Rituals are seen as a benign part of religion and other institutions, and are said to add meaning to our lives. But rituals have been used throughout history to legitimize a lot of horrible things, like torture and to mass murder. So there are two sorts of rituals: some that serve a benign purpose, and some that serve to legitimize something more harmful. Spanking rituals are part of the latter category.
Spanking advocates use the ritual associated with spanking as a line between “discipline” and “punishment.” I’ve previously written about how I see this as a distinction without a difference. Ritualizing something does not whitewash it. The fact that you use violence on children in a ritualistic manner is no better than doing it in anger: actually, it might be worse, because the child may see the ritual as legitimizing the act as well.
The site for TIME Magazine published an editorial on “parenting” under the title Spanking Can Be an Appropriate Form of Child Discipline, written by Jared Pingleton, who works for Focus on the Family. This right-wing nut attempts to justify spanking by appealing to the ritual, and denying that spanking is child abuse because proper, ritualized spanking is administered “out of love.”
Even if you take the hardline, ultra-childist position that children must be punished so they obey their parents, there is zero scientific evidence that spanking leads to more obedience, and there is actually evidence for the exact opposite position. So spanking is not even shown to do what it’s supposed to do. But let’s examine Pingleton’s argument:
Properly understood and administered, spanking is most effective as a deterrent to undesirable behavior for younger preschoolers (but never for infants).
This is an empirical claim. What is it based on? Well, if it’s based on any data of any kind, it is not anything that Pingleton wanted to share, because he doesn’t talk about any data. And then, of course, we must ask the usual questions which expose the childism of the speaker: what is “undesirable behavior” and who determines what that comprises? Why must children be sexually assaulted to prevent this behavior, and what is the connection between sexually assaulting a child and stopping an undesirable behavior?
Is this not rather like a small-scale version of “corrective rape”? In both cases, the perpetrator identifies a behavior which he finds undesirable in someone else (e.g. a woman who is a lesbian, a child screaming), and sexually assaults them in order to change the behavior. Likewise, no study has yet revealed the efficacy of rape in changing women’s sexual orientation.
Generally speaking, we advise parents that corporal discipline should only be applied in cases of willful disobedience or defiance of authority—never for mere childish irresponsibility. And it should never be administered harshly, impulsively, or with the potential to cause physical harm. Along those lines, we caution parents who have a hard time controlling their temper to choose alternative forms of discipline. There is never an excuse or an occasion to abuse a child.
For parents who do choose to spank, the proper philosophy and approach is extremely important. Too begin with, as with all forms of correction, the concepts of punishment and discipline are absolute opposites. Punishment is motivated by anger, focuses on the past, and results in either compliance (due to fear) or rebellion and feelings of shame, guilt and/or hostility. On the other hand, discipline is motivated by love for the child, focuses on the future, and results in obedience and feelings of security.
So here we have another attempt at creating two categories of violence against children, discipline and punishment. I already linked above to my position on the subject, which is that the criteria used are either invalid or useless. If you want to read my refutation of Pingleton’s criteria, I invite you to read that entry, because he offers nothing new here.
There are however some interesting terms in these two paragraphs. For example, you have “defiance of authority” being noted as a higher level of truancy than “childish irresponsibility.” Let me remind you of the age group Pingleton is talking about here, young preschoolers, so let’s assume we’re talking about children between 3 and 4 years old. It is profoundly silly to claim that a 3 year old is “defying authority” or being “irresponsible.” I think this has a lot to do with the stereotype of young children, even babies, as calculating and mendacious (see point 5 of this entry for more).
The aim of stereotypes is to hate or dehumanize a target. The aim of portraying young children as mendacious is to produce the feeling that they’re “out to get you,” that no matter how trustworthy they seem, they are thinking of ways to get what they want. We see in this stereotype an echo of antisemitism. as well as more extreme right-wing bigotry (“if you give them an inch…”) and conspiracy theories (“the conspiracy is out to get us”).
The next expression I find interesting is “parents who do choose to spank.” Portraying spanking as a choice is not just nonsense, but also hides the fact that physical and sexual abuse usually results from the parents themselves having been abused as children. And that cycle of abuse is always impulsive and focused on the past, no matter how much you rationalize it. That means that most cases of spanking cannot, and will never, be “proper discipline,” even by the spanking advocates’ own criteria. That is why they must sweep it under the rug with the label of “choice.” Spanking is a crime, not a choice.
It is furthermore said that improper spanking leads to compliance and proper spanking leads to obedience. These two words are synonyms. All spanking does is lead to compliance and obedience. It does not make the child a better person. It does not even instill any desire to perform the desired behavior.
Finally, there is the expression “focuses on the future.” Childism is always focused on the future, in that it sees a child as raw materials from which parents must mold a future person. This is true regardless of whether you use discipline, punishment, or neither. By definition, there cannot be a pedagogy which is not “focused on the future.” The only way, the sole way, in which your actions towards a child can be anything other than “focused on the future” would be for you to see the child as a full and equal human being. Anything else is necessarily “focused on the future,” not on the present.
Many parents today view themselves primarily as their child’s friend and recoil at the idea of administering discipline. Children, though, desperately need their parents’ love and affirmation as well as their authoritative guidance and correction. Disciplining our sons and daughters is part of the tough work of parenting, but it will pay big dividends in the long run.
Again, we see the future orientation in the expression “in the long run.” All of us live in the present and must demand dividends now, not in the future. Setting rewards in the far future is usually a good warning sign that you’re being exploited in the present time (see for example the religious oppression justified by the afterlife in Heaven). It’s a pretty old game, a misdirection aimed at keeping your eyes looking into the future while people are picking your pockets in the present. Parents who use physical violence are robbing their children of their present in the name of some unseen future which, to the child, is meaningless gobbledygook. Children do not, and should not, live for the future. To say otherwise goes against nature and is about as pointless as such attempts usually are.
The opposing views offered to us, that either parents use violence or they’re solely their child’s friends, are equally invalid. Children do not need violence and they do not need friendship from adults (although there’s nothing wrong with it as such). What they do need is to be supported with the material and psychological means to flourish. This cannot be accomplished as long as they are kept in artificial family structures and prevented from living in community with other children.
But this position is outside of the margins of discourse. What we get is a “debate” between organizations like “Focus on the Family,” which is dedicated to the maintenance of the traditional family structure at all costs, and the more compassionate opposition, who believes in the family structure but also believes that it could exist in many different forms. No one is taking the side of the children.
A child should always receive a clear warning before any offense that might merit a spanking and understand why they are receiving this disciplinary action. If he or she deliberately disobeys, the child should be informed of the upcoming spanking and escorted to a private area. The spanking should be lovingly administered in a clear and consistent manner. Afterward, the lesson should be gently reiterated so that the child understands and learns from this teachable experience.
According to people like Pingleton, performing this ritual will magically bring moral insight to the child. I say magically, because there is no cause and effect presented, or possible, between spanking and moral insights. It is precisely magical thinking. I have nothing against ritual magic (actually, I think it’s a fascinating subject, although I know little about it), but when other people are actively harmed by it, you’ve gone too far.
As such, it is remarkably similar to the magic imbued to prisons and jails. We believe that by inflicting suffering on people labeled criminals, we bring them some form of moral insight. Yet again, there is no explanation as to how imprisoning and torturing people in itself can impart moral insights. While there’s always been ascetics who believe that mystical insights can be achieved by self-harm, this seems rather far removed from the very practical aims of the believers in law and order. They seek not to impart ethereal mystical insights, but rather, like the childists, direct and practical moral truths.
It is rather more likely that the hatred of children and criminals came first, and the bizarre magic-based rationalizations came afterwards. Spanking is not a magical act, it is an act of hatred (however temporary that hatred might be, or however ritualized).
As for the steps of the ritual, they are no more noteworthy than the steps of any other ritual. They say in ritual magic that it’s not the actual steps that really matter but the strength of the feelings you put into it, and that the steps are only means to channel those feelings. That is why spanking advocates are very keen to tell you about how you should feel when you perform the ritual, and why that’s so important. The movements and the magic words (“this will hurt me more than it’ll hurt you”, the spanking advocate’s equivalent of “abracadabra”) are irrelevant.
Rituals are an important factor in another form of sexual assault and physical violence against children, circumcision (both male and female). In this case, we have religious rituals instead of a secular ritual, but the principle is the same. The rituals are used to legitimize the use of violence against children. The goal of circumcision is to consecrate the newborn as a future believer of its religion of birth, to mark its religion on its skin for its whole life, to impart sexual decency, and, in some cultures, to ensure that the child will be “normal.” The goal of circumcision, as for spanking, is to generate servile obedience, nothing more (so-called health benefits are only a rationalization after the fact, and are therefore entirely irrelevant).