Out in California, an Assemblywomn named Sally Lieber has proposed the state outlaw spanking — not between two consenting adults, because how would it be California without a little recreational spanking? — but between adults and children; specifically, the proposed law would make it a misdemeanor to paddle kids under the age of four, with punishments eventually reaching a year in the slammer (and a $1,000 fine, which, frankly, is nothing compared to a year in the slammer). The proposed law doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere, and even if it did it wouldn’t affect me, because I live in Ohio. But it did give me a moment to think about what I think about spanking, which is, ironically, that it is most effective under the age of four, i.e., the age which Ms. Lieber suggests banning it.
I’ll begin by noting that I think as punishment, spanking is pretty damn ineffective. I speak from personal experience, because I got spanked on a regular basis as a kid — at least two or three times a month — and since my mom was not wanton smacker of her children, you can assume I did something egregious enough to warrant a spanking as punishment. But inasmuch as I was averaging a couple three spankings a month, how effective could it have been as punishment? I was still needing to be punished on a regular basis. If this was a punishment for bad behavior, it wasn’t working. It’s for this reason that I can’t recall ever spanking Athena to punish her for bad behavior. I know my daughter well enough to suspect that spanking as a punishment will just make her more stubborn; to a large extent that’s how it worked for me.
If one doesn’t spank as punishment, what does one spank for? In my case, on the rare occasions that I spanked Athena (I can only remember two occasions), it was to use the spanking as a deterrent to a specific sort of dangerous activity. The last time I spanked Athena was when she was two-and-a-half or three, when she developed an unhealthy obsession with something likely to get her all banged up (I want to say wall sockets, but, honestly, I can’t remember specifically), and us warning her away from it wasn’t seeming to work — she just wasn’t old enough to grasp the idea that there would be negative consequences.
So when she did it again, I spanked her — not to punish her but so that she would associate that particular activity with physical pain (although a much lesser physical pain than the one that could occur from the activity itself) . It worked, because she stopped that particular activity. Shortly thereafter, she became old enough to understand the idea that some things really are bad for you and you don’t have to try them out. We haven’t spanked her since. Which goes to my point: Spanking my eight year old daughter now makes no sense, because she’s old enough to understand things. Spanking my two-and-a-half year old daughter then made good sense, because I needed to a way to keep her from dangerous behaviors when she was too young to fully understand the implications of those behaviors.
All of this is not to say that I don’t understand where Lieber is coming from. The last time I went to Chicago, I was stopped at a street light and this woman was coming out of a corner store with a child who could have been no more than two years old in tow. The two year old was crying about something or other, and suddenly the woman wheeled around and smacked the kid hard on the face and started yelling at the kid. It was absolutely appalling, and then someone was honking at me to get my car in gear. That woman wasn’t spanking her child, but I have no doubt that she does, and I have no doubt that those spankings are doing that child rather more harm than good. Be that as it may, I don’t regret spanking my own child when I felt it was was necessary, because I felt it did more good than harm. If I lived in a state where spanking was banned, and I had a young child, I would be very likely to ignore the law and spank my kid if I thought it was what I needed to do. I’m pretty confident I could make a good case for having done so.
Personally, I just feel lucky I have a kid who I only had to spank a couple of times, and haven’t had to spank in years. I suppose I could chalk that all up to wonderful parenting, cough, cough, but I really suspect that’s not the whole story. It’s nice when your kid makes the executive decision in her own little head that you as parents might actually be worth listening to, from time to time. She’s a smarter kid than I was when I was her age, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.