Wednesday, November 9, 2011

On an unfriendly post against spanking


Just the lede from this post by Hemant Mehta the Friendly Atheist is enough to get on one’s nerves:

Conservative Christians promote a lot of awful values [yeah, like chastity, fidelity, respect for authority, the innate dignity of human life and a bunch of other reprehensible moral principles], but spanking has to be somewhere near the top of the list. It’s not just the few notable examples of parents who beat their children to the point of death — but parents who spank their kids at all. It makes no sense to think that you could actually “fix behavior” through violence.

Now, pay close attention: Mehta wants us to associate “spanking” with “beating”, much like associating an Estes rocket with the Space Shuttle. If you don’t walk away believing that a few swats on the tuchas are just as horrific as breaking bones and causing internal injuries, it’s not for lack of his trying.

But that’s just the setup. The next step is to chuck the whole thing into a pigeonhole labeled “violence”, to use the negative connotations of that tag as both a pat on his morally superior back and as further emotional manipulation.

Despite the Middle Eastern provenance of his name, Mehta is culturally Western. Only the Western liberal kind of smug parochialism could assume that only conservative Christians spank, let alone ruthlessly batter, their children. And only a Western New Atheist could assume that atheists are above such nonsense.


Mehta’s post refers to a book put out by Michael and Debi Pearl, titled To Train Up a Child. Michael Pearl is a preacher at the Church at Cane Creek in Pleasantville, Tenn.; the book is the focus of a New York Times article which connects it to three significant cases of child abuse. In one of the cases, the child had been beaten to death with a 15-inch plastic tube, which Rev. Pearl said in the interview was “too light to cause damage to the muscle or the bone”, and which is recommended in the book.

Let me grant as much as I can to the case against corporal punishment. Child abuse is nothing to wave away or “pshaw”; the wisdom books of the Bible may call for switching with a rod, but they don’t call for bruises or broken bones, nor do they call for lashing out in anger. There are many people in the US who suffer psychological damage from physically abusive parents, and that fact shouldn’t be ignored or minimized.

When you’re angry, it’s easy to tell yourself that a beating is “called for”, even when the sin is relatively minor. That’s precisely the point when parents should send the child off to his room and go someplace to calm down. The punishment should fit the crime; that’s why spanking should be reserved for cases of deliberate disobedience, as a last-resort measure. It should never be the first response for a mistake such as dropping a plate or moving a knickknack out of place, nor should it be used when child has already incurred more serious consequences from his sin.

But there’s a lot going on in the psychology of abusive parents that Mehta and his readers either overlook or (stupidly) blame on Christianity. Put simply, abusive parents are control freaks with anger-management issues. It’s not just that they beat their kids, but that they interpret even minor mistakes as rebellion against them.

The vast majority of parents who spank don’t fall into that category. They don’t use children as physical targets for their rage; they don’t whip their kids for coloring outside the lines. They certainly don’t draw blood or crack tailbones with their “violence”, precisely because they’re not spanking to release their anger but to teach their children right from wrong. Generally, parents who spank don’t want to spank, and don’t want to have to spank; they do so because it’s a time-honored teaching tool that works.

And this is where Mehta’s smug liberal superiority really gets up one’s nostril. He asks, presumably rhetorically, “Has spanking ever worked for any of you (as parents)? If you received them when you were a child, did it steer you in the right direction? Or am I just a naïve person who doesn’t get it because I don’t have children yet?”

Yes, it did. Yes, he is. And there are millions on whom it did work; ironically, many of them would insist that it didn’t, even as they go on obeying laws, respecting authority and being polite to others.

Strip away all the arguments about biblical literalism and divine authorship, and just look at the books of Proverbs, Wisdom and Sirach for what they are: collections of time-honored folk wisdom, good rules to live by. They’re not the products of academics with degrees in ethical philosophy but of people who actually lived and worked among others, who handed these rules down to their children and their children’s children because they worked.

Mehta’s condemnation of the Pearls is especially telling:

The Pearls are firmly against physical abuse … but they are feverishly in support of mental and emotional abuse. They want children to fear their parents. They want children to know that stepping out of line will not be tolerated. They want children to believe their parents always know best no matter what.

Baloney. The Pearls want what every parent wants: children who are good. They want children who grow up to be law-abiding, productive, polite citizens of a well-ordered society. Mehta wants children “to challenge authority — in reasonable ways and with good arguments”; but challenging authority is not an end in itself, but rather a means to the final end of truth. Nor does it preclude respect for lawful, properly exercised authority.

The merits and demerits of corporal punishment can stand more discussion. However, Hemant Mehta hasn’t advanced the discussion one way or another; he’s simply used it as an opportunity to rehash atheist clichés about authority and Christians.

That’s the most irritating thing about his post. Not very friendly at all.