Are We Spanking Out of Prejudice?

A self-published book encourages parents to employ corporal punishment to tragic effect, the New York Times reported Monday. The book, To Train Up a Child, is the work of Tennessee preacher Michael Pearl and his wife Debi, and includes recommendations on how to use “the rod” to make children comply with parental authority.

Since 2006, three children have died in households reported to have read the Pearls’ book or followed their website; the parents of the latest victim, who was found dead earlier this year, have been charged with homicide. In spite of these incidents, the Pearls defend their parenting philosophy, saying that while they do not advocate taking corporal punishment to such extremes, they stand by their support of spanking, fasting, and other punitive practices when they are used properly.

The book has proved particularly popular with Christian homeschoolers, whose online discussions of the book spurred sales: there are now more than 670,000 copies of To Train Up a Child in circulation. However, not all conservative Christians ascribe to the Pearls’ suggestions, and in the last several months, the book has sparked rampant debate, giving birth to at least one site devoted exclusively to anti-Pearl arguments.

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, a writer and psychoanalyst, voices concern about issues of child abuse in the introduction to her new book Childism: Confronting Prejudice Against Children, to be published in January. The book is an extraordinary study on a prejudice Young-Bruehl argues is rampant in the United States, and calls a break from “the natural order” in which societies provide their children with what Aristotle called “cherishment and education.”

People “mistreat children in order to fulfill certain needs through them, to project internal conflicts and self-hatreds outward, or to assert themselves when they feel their authority has been questioned,” Young-Bruehl writes, and “rely upon a societal prejudice against children to justify themselves and legitimate their behavior.” She notes that the United States is almost entirely alone in its failure to ratify the 1989 U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has been accepted by 192 countries. And as Publishers Weekly has noted this week, the book is “a clarion call for urgent action.”

As evidence of childism, Young-Bruehl quotes statistics indicating that America has the highest rates of child abuse in the world—and one can only imagine that a systemized and categorical treatment of children has informed common practices of abuse. She cites “the belief that…childhood is a time when discipline is the paramount adult responsibility” as a key contributor to childism, and, in looking at some of the Pearls’ followers, it is easy to see how this might be the case.

9 Discussions on
“Are We Spanking Out of Prejudice?”
  • Woah! A new-age Foucault: “People ‘mistreat children in order to fulfill certain needs through them, to project internal conflicts and self-hatreds outward, or to assert themselves when they feel their authority has been questioned,’ Young-Bruehl writes, and ‘rely upon a societal prejudice against children to justify themselves and legitimate their behavior.'”

  • Parents choose to have children while children do not choose to be born.

    As such, it is the primary responsibility of a parent to give their child what they need to be happy.

    Many parents think it’s acceptable to do no research whatsoever before having children. They wilfully ignore the massive amounts of research that is continually being produced on developmental psychology; research that concludes that spanking helps only in creating mental illness.

  • I would like to have a look at these “studies”. My mom had a Masters degree in modern psychology and my sisters and I were her guinea pigs, and I cannot even describe the misery in our family due to the lack of structure and discipline. My sister ran away at the age of 15 to escape and I joined the Army to get away. Ah, the lovely world of developmental psychology . . . . they are gods and they can never be mistaken. I know many, many children who are raised in loving homes, and are spanked when it is appropriate. They are not brain damaged or aggressive, they are bright, articulate and sweet tempered. Those “studies” are very flawed if they don’t go any deeper than that.

  • This makes sense. You don’t smack your co-worker when they frustrate you or don’t do their job properly, why is it ok to smack your child? (I’m Australian, so say ‘smack’ rather than ‘spank’). The role of a parent is to guide the child so they will be able to be a successful adult. This means instilling in them values and morals, teaching them how to think (so they can make responsible decisions when you’re not there) and modelling positive behaviour. I fail to see how physical violence would help in any of these. It would only serve to diminish any self-esteem that once existed, and teach them to use violence when confronted with a challenge. I smacked my child on the bottom once out of frustration (once, in 5 years). I was ashamed, she looked at me stunned and said “You hit me?!”. I immediately apologised and explained that I was frustrated because she wasn’t listening to me. I would never do it again. We now have a zero tolerance to violence in our home. The day I smacked her, I completely broke her unwavering trust in me and she saw me for the hypocrite I was. Remember Gandhi? ‘Be the change you want to see in the world’ – I say ‘Be the change you want to see in your child’. Lower your voice, show some respect, and don’t use violence to intimidate others.

  • Christa, you make a good point. If you (anyone) are “smacking” your child out of frustration or anger, that is absolutely not ok. Using violence and anger to intimidate our children is the very opposite of loving parenting. I am not totally against spanking, but I believe it should never be done in anger and that it should be a last resort. If it is done in this context, it is a training tool utilized when other methods have failed, and I don’t believe it is a product of “childism.” But I will freely admit that many people who spank do not use it like this. If you are spanking your child because they made you mad, you need to learn how to control your anger, not take it out on your child, who most likely is just being childish. I’ve been learning with my 15 month old…my parents would have been spanking him all the time, because he often grabs things I’ve asked him not to touch (like the fan, electric cords, etc). But he does this out of childish curiosity, not “rebellion.” Just this week, I discovered that the best “discipline” is to remove him from the room and tell him that if he chooses to touch the things I’ve asked him not to, then he needs to leave the room until he chooses to listen. From the way he cried this morning, it hurt more than a spanking would have. And, without spanking, I can teach him that his actions have consequences. Even at this age, he understands that.

  • I know everyone says “it should never be done in anger” but everytime I’ve ever seen a spanking happen at home as a child or in public – it was in anger? How many people really follow that? When my child does something and I feel like i should spank because I’m upset – I take a minute to calm down and by then I can usually think of 2 or 3 other ways to approach the situation.

  • i agree whole-heartedly with elisabeth young breuhl and am so saddened by her untimely assimg. i wonder in her absence who will promote this book -and this cause? i think naming the prejudice is so important but we need to take it and run with it. all mobements need compelling leaders….who?

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