I remember when I pushed Genelle Grossman over.  I was four or five, it was recess and we were all outside playing in the grass near some trees.  She was walking with some friends and I thought they were all acting “girly.”  I didn’t like “girly”.  So I pushed her and she fell.  There was crying and shouting and they all went and told the teacher and she came and found me sitting near the trees.  The teacher asked me why I had done it and I couldn’t answer.  All I could do was sit and push a stick into the dirt.  I couldn’t even look at her.  And I never did anything like that again.

Every child is different, every parent will tell you.  And there are plenty of parents who will tell you that “talking about it” just doesn’t work with their child.  Their child needs consequences to stop their bad behavior.  Maybe even painful consequences.  “Anyway,” they will tell you, “I was spanked as a child and I turned out OK!”  To argue with them at that point is to suggest that perhaps they are not OK, so that’s usually where the conversation ends.

But look around you.  Look at the multitudes of people who are willing to lie, steal and kill on behalf of those in authority.  Look at the response of most Americans to the TSA’s sexual molestation as a condition for air travel, or the now routine police assaults on innocent people.  The vast majority of Americans not only tolerate this kind of behavior, but defend it.  Look at this video showing McDonalds employees willingly abusing a female colleague just because an authoritative voice on the telephone tells them to.  Or this video, showing ordinary Americans willing to steal and even kidnap a baby at the request of someone in a uniform.  The vast majority of Americans are not “OK” by any stretch of the imagination, and it’s just possible that spanking has something to do with that.

It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?  But the parent-child relationship is the most fundamental of relationships.  It is what teaches us at a level deeper than intellect how to relate to the rest of the world.  A parent can tell a child over and over again that it is not OK to hit, but if the parents themselves are hitting, then that is what the child will learn.  When a parent spanks a child, they teach the child much more than that it is not OK to stick a fork in a light socket, or pull their baby sister’s hair.  They teach that – despite what they say – it is in fact OK to use violence to get other people to do what you want.  

Parents who spank insist that it is not “violence” and that they do it for the child’s own good.  And I think the vast majority of them do believe this is true.  But is it good for a child to learn by example that might makes right?  That the way to succeed in the world is obey those who are stronger than you, or to become strong yourself and get others to obey you?  Is it in the child’s best interests to train them to be obedient?  Because ultimately, this is what spanking and punishment teach.  Personally, that is not what I want for my children.  Nor is it what I wish upon a world already overrun with obedient “citizens”.

But what do you do when your child simply won’t listen?  What do you do when your child is in a dangerous situation?  I am always a little amazed when people ask me this – as if the obviously appropriate response to a child in danger is to start hitting them.  Of course one of the most compelling reasons parents who spank feel that it is necessary is that they want to teach their children about danger, and to avoid things that are dangerous.  But is it necessary to use violence in order to teach this?  My own experience, and the experience of countless other parents who do not spank, tells me that it is not.  

Moreover, the harm that spanking does goes much deeper than whatever physical pain it inflicts.  It is instrumental in shaping the child’s worldview and developing the child’s tools for interacting in the world.  Rather than teaching children to rely on reason or an inner sense of right and wrong in making decisions, spanking – and punishment more broadly – simply teaches children to do whatever is necessary to avoid immediate pain or discomfort.  It teaches (or rather, trains) children to live at what is perhaps the lowest form of human existence, not all that different from how animals go through life. Spanking is not a tool for teaching, but a tool for training – what one would do with a dog.  (Yet ironically, even the best dog trainers will tell you that it is never acceptable to hit a dog.)  

I say there is already enough of this kind of behavior out in the world.  As the state encroaches more and more into our lives, and as it continues to commit crimes against innocent Americans and foreigners alike, I see this mindless acceptance of authority as instrumental in allowing the abuses of the state to continue.  I don’t want to contribute to producing more of it.  Even more importantly though, I do not want to raise my children to live this way, to respond primarily to punishment and reward rather than to a deeper set of values.

But what about the children who won’t listen to reason?  What about all the kids who don’t respond as I did when confronted about having pushed the other little girl?  Isn’t it possible that children like this could be born to parents who don’t believe in spanking?  Sure it is.  But I have a hard time believing anyone who says that their child can only learn by being hit.  When even dog trainers are able to refrain from teaching through violence, I have to believe that it is possible with human beings as well.  And children who are not yet able to understand that they must stay away from dangerous things can be kept away from them until they do understand.  There is nothing punitive in restraining a child from dangerous situations and there is a tremendous difference between physical restraint and the entire ethos that goes along with physical punishment.  

Our society has a pathological love for authority and a pathological tendency towards mindless obedience.  Is this all the result of parents spanking their children?  Of course not.  A parent’s discipline choice is but one of countless factors that will influence children as they grow up.  And each child is unique.  Each child will respond in his or her own way to the lessons – implicit or explicit – their parents pass on.  Just as government schools manage to turn out some number of emotionally healthy morally upstanding anti-authoritarians, so it is possible for some children to escape the damaging impact of spanking and grow to live by their own sense of right and wrong.  This does not mean that spanking is benign any more than the rare exceptions prove that government schools are fertile ground for developing independent thought and an inner sense of morality.

The lessons we learn as small children are the ones that are most deeply implanted.  If the parent-child relationship is founded in violence – that is, if the parents must resort to violence in order to teach and protect their children – then what should we expect to see in the adult world?  Look around and try to tell yourself that the vast majority of human beings don’t believe coercive violence is a necessary part of human society.  Try and tell yourself that most of the people living around you don’t believe deeply in the legitimacy and the necessity of authoritarian power.  And then try to tell yourself that the lessons they learned early in their upbringing have nothing to do with that.

Originally published on Freedom’s Phoenix, September 2011