In the recent spanking debate here, one of the points that I’m not sure was really expanded upon was the idea of spanking being a preventative for real and substantial harm. What makes spanking seem unreasonable to modern sensibilities is the very real sense that it appears to be disproportionate punishment. The harms that can befall a child today for the most part find their source in malice. While historically not always the case, when spanking is done today it is typically reserved for children under 8. Children under 8 have diminished capacity or nearly no capacity at all to form malice. Therefore when we examine spanking, we for the most part conceive of it as an arbitrary exercise of power. This fairly closely models the anti-death penalty argument: if death is not necessary for the protection of society then the application of it by the State is not reflective of human dignity.
While their are spanking advocates that basically agree with my outline, there is another group that won’t and this is where we see divergence from the death penalty debate. To the chagrin of sociologists, there is one demographic that has consistently and steadfastly defended spanking, African Americans. To quote one article:
The lecturer, a parent who is a clinical psychologist, was explaining that spanking is never, ever appropriate. “It just shows the child you have no control over the situation, ” she said, in her soothing, well-modulated voice.
Post-lecture, over cookies and coffee, several black parents edged near each other and whispered, “I’m sorry, but I spank. I believe in spanking. This not-spanking thing is for white folks.”
The article in part mentions the history of racism in this country, and the need for African Americans to conform their behavior out of fear of reprisal from vigilante whites. The theory was of course, better to be punished by someone that cared about your well being than to be seriously harmed by someone who didn’t.
No discussion of race should go unaccompanied by a discussion of class. The pressures not to spank children are greater among upper class African Americans. As another Salon article notes, not spanking originated as an upper class, progressive movement. Of course one of the luxuries of being upper class is having abundant resources to be vigilant of your child’s behavior. Today’s children are for the most part under the constant care and supervision of some adult. Given that, there are simply not that many casual dangers a child of even lower middle class upbringing will encounter. Whereas in previous generations a twelve-year-old providing temporary care for an infant would be common, today many parents have difficulty leaving their children with a 16-year-old babysitter.
While some fear can certainly be traced to irrationality, children very much are different today. Having not had any appreciable responsibility growing up, most twelve-year-olds lack the competence to care for infants. One common stereotype of a child that has never received corporal punishment is of a child who talks back and doesn’t behave. However, the other common stereotype is of a child who grows into an incompetent adult. A child whose only potential for harm was by someone else’s malice can very easily be a child who was thoroughly insulated from other potential harms. The same society that looks askance at an 8-year-old being spanked is the same society that wonders if it should intervene if it sees an 8-year-old handling a steak knife. A 10-year-old who can properly manipulate a paring knife is seen as shocking in today’s society.
While appreciating that, we also should recognize that spanking is really not an isolated debate. It is rather held in a larger context about the formation of children into adults. In a society that views any potential harm to children as unacceptable, it is necessarily going to follow that society will look to stop any potential people who cause harm to children, even if they be the child’s parents. Understand that in other times and places, people have viewed the greatest harm that could happen to a child is to not be able to function as an adult. Such societies often overlook particular harms to children if those children manage to become well functioning adults.
In the wake of the decade-old welfare reform in Wisconsin, more stories have appeared about children found home alone. The linked story is on the very extreme end and did result in a referral to social services. However, the broader issue is that many poor children are in situations that necessarily require them to have greater competence than children in wealthier settings. The dangers faced by those children are most certainly not limited to those brought forth from the malice of others. More fundamentally, the availability of an adult to intervene expeditiously is absent for significant periods of time. Discipline can not simply be applied on an as needed basis, something those opposed to spanking usually treat as a given ability. There are dangers that simply need to be understood and cannot be left idle with the assurance that the child will be caught before anything serious happens. For example, being caught playing with matches or a lighter in a wealthier home would cause an examination by the parents of themselves for leaving a lighter or matches where they could be accessible to a child. In a poorer family, a child may be expected to have minimal competence with a lighter and would be punished for acting irresponsible and endangering the family. The cases are different and so it follows that what is deemed appropriate punishment is different.