the violence that plays a part in many relationships, sexual and otherwise; or in the car chases and brawling characteristic of so many movies and TV shows. Ironically, even a woman’s liberation is often certified when she is aggressive, violent, and foul mouthed, or punches out anyone, especially an offensive man.

It is not automatic for children schooled in violence, to become civil, thoughtful, considerate adults.
I, like many people my age, learned aggression beginning in childhood. I accepted schoolyard violence, especially in males, as normal. Being young–happily normal, omnipotent and ignorant—I assumed my own life experience was identical to everyone’s. I never imagined behavior I thought was normal could be interpreted by another as extremely threatening or aggressive. Those greatest of all teachers, Time and Error, taught me the facts. And when the facts slapped me in the face I understood we are not all societal or behavioral clones, so that violence is best avoided altogether.

Much public debate today focuses on spousal abuse, sexual abuse of children, animal cruelty, sport violence, bullying, aggressive sexual talk or behavior, rape, hate crime or hate talk, racially or sexually insensitive speech, the death penalty, etc. While we, individually, can’t effectively address all of these societal ills, we each can relentlessly condemn corporeal punishment of children. In living our own lives, and in speaking with friends and family, we should insist a child be treated much more thoughtfully than a pet dog. At the very least that can do no harm. I am convinced it can do much good