Mr. Carter was 6’2” and so I had to look up 14 inches to make glancing eye contact one last time before he said, “Grab your ankles.” Then I bent over. Then there was a loud pop. And then . . . the searing burn. It was my first and last classroom swat. I stood up quickly. I stuck out my chest and held my head high. I knew from watching the swat routine previously that it was all about the walk back to your seat. Don't strut too much. Don't smile or Mr. Carter might call you back for an encore. But keep your poise, don't look defeated, and never, ever cry.
My best friend Mark was next. When Mr. Carter told him to grab his ankles, Mark’s hands kept reflexively swinging back up to protect his backside. And when it was over, he cried. The whole class saw the tears rolling down his cheeks. Mark flunked the humiliation test. His chin drooped as he walked back to his seat.
Mr. Carter was the biggest and coolest 6th grade teacher in my school. My older sister thought he was the coolest dude on the planet; nearly everyone loved him. He was the only African-American teacher in our school and one of the few men. I remember him dropping an egg into a jar of coke in class; it was a quick science experiment. And I remember his big smile.
Part of me understands why Mr. Carter gave us all ‘the paddle’ that day. Eight of us boys were late coming in from recess. We were in a big snowball fight and didn’t hear the bell. We didn’t know recess was over until the playground was empty. We sprinted to class while imagining our fate.
Mr. Carter's swat made an impression on me. I’d never been late from recess before and I never was again. I learned that the consequences for lateness were painful. But I also learned that physical pain damages trust and that punishment can’t eliminate defiance. I learned I could tolerate pain and feel scorn for the person causing me the pain. I learned about the urge for revenge. And I lost a little respect for Mr. Carter.
In my 25 years counseling adults and children, I've heard many reasons why parents hit their kids. Some parents say: “It gets their attention” or “I only spank when I have to.” Others tell me, “I believe in discipline” or they say “I spank because it works.” And there's my favorite of all: “I got spanked when I was a kid and I turned out just fine.” It’s tempting, but I make a point of never arguing with adults when they tell me they turned out just fine.
The advantages of spanking or inflicting pain to control behavior are clear. It’s quick. Whether it’s Tabasco sauce on the tongue or an electric shock, pain captures your attention. And most of the time, it suppresses the behavior it’s intended to suppress. But research has repeatedly shown that corporal punishment is neither an effective or efficient behavior modifier. Maybe that’s why the famous psychologist B. F. Skinner was adamantly against punishment. Punishment, pain, or spanking is linked to more problems than solutions.
Estimates vary, but about 50% or more of parents still regularly use spanking as discipline. Spanking is an American child-rearing tradition. It's quick and simple. But the consequences are complex and longstanding. Most of us recall when we were hit by our parents. It’s hard to forget when you get hit by somebody way bigger than you are. Hitting kids almost always makes an impression. Unfortunately, it's an impression that’s neither healthy nor positive. Parents can do better than to spank their kids.
Years ago, Mr. Carter died. I mourned his death. Despite his paddle, he was a good man. He taught me and others many important lessons about life. But I still remember that swat and it spoils some of my memory of him. I know it wasn’t necessary. Mr. Carter could have sat down with the eight of us. He could have looked us each in the eye. He could have tried to understand our situation. He could have let my friend Mark avoid humiliation. He could have expressed his disappointment in us. He could have had us stay in during the next recess. He could have used many options that wouldn’t have increased my defiance and decreased my respect for him. But he went for the quick solution.
Discipline is about teaching and learning. It requires patience and creativity. Using pain as a discipline method was below Mr. Carter's standards. He was a creative and enthusiastic teacher; in the long run, he could have had an even more positive influence without hitting kids. And if he were alive to read this, I'm sure he’d never swat again.
John Sommers-Flanagan is a counselor and counselor educator at the University of Montana. More information on strategies for dealing with resistance is in chapter 11 of his textbook, Clinical Interviewing (published by Wiley). You can access his personal blog at johnsommersflanagan.com.