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Resident Dad: What Is Child Abuse?

January 15, 2014

 Shortly before Christmas, I saw a link on my Facebook page to a blog post by novelist and game designer Chuck Wendig titled Spanking Your Children is Hitting Your Children. I haven’t read any of his novels, and I’m not much (or anything, really) of a gamer so I haven’t experienced his work on that level either. In fact, the only thing I’ve read of Wendig’s is this blog post. But man, it has stuck with me through the new year. In this post Wendig takes to task the growing number of memes and quotes circulating on Facebook that support spanking one’s children, particularly this one:


The premise of his riposte, as stated in the title, is that spanking a child, even in a planned way calculated to circumvent bad behavior, is still child abuse. I’ve struggled with this on an ideological level since Checkers, my four-year-old, was conceived. (I say “ideological” here because I’ve never once thought striking either of my children would be a good idea, any more than I would think striking my wife might be a good idea.)

I come from a family that probably believes the meme more than Wendig’s riposte. I remember feeling a twinge of defensiveness when my wife referred to my adoptive father “abusing” me, though she wasn’t the first. When the social services lady made her monthly visits to my junior high to follow up on reports of abuse I was regularly on her list, and I always told her nothing was wrong, that I could handle it. I’m not sure if it was magical thinking on my part that I somehow was in control, but I remember thinking even then that in working my way around his black moods, his uncontrollable temper, I was learning how to deal with a world that did not have my best interests at heart. I’ve had to spend a good part of the last two decades deprogramming this sense of an inherent unfairness to the world, but I did learn how to fight (in the figurative sense) from growing up in an abusive household. Nothing makes a good rebel like an oppressive regime.

This, I think, is one of the stickiest sides to the ongoing discussion of whether corporal punishment has any place in modern child-rearing. From one angle, programmed physical punishment gives a child a sense of immediate consequences for her or his actions; from another, it instills fear in the child of the parents and—even worse, I think—teaches them to obey authority for fear of retribution, which is a microcosm of most dystopian governments of the world. I recently read portions of the book To Train Up a Child, known to most as a handbook for abusing your children (via the free online version—I refuse to pay money for it). It’s actually a rather staid read, written in a style that would make it fit right in on the shelves of most Christian bookstores. But, looking past the mock-religionisms, I found a handbook for political dictatorship writ small: treat your kids like low-educated servants, and they will act like it.

This line of thinking is pretty seductive, especially to a parent dealing with a generation of children with needs and characteristics unlike any before it. I also can understand the impulse not to let your kids get the best of you, and to see the sometimes shocking lack of empathy and excess of cynicism in children, and to blame it on them not being “put in their place.” Perhaps this is simply a reaction to changing times, like the civil rights movement in the Sixties and the gay rights movement of the last two decades, in which the party in power bemoans its loosening grip. One of my brothers, a loving father with whom I never grew up (he was raised by our father and I was raised by my mother), is one person I think of—he might have now posted every single pro-abuse meme to his Facebook timeline. (The latest: “When I was a smart ass kid we didn’t get a “Time Out.” We had what was called “Time’s Up,” and then I would get my ass beat.”) Every time I see one of these posts, I want to ask him if he really believes that. Then I justify not asking him by telling myself that no one believes all the crap they repost on Facebook.

I also realize that I’m probably preaching to the choir here—my guess is that very few parents reading this believe in spanking, or most other forms of negative reinforcement even. I also have to admit—and I hope this isn’t too broad a generalization—that I got hella lucky to have two girls. Checkers has recently made a friend in her pre-K who is a boy, and we often have playdates. He is a sweet, wonderful, smart kid, but man, he likes to play rough. Often, when we are finishing up a particularly, um, energetic playdate with this boy, I wonder—would I be different if I had that particular kind of energy running into me from morning to night?

Crazy Eights, my one-year-old, has made a habit recently of clawing me in the face when I’m holding her and she doesn’t feel she has my complete attention. I admit my first reaction is always first tinged with anger. Why is she doing this to me? Why is she so ungrateful that she has someone to hold her? But once that passes, usually after the first second or two, I tell her firmly and calmly, “No scratching,” and she waves, smiles, and says, “Hi!” In those moments I remember that kids—boy or girl, baby or toddler or tween—are not generally out to upset, annoy, or break their parents’ psyches. They’re just trying things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t. Our reactions determine this for them, and they adjust accordingly.

I admit I’ve lost my temper more than once as a father, and I hate the look of terror on my daughters’ faces, unable to distrust me yet but wondering why the center of their universe is so angry with them. But I can always contrast this with the far-more-frequent best feeling in the world, when we work together to do something as a team, and they look at me not as a ruler, benevolent or otherwise, but as a presumed equal, working together with them to put toys away or narrate a story or work in the garden or fly to the moon in a cardboard box.

So, that’s the bad news: every thing we do as parents is being judged and stored away by little minds whose growth and developing worldview are largely dependent on each of our small day-to-day actions and reactions. The good news is that they are remarkably forgiving and forgetful, and in the end they’ll assume agency for themselves and try their hardest to believe their views and opinions developed independently of us.

Wait, what was the good news again?