Spanking, Fear, and Privileging Obedience

This is part of a series in which I am re-posting a number of posts I’ve written in the past on issues involving parenting and Michael and Debi Pearl. I think these posts may be of interest to new readers, and if you’re a reader who has been around with me since the beginning, they may be worth a re-read. This post was originally published here.   

Growing up on Michael Pearl’s discipline teachings, James Dobson always seemed mild in comparison. My impression was always that Pearl was about absolute immediate obedience while Dobson tempered his advice to spank with an emphasis on understanding child psychology. I just came upon a quote from one of Dobson’s books that is making me rethink that – and has emphasized to me once more that the whole point of spanking a child is to make him or her afraid of disobeying.

“The day I learned the importance of staying out of reach shines like a neon light in my mind. I made the costly mistake of sassing her when I was about four feet away. I knew I had crossed the line and wondered what she would do about it. It didn’t take long to find out. Mom wheeled around to grab something with which to express her displeasure, and her hand landed on a girdle.

“Those were the days when a girdle was lined with rivets and mysterious panels. She drew back and swung the abominable garment in my direction, and I can still hear it whistling through the air. The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles, wrapping themselves around my midsection. She gave me an entire thrashing with one blow! But from that day forward, I measured my words carefully when addressing my mother. I never spoke disrespectfully to her again, even when she was seventy-five years old.”

Dobson prefaces this anecdote by stating that his mother had “an unusually keen understanding of good disciplinary procedures” and follows it up by endorsing the beating his mother gave him, explaining that it was “an act of love.” Dobson explains in this anecdote that after his mother beat him with his girdle, he never spoke disrespectfully of his mother again. Why? He doesn’t say explicitly, but the answer seems clear. He knew that if he disrespected his mother, she would give him a beating.

Here is what I seriously, seriously don’t understand. What parent wants their child to obey them out of fear? What parent wants their child to do what is right out of fear? And yet, this is what Michael Pearl and James Dobson endorse! I wonder if there is any correlation to their conservative theology. If God demands absolute obedience from his children, and punishes those who step out of line, why not demand the same of your children? Perhaps they feel that demanding absolute obedience will help prepare their children for absolute obedience to God.

But even if that is the case, here is what I also don’t understand. How is a child supposed to go from doing what is right for fear of being hit to, as an adult, choosing voluntarily to do what is right? I mean, if children grow up doing the right thing because they’re afraid of being punished if they don’t, what happens when they grow up and the restraints are off? It strikes me that Pearl and Dobson don’t look at the long term of helping children become mature, independent adults; instead, they look at the short term and focus on having kids who jump when you say jump.

And I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Here is a quote I just found in a book about child rearing in different religious traditions in America:

Conservative Protestant parents are more likely are more apt to value children’s obedience to parental authority, whereas their non-Evangelical counterparts tend to value youngsters’ autonomy and self-direction.

You couldn’t hit the nail on the head more directly. And when you put it in that light, I simply fail to see any real difference between the methods advocated by Michael Pearl and James Dobson. They both amount to the same thing.

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