Two Arguments about Spanking

One of the not-so-hidden joys of not being a parent is never being dragged into those awful parent arguments–paper vs. cloth, bottle vs. breast, anything involving TV–that are so pointless and yet manage to get so heated.  For the most part, these are mercifully uninteresting to non-parents, but I am interested in the topic of spanking.  It ties into many other important topics: Philosophy of punishment, bodily autonomy, the rights of minors, corporal punishment, and so on.

I have come to the conclusion that it’s better not to spank one’s children.  I’m not dogmatic about this–I was spanked as a child and that falls very low on my list of things my parents did wrong–and I’m not interested in coming down hard on parents who do spank.  I’ve simply been presented with a couple of arguments that I found very persuasive and I’d like to share them with you.

The Example Argument:  Spanking demonstrates to your children that violence is an acceptable way to get what you want.

Every parent knows how much kids learn from watching you and how well they internalize what they see.  When you hit a child to make zir do (or stop doing) something, zie is learning that hitting someone can help you get your way.  Of course there are many differences between spanking a child for disobeying and punching a classmate to get zir toy, but a child, especially a young one, isn’t going to grasp those nuances.  It’s a bad idea to make “don’t hit people” into a case of “do as I say, not as I do;” we all know how well that argument works.

The Bodily Autonomy Argument:  Spanking forces children to allow adults to touch them in ways they don’t like.

Protecting children from abuse is incredibly important, but it can also be incredibly difficult.  Most abuse comes from relatives or authority figures.  Children rarely report abuse and often blame themselves for it.  To mitigate these problems, social-justice circles promote the concept of bodily autonomy: Children should be taught that no one is allowed to do something to their bodies that they don’t want.  So, for instance, an aunt or grandparent shouldn’t kiss an unwilling child, even if it’s meant affectionately, lest they demonstrate that the child has to accept unwanted gestures of affection.  But spanking teaches a child the opposite of bodily autonomy: It teaches that authority figures have the right to inflict pain on zir and, indeed, that doing so demonstrates that the adult loves them.

I find the latter argument a little less convincing than the former, since there will always be one case where children don’t have control over what’s done to their bodies: Going to the doctor and getting shots.  Still, it’s probably easier to explain why you have to get shots even if you don’t want to than to explain the difference between being spanked and being physically abused.

Notice I haven’t mentioned the efficacy of spanking.  That’s because it doesn’t matter whether or not it makes the child do what you want.  There are many effective ways to get someone to do what you want that are nevertheless terrible ideas.  I think how a lesson is taught is just as important as what the lesson is, and that’s why I do not support spanking.


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