Growing up in the era when corporal punishment was doled out without much thought, I received my share of spankings from parents, teachers and the like. Those spankings were supposed to motivate me to better behavior. What I recall instead is the raw feeling of defiance in the face of often unjust decisions about why I supposedly “deserved” a spanking in the first place.
For example, in the first grade I was playing a game of Stratego with a classmate. We were perched on either side of a desk during an inside recess because it was raining that day. I loved recess, and dearly missed the stimulation of going outside to play. But we were making the best of it by concentrating on a board game.
Then some clumsy kid collided with the table and knocked it over, scattering all the game pieces across the floor. I jumped up and shoved the kid. That’s how we settled things at home. I had brothers. It was an instant reaction.
The teacher supervising the classroom that day swooped in and hauled me out into hallway for punishment. “You can’t push other students,” she chided me. Her name was Miss Paloney. She retreated to the classroom and came back out with the school paddle. Her hair was pulled back so tightly on her head that her forehead shone under the hallway lights. She wore the type of glasses where reflections obscured her eyes. Her grim face presented a frightening specter to kid six years old. But that German Mennonite tradition in southeastern Pennsylvania believed in spanking kids on a regular basis.
She told me to drop both my pants and underwear to my ankles. I did as she ordered and stood there with my bare bottom exposed in the school hallway. Then she spanked me hard with the paddle. I was shocked and embarrassed and angry all at once. Nothing about the experience taught me anything about engaging in better behavior in class. No one punished the jerky kid who carelessly crashed into our desk to ruin the game. Where was the punishment for that kid?
Strong sense of justice
That sense of injustice raged within me all that day. From then on the sight of Miss Paloney filled me with anger and distrust. If that’s how justice was destined to be meted out in this world, who could be trusted? What else was to be expected?
That wouldn’t be the last time I received or witnessed a paddling. All the way through sixth grade the teachers kept at it. One kid named Richard defied all attempts by the teachers to collar his behavior. The male teachers all owned large wooden paddles drilled through with holes. These were kept hanging in the classroom as a threat. That year teachers broke nine paddles over the butt of Richard. We could hear the violence smack of wood on his body out in the hallways. Then he’d head back to class with a stern grimace on his face.
Results and outcomes
Fifty years later I heard that Richard had just gotten out of prison. The paddlings clearly had not had the desired effect of correcting Richard’s behavior. Probably there were problems at home that drove Richard to be so defiant and refuse to obey the rules. Who knows what Richard’s family circumstance had been? Was there ever an attempt to actually counsel the kid?
My little world
Looking back, I realize that having a father with a temper and going through schools where teachers used paddles to beat children in the hallways disrupted my sense of safety and well-being. By the sixth-grade, I was starting fights at the slightest hint of criticism from my peers. That proved to be a phase. But then I started pumping all that anger and determination into sports, especially running, and not always to a healthy degree. My self-esteem was sometimes too wrapped up in that part of my identity.
At some point, I decided to look into the reasons why anger and angst played such a role in my life. Then one night in my late twenties I woke up pounding my pillow in the middle of the night, and realized: All that violence and a specific incident in my youth had wounded me. There are cogent explanations for feelings like that. The Livestrong website shares a bit of information about the effects of violence on children:
Aggression in Children
“Physical punishment models aggression for children. According to Lynn Namka, EdD, physical punishment engenders more aggression in the child, even if it initially appears to stop the behavior. Children cannot always understand the difference between unacceptable physical aggression for which they get punished, such as hitting and shoving, and the physical aggression they receive as punishment. Corporal punishment can lead to increased aggression for kids in school, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.”
In other words, violence hurts the psyche. The effects of physical punishment and/or abuse do persist throughout the lives of those that experience it. Despite what some zealots like to advocate on behalf of corporal punishment (The Bible says it’s okay!) those hallway spankings never really helped anyone. Nor was it healthy to watch or hear other kids get paddled.
Instead, what those experiences produced in me and likely many others was a massively evolved sense of social justice. In my case, I yearned to protect those who needed help and who could not protect themselves. I got some fights trying to stand up to bullies. Then the bullies communicated and targeted me specifically. Thus I wound up in a series of fights. This is how the cycle of violence perpetuates itself in our society.
It’s the same with guns, where vigilante justice has emerged from an escalating love affair with more powerful weapons to combat the weapons already out there on the streets. The police are caught up in this cycle of violence.
Shooting other people is nothing more than a far more violent form of spanking. If someone does you wrong, you shoot them. That’s an acceptable worldview to some people. Forget “turn the other cheek.” It’s all about meting out punishment and forcing others into contrition.
I’ve learned enough from sports to know that sometimes even winning feels like losing if it truly hurts someone. I’ve learned from life that dealing out punishment is not a satisfaction if it demeans your own character in the process. I’ve learned from caregiving that selflessness and sacrifice are far more important accomplishments than winning could ever be.
And none of that did I learn from getting spankings as a kid, or getting browbeaten as an adult. If the world’s ever going to change for the better, that may be the first lesson we all have to learn.