I’ve spanked my daughter. I wrote about it earlier this year. It was just once, and under very specific circumstances – she was putting herself and her baby brother in danger and she needed to be stopped, quickly – circumstances that don’t excuse the spanking but do, I think, explain it. I didn’t spank out of anger. I didn’t spank as a matter of habit or consistent practice. I spanked because nothing else was working in a given moment and circumstances demanded that I do something. I’m not proud of it. I hope that it never happens again. I fully intend that it never happen again.
A report was recently released that suggests that spanking might be a good thing, that kids who are spanked might be better off, might turn out better, than kids who are not spanked. This, I think, is troubling. Not because I think that spanking and spankers are in all circumstances evil and terrible – my own parents were spankers – but because I think that although spanking is not always or necessarily abusive, it tilts too obviously and too dangerously in that direction and anything that encourages the practice just might, you know, grease the slope.
I spanked my daughter because she put herself and her brother in danger; it was a one-off, a much-regretted one-off, and although I forgive myself for it, I still regret it. As I wrote earlier this year, I would hesitate to judge any parent for doing what I did, simply because, as I said at the time and have said a thousand times since, I think that it is wrong in any but most the most obviously abusive circumstances to condemn the decisions that other parents make (discuss amongst yourselves.) But a study like this – one that argues that corporal punishment might contribute positively to our children’s success in life – could provide justification for the practice of corporal punishment, for the use of such punishment as a matter of course, as a child-rearing tool to be wielded regularly, as something to be provided as a matter of need, in doses, like vitamins. Have we smacked Junior enough this month, darling? We don’t want him to go soft!
This is where my commitment to relativism in the field of parenting runs into trouble. I do have trouble with corporal punishment as a mainstay of discipline, as a disciplinary tool that is used before or instead of other, less aggressive tools. And this study, because of its conclusions, could be taken to recommend corporal punishment as a parenting tool that should be used before or instead of others. The study might be on to something – I doubt it; as someone who has deconstructed her fair share of ‘studies’ in the academy, it seems to me that this one smacks of biased conclusions – but it doesn’t matter. Even if you could prove to me conclusively that hitting my children as a matter of regular practice could guarantee their acceptance, someday, into Harvard, I would still not do it and I would argue strenuously against it. Because there are other ways of disciplining them, ways that don’t involve hitting. And because raising them in a loving and safe environment, raising them to be gentle with themselves and with others, matters more to me than whether or not they might some day be able to face down a future incarnation of Donald Trump in the boardroom.
That in itself might prove my bad mother bona fides – that the future material and professional success of my children matters less to me than does their love and trust – but that, as might be expected, doesn’t bother me. That the contrary might be held to be the better parenting does bother me. That corporal discipline might have worked, once upon a time, to turn potentially unruly children into disciplined citizens is beside the point. That it might work now is beside the point. That we might be raising a generation of soft, coddled moppets who grow up to be tree-huggers or sitar-players or stargazers or artists or poets or flower-weavers or dreamers or lovers or all of the above is beside the point. Or maybe it’s not.
I’m trying to raise my children to love the world gently. And that means that we try – we really, really try, so far as is possible – to never cause each other pain.
And if that means no Harvard, so be it. The world needs more soft-hearted sitar-playing poets, anyway. And the Canadian university system is fine for that.