Nonviolence is absolute commitment to the way of love. –Martin Luther King, Jr.
I would never spank a child, not as a teacher or parent. This is a vow I made long before having a child of my own, and it’s one I’ve never even been tempted to break.
And while I could link to dozens of studies that show that spanking doesn’t improve a child’s behavior, and in fact may lead to everything from poor peer relationships to hyperactivity to anti-social behavior, I’m not going to. I won’t because there are other scientific studies (fewer, but they exist) that show that spanking is an effective and acceptable parenting tool.
My objection to spanking is a moral one, anyway, and any research I site would simply be backfill to support a position from which I will not budge. As I’ve written here before, I believe that once a moral argument is raised, the debate is over. No one is going to back down from an honestly held moral position: once that point is reached, further discussion is a waste of breath.
There are a few things about spanking, however, about which I hope every reasonable person agrees:
• Spanking must never be done in anger – that’s called beating.
• Spanking is the exclusive domain of parents; it’s never okay to spank someone else’s child.
• Spanking must be accompanied by a clear explanation to the child about why she is being punished and followed-up with clear demonstrations of love.
• If the child is too young to understand why he is being spanked, he is too young to be spanked.
As much as it goes against every fiber of my being, if these conditions are met, I guess a big, strong adult has the right to hit a smaller, weaker child. The whole idea makes me soul sick, but we live in a society in which the choice of parental corporal punishment is permitted.
That said spanking done in public becomes everybody’s business. We’ve all seen a frustrated parent whack a whining child. From where I stand, that’s hitting done in anger and I can’t help but wonder that if a parent does this in public, heaven only knows what she’ll do behind closed doors. That parent may have the right to spank her child, but I’ve just witnessed a child getting hit. As a teacher in Washington State, I’m required by law to report suspected child abusers. That parent's actions have caused a spark of suspicion, so I can’t just look the other way on both moral and legal grounds.
It’s hard to know what to do. I don’t want to make things worse by humiliating or further angering a person who has already demonstrated a willingness to hit a child. Sometimes I find a way to say something. I try to do it in a compassionate and reasonable tone. My primary goal is to stop the violence by distracting the parent. Other times, I simply make sure that the adult knows that I’ve been a witness by forcing eye contact. Either way, I’m always left angry, sad, and wondering what else I could have done.
I’ve had people shrug at my moral stance and insist that spanking “works,” and I’m sure it does. There are lots of things that work that I will never try. If I disagree with you, shouting you down works, but wouldn’t it be better if I engaged you in reasonable debate? If I need money, stealing works, but wouldn’t it be better if I worked to earn a higher income? If you’re standing in my way, pushing you works, but wouldn’t it be better to politely ask you to allow me to pass? Indeed, spanking may work, but there are better ways. They just take more effort.
As a boy, I was on the receiving end of a handful of spankings, always administered by my father, who is by every measure a loving, peaceful, compassionate man. I don’t believe that I am the worse for the experience.
Still, I have never spanked a child and I never will because I know in my heart that violence is wrong. And I will not teach violence.
Nonviolence is not sterile passivity, but a powerful moral force which makes for social transformation. --MLK