There's an old episode of What's Happening!! where Roger fucks up, and his mom decides to beat his ass (this is actually the plot of every episode of What's Happening!!). So his mom asks Rerun for his belt, only Rerun is 300-plus pounds, so when he takes out his belt, it's like eight feet long. And Roger's mom guffaws and cries out, "Oh, Rerun! I wanna whip him, not hang him!" And the whole studio audience goes crazy with laughter.
It's a weird thing, to wanna beat your kid. Kids are small and helpless, and are your own flesh and blood. You'd think the LAST person on earth to hit a child would be that child's own parent, and yet here we are. Beating kids is so common that it's practically a comedic mainstay at this point, from Eddie Murphy's mom throwing a shoe at him to Bill Cosby talking about his dad's fearsome belt. There was a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown set in L.A.'s Koreatown, and all these Korean chefs were laughing about how their parents used to punish them by putting them in stress positions for hours on end: standing and holding books until their arms gave out, etc. Torture, essentially. The chefs were all giggling at the memories, like veterans telling war stories. The beatings were a shared heritage among them.
There is an imaginary line between corporal punishment and abuse, and the story of Adrian Peterson beating the shit out of his kid with a tree branch demonstrates the insane variance with where Americans see that line. Some people applauded Peterson for this …
… while others, of course, think he belongs in a jail cell. Peterson said his dad used to beat him with an electrical cord, so he considered his own parenting methods to be HUMANE by comparison, which is insane. But that's what happens in a culture of beating. Beating is a tradition that parents hand down to children, who then hand it down (with great force) to their own children, until an entire family tree of abuse has sprung forth. Given the way abuse can spread, it's a wonder any child makes it out of childhood unscathed. And since it's so common, people will twist their minds around pretty much any excuse to justify this cycle. My parents beat me, and I turned out fine!, etc. The idea of abuse gets buried under comedic euphemisms like "whoopin'." HAHA HIS DAD GAVE HIM A WHOOPIN'. Hilarious.
Now, this is the part where I point out that study after study after study has proven that corporal punishment—even a light spanking—does not work. At all. Corporal punishment makes kids sullen, violent, and angry. I know this because I have dabbled in corporal punishment with my own children, particularly my oldest kid. (Poor first children are always the beta kids: The kids parents fuck up with the most before applying better techniques to their younger siblings.) I have tried spanking the kid, and giving the kid a light smack on the head, and threatening the kid. My dad spanked me once or twice as a child. That's it. I don't even remember it, really. And yet I've probably tried more ways of physically correcting my child than he ever did. And the reason I tried all of these methods is because I am a failure.
That's what corporal punishment is. It's a failure. It's a complete breakdown of communication between parent and child. Children are unpredictable, reckless, and occasionally violent. They can drive otherwise rational humans into fits of rage. And I have had moments—many moments, certainly—where I have felt that rage after exhausting every last possible idea to get them to behave: bribery, timeouts, the silent treatment, walking away (they follow you!), distraction, throwing the kids outside (they end up ringing the doorbell a lot), you name it. So I have tried corporal punishment as a final resort, a desperate last stab at closure. That's an easy way for parents to justify it: You forced me to do this, child. Spanking the kid did nothing for me. It only made me realize what a fucking failure I was. Oh, and the kid still kept yelling.
Spanking and beating your kid teaches your kid to talk with violence. It validates hitting as a legitimate form of communication. Everything is modeled. I have yelled at my kids, and then seen them yell. I have smacked my kid, and then watched her smack someone else. They don't learn to be good from any of it. They don't learn to sit still and practice piano sonatas. All they learn is, Hey, this works! And then they go practice what you just preached. Beating a kid creates an atmosphere of toxicity in a house that lingers forever: One beating leads to the next, and to the next, and to the next, until parents don't even know why they're beating the kid anymore. They just do. Once it is normalized, it takes root. Parents begin to like the habit. Those pictures of Peterson's kid? The violence can get worse ... much worse ... so much worse it's astonishing.
It takes an endless amount of patience to handle a demanding child, and lots of people don't have that patience. We also happen to live in an age of instant gratification, so the idea of spending 10 full minutes getting a child to calm down is agony. People are hurried, stressed, and selfish. If they try beating a kid and it "works," they'll go right to that well the second the kid acts up. Beating a kid is fast and easy, which is what makes it so terrifying. And no parent ever thinks of him- or herself as a child abuser, no matter how bad the abuse gets. There's also a strange political bent to all this ... a "Don't tell me how to raise my kids!" attitude, whereby people demand the freedom to punish their kids however they like, but their kids are not allowed any freedom FROM that discipline.
You need tolerance, intelligence, and love to make it work. Sometimes, I am able to pull this off. Sometimes, I talk the kid down, and then I go to my wife and I'm like DUDE THEY CALMED DOWN AND I DIDN'T EVEN HAVE TO YELL GIMME A COOKIE. And sometimes, I fail miserably and start yelling like a crazy person, only to realize what a shitty job I'm doing. I am getting better (I haven't tried spanking a kid in years), but I still have a lot of work to do. I cannot yell. I cannot hit. No parent ever should. No parent or child will ever get anything productive from it. You are not a hippy-dippy asshole when you avoid spanking. That's a cultural stigma that only justifies further abuse, and it's a cheap way of getting out of the legwork necessary to be a better parent: reading books, going to parenting classes, etc. People think they've tried everything when they really haven't.
If it takes sending Adrian Peterson to jail to explain "don't hit your kids" concept to all the junior Bob Knights out there, so be it. Go ahead and look at those pictures again and tell me what good will come from it. Because I don't see it. I don't see how 10 lashings do the trick instead of just one. I don't see how that lesson won't be taught to that child again and again and again, until it isn't a lesson at all. And I don't see how Peterson's grandkids avoid a similar fate.
Drew Magary writes for Deadspin. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter@drewmagary and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also buy Drew's book,Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
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