Traditional Education Is Not Illegal…or Is It?

Nobody thinks men should punch their wives and drag them through hotels. But plenty of traditional educators and parents DO think that corporal punishment is not only proper, but necessary.  The recent controversies in the National Football League seem to show that corporal punishment is now both illegal and morally abhorrent.  Does this mean that traditional education is done for?

In case you don’t follow sports news, Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens has recently come under fire for brutally punching his then-fiancee and dragging her face-down through a hotel.  [Warning: This video is disturbing.]  The leadership of the National Football League, too, has been accused of initially downplaying this horrific incident.

Perhaps due to all this attention, another NFL star has been punished severely for physically abusing his son. In this case, Adrian Peterson has been accused of beating his four-year-old son with a switch.  His team immediately deactivated him and now a warrant has been issued for Peterson’s arrest.

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not a supporter of corporal punishment in any form. I would not allow my daughter’s school to use physical punishment on her and I do not think schools should use such punishment on any kids.

But I understand that lots of people do support corporal punishment. It has long been a fundamental tenet of traditional education that children must be disciplined, physically if necessary.  In the arguments of traditionalists, this is in the children’s best interest.

For example, arch-conservative school leader Max Rafferty argued in 1964 that American education relied on sensible corporal punishment.  As Rafferty put it,

Prior to 1930 school discipline was built around corporal punishment. It always had been.  Education had walked and in hand with the hickory stick apparently since time began, and virtually every teacher who ever lived took this state of affairs for granted.

In Peterson’s case, the grand jury did not disagree that corporal punishment was legal. Rather, according to the New York Times, the grand jury concluded that Peterson’s punishment was “not reasonable and did not reflect community standards of what was reasonable discipline.” It seems Peterson hit his son severely enough to leave cuts and bruises.

Again, I fully support the criminalization and condemnation of this kind of severe beating of a young child. But sometimes publicity can have a strange effect.  In this case, Peterson was accused of beating his son TOO SEVERELY, not of beating his son in general.  The grand jury specified that Peterson’s application of corporal punishment violated community norms, not that Peterson’s use of corporal punishment was itself illegal.

Nevertheless, I wonder if the take-away for many Americans will be that all forms of corporal punishment have been rendered illegal. So here’s my question: Will traditionalist parents and teachers now assume that corporal punishment in toto is illegal?  Immoral?

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  1. Agellius

     /  September 15, 2014

    I sent my kids to a very conservative, privately run (non-diocesan) Catholic school. While morals and educational philosophy are very traditional there, corporal punishment, as far as I know, never happened. It was never even discussed. Parents were never told, in writing or otherwise, that they should be prepared to have their kids spanked or whacked with rulers. They were pretty strict with discipline, but discipline consisted of detention and having your parents informed of your behavior.

    Regarding the Peterson story, I assumed that he must have beat his son severely, not merely a moderate spanking, to merit criminal charges, although a lot of the news stories merely said that he was charged “for beating his son with a switch” and no mention of its severity. I’m glad to hear from you (for the first time) that the reason he was charged was that his beating was judged too severe on the ground that he left cuts and bruises.

    So no, I didn’t get the impression that all corporal punishment was now illegal, though I suspect that news outlets were trying to portray it that way.

    • As far as details go, it seems the child was beaten with a thin branch, which left cuts and bruises on his back, legs, buttocks, and scrotum. I am shocked that the first time that this was brought to the courts, it was considered acceptable. This time around, I hope he gets jail time.

  2. I’ve no doubt that it will. I already have seen many people defending the use of beatings on children. I hope that corporeal punishment will eventually become illegal in the US, but there will be many people who will fight that tooth and nail. Homeschoolers, for one, have thrown considerable clout into this debate, with the Home School Legal Defense Association working to shoot down improvements to state child abuse laws. So far, they have been very successful.

    • I thought it was also significant that Peterson used traditional language to describe his actions. He said he gave his son a “whupping” or “whooping.” And other celebrities, such as Charles Barkley here, defend the practice as something done by “every Black Parent in the South.” Some of the early reporting said that Peterson had hit his son with a “tree branch,” which is technically correct, but seems ignorant of the tradition of using a “switch” to beat children. And even the traditional method of forcing the child to cut the switch him- or herself. The point? I think the power of the tradition of physical punishment of children shows up in the way concerned parties revert to traditional language to describe it.

      • Agreed. While I oppose corporeal punishments of all kinds, I think there is a significant problem with leaving words like “spanking” so ill-defined. Many people who claim spanking is an appropriate discipline are thinking of one or two swats with the hand on a clothed backside. This is miles away from whipping bare skin with a tree branch, or beating a child with a length of plumbing line until they are “totally submitted” a-la Michael and Debi Pearl (which has resulted in the deaths of 3 children so far!) But if we continue to let people sanitize all of this abuse under the innocuous term “spanking” then people will continue to get away with using traditional language to excuse life-threatening child abuse.

        My solution would be to alter the law such that it is never appropriate to intentionally strike a child, just as it is not appropriate to intentionally strike an adult. However, many people would fight to their graves against such a change, as you point out here.

      • Agellius

         /  September 15, 2014

        A law that said “it is never appropriate to strike an adult” would be utterly unenforceable. After all, striking could be anything from a pat on the head to a whack with a baseball bat. It has to depend on the circumstances, as well as whether any actual damage was suffered by the person who was struck.

        Obviously, the same applies to striking a child.

      • Yes, my intent was not to write the exact law, but rather to indicate that if it is considered assault against an adult, it should be considered assault against a child. Period.

      • Agellius

         /  September 15, 2014


        But again that’s not really feasible. It’s considered assault to pat a strange woman on the butt, whereas it’s obviously not assault to do the same to your own child.

        It’s not my intention to split hairs. My point is that you have to judge spanking the same way you would judge any other kind of assault: Based on how much damage is done. If you spank your child so moderately that it leaves no lasting evidence of injury, it’s hard to see how it constitutes assault or abuse.

        On the other hand, you can be abusive without laying a hand on your child. Since children can be verbally abused as well as physically, shall we also outlaw parents raising their voices, or using unkind words?

        You can’t deal with abuse by simply making blanket prohibitions. Whether something constitutes abuse has to depend on the circumstances and whether there is lasting damage.

      • I think, too, that the important point here is that large segments of the American population think that it is not only morally defensible but morally mandatory to chastise children with physical punishment. Too many people take Jonathan Edwards’ famous “more hateful than vipers” comments* out of context, but there is a long tradition that views corporal punishment not as an unfortunate but helpful tool to control unruly children, but rather as an important way to teach children to submit to proper authority.
        * Edwards didn’t mean that children as a whole were more hateful than vipers, but that ALL PEOPLE were more hateful than vipers if they were not right with JC. Edwards meant that children should not be spared hellfire preaching, not that children were more inherently evil than adults.

      • Agellius

         /  September 15, 2014

        “large segments of the American population think that it is not only morally defensible but morally mandatory to chastise children with physical punishment.”

        I can’t see it being morally mandatory. You use it when you need to, but you don’t always need to. What are you gonna do, spank them once a week whether they need it or not? : )

      • But that is my point. For lots of people–and maybe I’m way off base here, but this is what my reading has led me to think–a child really does need to be regularly punished physically. Maybe not on a once-a-week sort of basis, but as a regular part of growing up, not as an exceptional incident. This is not seen as any sort of “abuse,” but rather, leaving this kind of punishment OUT would be seen by many as abusive.

      • Agellius

         /  September 15, 2014

        Well, I’ll take your word for it, I’m just not able to make any sense out of it.

      • But you are splitting hairs. Yes, it is assault to pat a strange woman on the butt, but presumably patting your wife/husband/close friend on the butt is probably not going to be considered assault. The same goes for a child. If you pat a strange child on the butt, you will probably be in trouble. If you pat your own child on the butt, you probably won’t be. Once you compare apples to apples, the distinction is not so great.

        So, if you smack another adult multiple times against their will but leave no lasting evidence of injury, is it not assault? Of course it is assault. If so, then smacking a child multiple times but leaving no lasting injury should also be assault.

        There are certainly differences in how we must treat children and adults, but intentionally causing pain through physical violence is not one of them.

        I absolutely CAN deal with abuse by making blanket prohibitions. Of course, it won’t fix everything. Verbal and emotional abuse can be just as scarring as physical abuse, and it is unfortunate that these things are so difficult to address. But just because one form of abuse still exists does not mean I should not attempt to curtail a different form of abuse. This simply does not follow. And assault absolutely does not have to depend on lasting damage. Most abuse victims are able to deal with their abuse and lead productive lives but that does not minimize the abuse they suffered. Besides, we do not treat most crimes in this way. It doesn’t matter if a person steals from a rich guy who will never be affected by the loss vs. a poor person who may no longer be able to eat. Stealing is still illegal. In the same way, if you use violence to purposely inflict pain on an unwilling and non-consenting person, it does not matter if there is lasting damage or not; that is still assault.

        For sure, the severity of the assault should be taken into account when it comes to the law (and there are already a variety of possible charges that come with the willful injuring of a child). But attacking a child should still be considered a crime.

  3. In response to your comments, Dr. Laats, it is indeed common among evangelicals to believe that physical punishment is necessary for children. I sat uncomfortably through an entire sermon at my friend’s church where the pastor talked about how society is in decline because people weren’t spanking their children enough anymore, and praised parents for using physical punishment to edify their children. He spent considerable time talking about how children need and WANT to be spanked, and how spanking is a sign of love and affection from a parent because it teaches the child to submit to their authority. I was SO uncomfortable (and I wasn’t even anti-spanking at that point). I can’t remember if there were any children in the pews at that point, but I remember wondering afterwards how awful it would be if there was an abused child sitting in that congregation listening to the pastor talk about how they wanted and needed to be beaten, and congratulating their parents for being so kind as to abuse them. Even if the children were gone, there was surely (statistically speaking) at least one abusive parent standing in that building, absorbing the validating message that their use of discipline is god-approved and makes them BETTER than all those “other” parents. It still makes me angry thinking about it.

    But it wasn’t just an isolated incident. My own family, despite not spanking me particularly often, also believed that spanking is a necessity for creating well-adjusted children. I remember how disdainful my mother was of her friend’s opposition to corporeal punishment, saying that she was setting her children up for failure. And then I remember the weird, perverse satisfaction she seemed to get when she said that her friend had finally caved in to spanking one of the children because he was so “out of control” (he had ADHD). Knowing that her friend was physically punishing her children was weirdly important to her.

    These ideas were echoed frequently in the homeschooling community I lived in. Us children would agree amongst each other that spanking must have been good for us and was good for everyone else and how ungodly the world was since they had this silly “liberal” notion that they shouldn’t hit children. We scoffed at this, and considered such people weak and worldly.

    These sorts of ideas run way deeper and uglier in other parts of the homeschooling world. Michael and Debi Pearl’s “How to Train a Child” is quite popular among many circles, and it espouses spanking infants and breaking children’s wills with physical punishment. As I said before, this has already been tied to the deaths of 3 children. Even books that might be considered less extreme in the evangelical world, like James Dobson’s “Strong-willed Child” describes spanking as an utter necessity for healthy, happy children. If a child misbehaves, these sorts of leaders tend to assume that they are not spanking enough.

    I could probably write for days about this, so I guess I’ll stop here. I know child discipline is not your blog’s niche, so I don’t want to blow up your feed! I think that these sorts of ideas are very important to address, however, and I’m glad to see it here. 🙂

    And, by the way, I’d love to get back to writing my series. Hopefully I’ll find some time among grad school work soon!


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