This Is Going to Hurt You More Than It Hurts Me

We're now having a national debate on the merits of corporal punishment, an issue that has many facets and brings up all kinds all kinds of complications involving religion, culture, gender, authority, and tradition. I'm not going to begin to address even a small portion of them, but I do want to talk about one thing that gets me a little perturbed about this discussion.

If you actually look at what corporal punishment advocates (and yes, there are people who do that on a semi-professional basis) say, there's a constant effort to characterize "good" corporal punishment as something that isn't really all that unpleasant for the child. They say it should never be done in anger (and if more than one out of 20 actual spanking incidents in the real world isn't done in anger, I'd be shocked), but only in a controlled, limited way that is over quickly, causes no injury, produces only temporary discomfort, and carries the ultimate message, "I love you."

As Focus on the Family founder James Dobson wrote in his book Dare to Discipline, which has sold millions of copies, a bit of "minor pain" is the way nature instructs us about things that are unwise to do. "God created this mechanism as a valuable vehicle for instruction," he writes. Dobson also recommends using a "neutral object" of some sort, "because the hand should be seen as an object of love." And if your child cries for more than five minutes after a spanking, you can shut that whole thing down "by offering him a little more of whatever caused the original tears."

I will give Dobson credit for not shying away from the central philosophical underpinning of corporal punishment, which is that the infliction of pain and fear on your child is the whole point of the practice.

The assumption of corporal punishment is this: the child did something wrong, and in order to convince the child not to do it again, I will subject them to physical anguish. Thereafter, their fear of living through that anguish again will be so powerful that it will constrain their behavior. That this is the logic at work is utterly undeniable. If that wasn't the logic, there would be no point. You can't say the purpose of a pain-based physical punishment is to "get their attention," because there are a hundred ways to get someone's attention. The purpose is to hurt them and render them fearful of reliving that pain.

By that logic, Adrian Peterson's actions only seem a tad overenthusiastic. His four-year-old son snatched a video game controller from another kid, and as a consequence got a vicious beating from a muscle-bound adult. You can bet he won't be snatching any more game controllers from anyone! Mission accomplished.

Or maybe he will; there's a raft of research showing that "short-term compliance" — i.e., stopping what the kid is doing right at that moment — is pretty much the only positive outcome from corporal punishment, while it's associated with a range of negative long-term psychological and behavioral outcomes. But even if you think that it's good for your kid (or somebody else's), you should at least have the courage to acknowledge that making the child suffer is the whole point.

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