Punishing Kids

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.  Reprinted under a CC BY-SA 2.5 license.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Reprinted under a CC BY-SA 2.5 license.

This post over at Mak’s blog discusses the merits and demerits of punishing children. By punishment, the post (and its links) refer to actually visiting physical violence upon one’s children. This is a pretty heated issue in the States, with some public schools still allowed to physically hit students with a parent’s consent. I can’t speak for everyone, but I can speak about my own view of my own childhood. It directly informs my views of punishing kids.

I was originally one of those people that thought he was well-adjusted.
On a long enough timeline in the South, people will talk about anything. There were some friends of mine in college who had kids or very young siblings, and one day they were talking about corporal punishment. The consensus view at the time involved the phrase, “I was beat as a kid, and I turned out fine.” Even if you didn’t wholeheartedly embrace spanking kids, you still needed to show you wanted to discipline them. People who disagreed were special snowflakes who were going to raise losers. Talking to kids was just ineffective based on anecdotal evidence; this didn’t matter whether one was a parent or not.

It’s sort of a popular cliche in fiction (and books on parenting) that there’s no instruction manual for parenting. Nobody needs a license or other qualification to replicate one’s DNA. Whether one is on the highest rungs of society’s ladder or hanging out in the sub-basement, most people can procreate. Eventually, conversations about parenting happen because lots of people are capable of having kids whether they intend to or not. This is important because everyone gets subjected to those anecdotal conversations, and some people actually believe what they say.

As it turns out, I wasn’t a better person because of punishment – physical or otherwise.
Mostly, I learned to avoid my parents. Importantly, this wasn’t just the result of physical punishment. It helped move things along, but mostly I learned that whenever my parents felt I wasn’t respecting their authority, it gave them license to inflict whatever punishment they liked upon me. Later on in life, when I was too large to physically hit, my parents would still imagine punishments simply to cajole me into doing something around the house.

Originally, all this came out of the parenting advice my folks received from James Dobson. He advocated punishing children for no other reason than to keep them in line. Whether it was to encourage godly living, obeying the law, or just complying with parental rules, punishment was the first resort to dealing with infractions. The net result of all of this is advice which tells parents it’s okay to hit your kids, starve them, berate them, manipulate them, or otherwise be a general jerk to them. After all, it’s what the Christian deity ordained in [insert favorite Bible verses here].

This kind of treatment permanently affected my view of the world. Like I mentioned above, I thought it was normal and desirable to punish people to the point of being afraid of you. That fear still exists to some extent; I get nervous whenever my family is in a bad mood. Indeed, I am less afraid of getting hit by a truck than of my family when they’re out of sorts.

The problems don’t end there. Effectively Dobson said it was okay to coerce your kids back into line for any reason whatsoever. Sure, he offered some platitudes about making sure you didn’t leave any bruises, but he more than made up for it by reminding parents to make sure it was always the kid’s fault they were getting hit or otherwise punished. On a long enough timeline, that turned my parents into thinking they couldn’t do any wrong. Eventually I got to the point where I knew I’d get harassed as an excuse to mow the lawn.

Forget what it does to the kids for a moment. Punishment can also turn parents into awful people.
People who otherwise might not be violent or predisposed to yelling at others can become quite adept at it with enough practice. I know my own parents weren’t entirely comfortable with the advice Dobson gave them; my younger siblings were mercifully spared a lot of the punishment I and my older brother received. When asked about it later, they avoid the subject and pretend it never happened.

The damage is already done, and the shittiest thing is that it’s not anyone’s direct fault. Here were these two people who just wanted to be able to cope with their responsibilities in life, and they ended up reaching for the snake oil sold by a dirtbag. From there, their whole relationship with at least two of their kids is strained at best. Personally, my relationship with them is only out of necessity. I still love them very much, but I also know that I have to do that from a distance.

Moral of the story: punishment isn’t something people can apply liberally.
This is true regarding parent-child relationships and jailor-inmate relationships, or any other relationship where one person has power over another. At best, punishing a person teaches one lesson one time. At worst, it creates different problems that go by unnoticed for years. It deserves more attention than just anecdotal musings and letting anyone give advice without regards to the consequences.