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Monday, January 9, 2012

Physical Punishment Tales from the Memory Vault

All this discussion of physical punishment has brought back memories from the long ago, and I want to recount one just to show how complicated these things really are.
Years and years and years ago, my older son was about three years old. I decided that it would be nice for him to have a blackboard in his room, because he always liked to write on the board if he came to class with me. I got some blackboard paint and painted a section of wall, got colored chalk, even fixed up a little chalk tray with a piece of quarter-round, and painted the rest of the wall a nice clean white. [Parents who are more experienced than I was at the time will see what’s coming.] I did all that, then left the room for half an hour-- and when I came back my firstborn had climbed up on some shelves, studiously avoiding the blackboard, and chalked all over the nice white wall. I was infuriated, which was really quite unreasonable because I hadn’t thought to tell him not to do this. I told him off thoroughly and delivered a couple of swats on the bottom.

A few hours later, this conversation took place.

CHILD: (firmly) Mom! I don’t like all that screaming and spanking.

ME: Well… what do you think I should do when you’re naughty?

CHILD: (thinks a minute) Tell me quietly, and clean it up.

ME: Oh. Well, if I did that, would you stop doing it?


It just goes to show-- as the saying goes, the camel driver he has his opinion; the camel he has his. But the family caravan still needs to keep lumbering along and usually manages to do so to the best of everyone’s imperfect ability.


  1. Ha! Funny story.
    Hey, is it possible that there is no data about children that received no punishment at all? Not just physical, no man-made corrective negative consequences at all.
    My girls are 13 and 17 now, and they seem pretty well socialized. I mean, they're girls, boys may have been tougher, but they seem to be evidence of no 'original sin.' They are not naturally bad, as near as I can see, and show no detrimental effects of never having been 'corrected.' Anecdotal, I know.
    Do you think there is any data, anywhere, for that?
    OK, there was once, which might count. We didn't intend it as punishment, but when the older kid lost her second expensive iPod within a few months of the first one, we didn't buy her another one. Again, not intended as punishment, but I wouldn't credit someone else's labeling of what is and isn't punishment. I jeer when I hear "not punishment, consequences!" for instance. So, I guess it probably counts. We thought of it as practical; we couldn't afford to keep buying one every few months, but we also saw it as a life lesson for her.

  2. Do you really mean NO punishment? You never frowned, or gave them The Look? They never disagreed with, yelled at, or tattled on each other? Their friends never criticized their clothes or gossiped painfully or left them out after some problem had occurred? Their teachers never corrected their spelling or gave them a worse grade than they wanted? All of those are aspects of socialization and could be interpreted as punishment, which as you say is hard to label.

    Curiously, my adult sons tell me they don't remember that I ever punished them, although I thought I did. Perhaps what they mean is that I didn't do "grounding" the way their friends' parents did, because I think it's a really stupid attempt at power play that's more annoying for the parent than for the child.

    I note that you say "we". I was a single parent for most of my children's childhoods, and I might have found that if I had adult back-up I could have taken a different approach. But then lots of people are single parents, and whatever broad rules we promulgate for childrearing ought to take those families' needs into account too.

    As for "consequences", I dislike that as well as you, especially when it becomes a verb ("I consequenced him for that.") Actually, that use of "consequence" seems to have come out of the commercial parenting program "Love & Logic", one of whose founders, Foster Cline, was originally a leader in attachment therapy/holding therapy.He surrendered his medical license following a disciplinary hearing after an injury to a child.

    Whatever the language, though, I think your decision not to replace the iPod was a good one. One has to think what is being taught if there are no "consequences" of this kind.

  3. There was disapproval, verbal, disapproval. I think that is a very different thing when the child hasn't learned to expect escalation. Much disapproval includes the threat of more, and certainly 'the Look' is all about the threat of more. When a parent SAYS 'no' and SPEAKS their disapproval and the child has no experience of that only being the warning, with something more . . . concrete to come when the verbal stuff doesn't have the desired effect for the parent, then, that isn't punishment. That's just communication, just teaching, or at least the attempt to teach. Of course, it doesn't always work, doesn't always bring the immediate results the parent is after, but it gains trust if it's consistent, and the kid will learn to trust and keep the lines of communication open. We really haven't seen the usual teenage troubles. They're 13 and 17, and the lines of communication are still open. I keep waiting for the trouble to start, but it's not happening!
    I can tell you get my take on non-violent punishment, that it;s a joke, that it has backup, or it's nothing. I'm actually starting to think physical punishment is better. At least it's more honest.
    And yes, we didn't stop the authoritarian stuff in school, etc., we didn't even try, so in that sense, our kids were shown "the system." They know how the world works, so we may have taken advantage of that, let everyone else threaten them, so that they got the idea - get in line, or else - so that we came off as so much nicer . . . we may have cheated in that way. But how could we not have?
    Also, yes, non-punishing methods are very time-consuming, probably really "takes a village."

  4. Interesting-- I didn't see the "usual teenage troubles" either. I think what we're getting to is that families have to tailor their methods to their situations.

    I managed with a couple of spanking events per child. What if I were a poor woman with several preschoolers living upstairs from a crabby landlord who wants the children quiet, and I knew I couldn't afford moving expenses or a deposit on a new apartment? I might well use a lot of physical punishment and threats of more, not to speak of plenty of TV-as-babysitter, to keep the whole enterprise going. (The largest proportion of children taken by child protective services in my state are taken because of inadequate housing, by the way, so that mother has an enormous list of dangers if she doesn't keep the kids quiet.)

    I just don't like to have everybody told that there is only one way to rear their children, although I know I'm inconsistent in ruling out practices like hot-saucing for everyone.

  5. so, again, no data available for un-punished children, right?