I have a memory of sitting in my fourth-grade classroom, listening to a boy get paddled in the hallway. It seemed humiliating that they did it during school hours, in the middle of class, just letting the slap of the paddle echo through the hallway and all of us knowing what was happening and who it was happening to. I remember feeling so angry I almost cried.
The boy, a goofy kid who was disruptive in the way that fourth-grade class clowns are disruptive, and who'd always been nice to me, had been called out of class by the principal. That it was a school official—this strange, distant adult doing something so intimate with one of us in the formal setting of school—felt gross to me. I'd been spanked growing up, and the shame was always the worst part, but this was different.
In my memory, we were studying the Little Rock Nine (this was in Conway, a suburb of Arkansas' capital). The principal was a white man and my classmate was black—maybe this added to the chafe, or maybe I'm retroactively projecting a narrative onto the situation that I hadn't yet conceived of.
This happened in the late '90s, but as of last year, as many as 22 states still allowed students to be hit by school officials.
Spanking for discipline has become less popular over time. But, according to FiveThirtyEight, "polls consistently show most Americans believe spanking is an appropriate form of discipline, although it varies by party identification, race, region and religion."
I remember my dad—an up-by-the-bootstraps Republican who grew up poor—telling us about how his grandma would have him go out to the yard and pick the switch that she would use to give him welts on his legs. It was, my dad says, "a common practice." (I'm visiting home as I write this, so I'm able to confirm this memory easily by walking into the next room. When I tell him I'm working on an article about corporal punishment, he looks bemused, or skeptical. He adds: "Obviously it didn't harm me, you know.")
Though a segment of society continues to hold on to the practice as a necessary, even healthy, component of proper child-rearing, many believe it's a harmful, backward relic that should be abandoned or even criminalized.
The (Bible) Belt
My parents spanked me with an open hand or a wooden paddle. A belt only once or twice, if ever. This was done on my butt or the backs of my thighs as I bent over the bed, and it didn't leave bruises. Sometimes I was angry and ashamed. Sometimes my siblings and I would stuff our underwear with doll's pillows and laugh.
Like many Christians, my parents believed that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. Their spanking rarely felt like it was done because they'd lost their tempers. There was usually a break between the offense and the punishment, during which I was instructed to wait in my room. When they would say, "This hurts me more than it hurts you," I believed them; I could tell they didn't get pleasure from my pain. I remember, once, my dad told me to bend over the bed, which I did immediately—then he hesitated. He said that because I'd obeyed him so well he wasn't going to spank me.
Not all physical discipline is so restrained. Some fundamentalist Christian families have come to public attention in recent years because of child abuse—physical and otherwise—a number of whom have been influenced by rigid Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy ideologies.
"While their roots go back much further and their influence spreads much wider, the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements were born in the homeschool movement in the 1980s and have since grown by leaps and bounds," writes prominent blogger Libby Anne, who grew up in a large evangelical homeschooling family. "Christian Patriarchy teaches that families must follow a strict patriarchal order and Quiverfull teaches that families must raise up numerous children as foot soldiers to build Christ’s kingdom on earth. While technically distinct, these two movements nevertheless almost always go hand in hand."
Based on data from the University of Chicago‘s General Social Survey (GSS), over the past decade, 80 percent of born-again Christians have given spanking the OK as a form of punishment—that's, on average, 15 percentage points higher than the rest of the population. It makes sense, then, that corporal punishment is concentrated in a handful of Bible-Belt states, with Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama using this discipline the most, according to a 2016 analysis of federal civil rights data published in Social Policy Report. (A 2015 article in The Atlantic referencing the then-latest civil-rights report from the U.S. Department of Education reported that these three states, plus Texas and Georgia, accounted for 70 percent of corporal punishment cases, with Texas ranking second.)
It may be helpful here to recall a Bible story that always troubled me: One day God told Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. Abraham loved his son. He didn't want to do it! But he also wanted to obey God. So he tied Isaac up and put him on the alter. Right as Abraham was about to cut the throat of his beloved child, God sent the message that Abe didn't actually have to kill him. God had just been testing him, see?
The story of Abraham and Isaac is one that many evangelical Christians will tell with a reverence that's kind of chilling if you think about it for any longer than the duration of a Sunday school lesson. It's at the core of so much of what I was taught about authority, respect, faith, and obedience—and its message is dangerous when power is in the wrong hands, which is often.
"Corporal punishment's strong support in the South seems to be rooted in a number of cultural factors, including a strict interpretation of the Bible, a conservative approach to law and order, and the legacy of using [...] violence to control people, as in slavery," reports NBC News, paraphrasing David Finkelhor, who heads the Crimes against Children Research Center and Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire.
When obedience is prioritized over everything, and when people accept that the obedient end always justifies the violent, humiliating means, we get a 9-year-old bruised from a school administrator's paddling, a father leading his crying daughter around the grocery store by her hair, a doctor dragged down the aisle of an airplane, a child starved, and a man executed for having a broken tail light.
Corporal Punishment And Inequality
The analysis published in Social Policy Report found evidence of "systematic profiling" in the way that children are handled by the school officials responsible for them: "Black children, boys, and children with disabilities seem to be disproportionately punished," conclude the study's authors. "This Social Policy Report should be read against the backdrop of the larger societal discussions about police activities and racial profiling. In that sense, it is timely and extremely relevant."
"Differences in rates of misbehavior can explain some but not all of the differences in corporal punishment administered to boys versus girls," they write. "Although boys have been found to be twice as likely as girls to be referred to the school office for discipline for a range of misbehaviors [...] they are not twice as likely to be corporally punished, but rather four times as likely. It is clear that boys are grossly overrepresented among students who receive corporal punishment."
Indeed, this information aligns with what we've learned about implicit biases—our tendency to hold unconscious attitudes about people based on factors like a person's gender or ethnicity—and how these affect behavior. Research has found that baby boys, for example, may be treated as less social than baby girls, and so are less exposed to the interaction that would develop verbal and emotional expressiveness. And, in the context of police activity, black citizens are more likely to be treated aggressively than white citizens in the same situations.
Black students are also more likely than students from other racial groups to be spanked by family, "which, scholars say, reflects in part parents' concerns that they need to keep their children in line at home to protect them from the possibility of violence outside of it," reports NBC News. According to the GSS data reported on by FiveThirtyEight, "Whites (including Hispanics) have been, on average, 11 percentage points less likely than African-Americans to favor corporal punishment."
Slate's chief political correspondent Jamelle Bouie points out that this disparity can largely be accounted for by the regional, religious, and economic factors that influence people's views on spanking.
"Consider that while most Americans support spanking (about 70 percent), born-again Christians are more likely to support than non-born-again Christians (80 percent versus 65 percent), and Southerners are more likely to support it than people from other parts of the country. What’s more, support for spanking is strongly related to low levels of education, high levels of poverty, and high levels of environmental stress," Bouie writes.
"With that in mind, it’s no surprise blacks are more likely to support corporal punishment—not only are they disproportionately Southern, but Southern black culture extends throughout the country by way of the Great Migration," Bouie continues. "In addition, they’re disproportionately religious, and more likely to live in low-income or impoverished areas."
Journalist, academic, and child advocate Dr. Stacey Patton writes for the BBC:
"Historically the black body has been subject to racial control, through centuries of slavery, lynching, sexual violence, reproductive legislation, surveillance, segregation, mass incarceration, police practices, and popular entertainment … Black parents have responded to this systemic violence by debasing their children through harsh physical punishment. But few parents view spanking through this lens," Patterson says. "It has simply been considered by most to be a core feature of black identity, quality parenting and responsible citizenship. Underlying black parents' attachment to spanking is a very real fear, based on black suffering and random violence at the hands of white people."
Children with special needs, too, are exposed to more aggression than other students, according to a 2009 report by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch. "The report found that some students were physically abused for conduct related to their disabilities, including students with Tourette syndrome being punished for exhibiting involuntary tics and students with autism being punished for repetitive behaviors such as rocking," writes the Human Rights Watch. "In some cases, corporal punishment against students with disabilities led to a worsening of their conditions. For instance, some parents reported that students with autism became violent toward themselves or others following corporal punishment."
All things considered, it's easy to imagine the grim reality for students at the intersection of male, black, and disabled. "It was almost as if we [black boys] were targeted by this particular teacher," recalled one New Orleans man, Kaleb “KJ” Hill, who had been spanked as a sixth-grader in Birmingham, Alabama, more than a decade earlier. His learning disability, dyslexia, wasn't diagnosed until he was an adult, and school officials simply believed he was misbehaving.
"I still remember what the paddle looked like—wooden with holes drilled in it—I remember his face…what his office looked like," he said. "I suffer from PTSD because of Katrina but I remember his face."
Hill is now an education activist.
Effects of Physical Discipline on Children
I can't say whether being spanked by authority figures as a kid definitely resulted in any long-lasting positive or negative outcomes for me, though I have considered that certain masochistic and aggressive predilections of mine may have been planted this way. Others who were spanked growing up, or who have spent more time studying the topic, have more clearly defined opinions on the matter.
Pediatrician Donald E. Greydanus, whose stance is informed by decades of clinical and research work in caring for children and adolescents, holds that corporal punishment is "an ineffective, dangerous, and unacceptable method of discipline" that can have a number of negative effects on children's development, including "difficulty sleeping, fatigue, feelings of sadness and worthlessness, suicidal thoughts, anxiety episodes, increased anger with feelings of resentment and outbursts of aggression, deteriorating peer relationships, difficulty with concentration, lowered school achievement, antisocial behavior, intense dislike of authority, somatic complaints, tendency for school avoidance, school drop-out, and other evidence of negative high-risk adolescent behavior."
"The use of corporal punishment in the school environment falsely and perfidiously reinforces physical aggression as an acceptable and effective means of eliminating unwanted behavior in our society," Greyadnus testified at a 2010 congressional hearing. "As a father of four daughters, a grandfather of five grandchildren, a professor of pediatrics, a medical scientist, and as a U.S. Navy Vietnam veteran who served in the Vietnam war, I urge the committee to examine the science of this issue."
Some believe the implications of spanking are even further-reaching. Dr. Patton, for example, asserts that there is a relationship between corporal punishment and other kinds of abuse. "The hitting tells the child that ‘my body is not my own. I’m not in charge of my body and other people get to do with it want they want to do. What’s the boundary between hitting and ... abuse? Adults think those are two different things, but a young child doesn’t always know the difference," she wrote in a July social media post this year. "When you hit your child it primes them for victimization. And far too many people tell their children, 'I hit you because I love you.' So when a ... predator, which is usually a family member or someone familiar, says to your child, 'I'm touching you because I love you,' that message is the same as yours."
Despite whether you agree that corporal punishment equals child abuse equals sexual abuse—which, admittedly, is a stance that doesn't leave much room for nuance—the research is clear. Corporal punishment doesn't work, and it hurts children.
It's time for us to ask ourselves what, really, the glorification of hitting children has done for us as a society. In the words of Libby Anne: "Is it worth it? Is it worth defending spanking and keeping it legal if the majority of parents who spank do so inappropriately and ineffectively?"