As a Christian conservative, I want to support the corporal punishment of children. I believe in the institutions that endorse it and trust the people who praise it more than I believe in and trust those who disagree with it.
At the same time, I don’t feel that spanking was a particular boon to my childhood. Although I wouldn’t say it harmed me, I can’t point to any particular instance where I felt it corrected my behavior in a lasting way or that I turned out to be a better person because of it.
With no personal experience to decide between the arguments for and against corporal punishment, for a long time I’ve been in a state of ambivalence about the practice. In an attempt to resolve my position, I’ve developed a few rules of thumb about rightful punishments and have examined how I would go about implementing them.
Making the Intangible Tangible
For corporal punishment to be justified at all, we first have to agree that there are actions for which parents have reasonable cause to punish their children.
It is the responsibility of parents to establish acceptable behavior. They do that by communicating the costs of those actions through the form of punishment. Parents must communicate both visible and invisible costs to their children.
In the case of breaking a window, the child may experience the visible cost by working to pay for the damage. In the case of a child insulting a sibling or disobeying a parent, he has committed an invisible crime. Showing disrespect causes damage to a person’s dignity–an intangible that a child might struggle to grasp.
This principle also applies to actions that inflict invisible consequences on the child’s own self, such as cursing or failing to apply himself to his work. There are visible consequences to these actions but they take so long to come to fruition that waiting for them to play out would be a disservice to the child because of how much damage would accumulate over time.
Corporal punishment translates the very real damage done by invisible crimes into a tangible experience.
The Dangers of Corporal Punishment
The main criticism I’ve heard leveled at corporal punishment is that it’s much more dangerous and prone to abuse than other punishments, but that’s not necessarily true.
Take for example solitary confinement (i.e., sending a child to his room) or words of reprimand–these methods all affect the child’s psyche; the parent must be just as careful not to misuse them and send the wrong message. Solitary confinement is just as easy to get wrong as corporal punishment; the length of a time-out for a child of a particular age has a real impact on the effectiveness of the punishment and the relationship between the parent and the child.
Depending on the sensitivity of the child in question, punishment through words of reprimand could be even more dangerous if parents use it carelessly, given the psychological effect of the self-fulfilling prophecy. Corporal punishment only seems like a more dangerous tool, because it’s wrong to hit children under other circumstances, but any punishment used inconsistently will have unintended consequences.
The Advantages of Corporal Punishment
Corporal punishment has the advantage of being a more precise tool than other forms of punishment because it is less likely to cause collateral damage: The punishment delivers exactly what it intends to deliver and nothing else, whereas intangibles like lecturing or yelling at a child give the parent less control over the message the child receives.
The advantage of corporal punishment in its efficiency and precision is that the child will never accidentally associate with punishment something that could have positive connotations. If a parent uses cleaning your room as a punishment, for instance, the child may feel negatively about tidiness long into the future. Pain doesn’t have that problem. There’s no situation in which a child should enjoy being hit with a switch, especially by an adult.
This is particularly true if parents have their child choose a new switch every time. If the parent uses a belt or a flyswatter, like my parents did, there is potential for that specific object to take on a fearful quality. With the disposable switch, there is no boogeyman object that looms in the child’s memory–he can’t misinterpret when he might be punished, because the stick doesn’t exist until the punishment commences.
Training in Virtue
If I ever become a parent, I would feel comfortable using corporal punishment as a means to correct my children because there are scenarios in which it is the most precise and effective tool available. There are many more facets to explore, but I’ve concluded that spanking, when done carefully, can be a just way for parents to “train up a child in the way he should go.”