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LeftOut: Spare the Rod, Save the World

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Obama administration likely to employ a kinder, gentler discipline.By Brandon Wolf

BrandonWLast November, journalist Barbara Walters talked with our new President and First Lady, Barack and Michelle Obama. She covered a wide variety of topics, but the one that I took particular note of was how they are raising their two daughters.

Michelle noted that neither she nor Barack utilize spanking as they mold the young lives of Malia and Sasha. She also reflected that her parents did not use corporal punishment in their home.

 I’m a gay man who hasn’t raised children, so perhaps this seems an unlikely topic of interest. And yet, corporal punishment is something that has troubled me since my own childhood. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s; spanking at home and paddling at school were just another grown-up terror I had to learn to live with. I always thought these practices were gruesome and humiliating. It was physical violence given a name that left the punishers free of guilt.

Raised in a fundamentalist religious environment, I was constantly reminded that parents should not “spare the rod” lest the children be spoiled. Preachers admonished them to use that rod often if they were going to be good Christians.

 Spanking was part of my early life, and when it happened, it only made me aware that I was small and that my parents and teachers were big. I was powerless and they got to call the shots. I can’t recall one instance where corporal punishment changed my attitude or my behavior.

 Michelle Obama reflected that if her father told her he was disappointed in her, she would run to her room and cry for hours. I could relate to that scenario—the most effective discipline for me was to hear that I had disappointed my mother. Until I had turned that situation around, life was no longer normal.

 I wanted to gain a contemporary perspective on this topic, so I asked a number of parents what their opinion of corporal punishment was. I picked a wide variety of parents—gay, straight, liberal, conservative, white, black, biological, and adoptive.

 One idea was consistent with all these parents: a couple of swift slaps to the rear end is necessary when a child’s life is in danger. Nearly all of them used the same example—a child running through a busy parking lot. That must be the secret horror of any parent who loves their children.

 Aside from that, I discovered that spanking is no longer in vogue. Many parents admitted that they had used corporal punishment early on with their children. But they also indicated that this practice didn’t last long—they just couldn’t see that it had any good effect. And they felt that spanking was more about the frustrations of being a parent than it was about teaching children how to behave.

 Despite the social trending away from corporal punishment, fundamentalist author James Dobson has written a best-selling book entitled The Strong-Willed Child . Dobson doesn’t value independent thought on the part of children. He stresses that Christian parents have the only right answers for their children, based on his biblical beliefs, and it is their duty to instill these answers into their children when they are growing.

 Since Dobson believes homosexuality is not biblical, he feels it is the duty of parents to ensure that their children do not grow up gay. He warns that young sons must not be allowed to act effeminately. If they persist, corporal punishment should be used to “move them to a point where they will make the right decision”—that is, to act in a proscribed masculine fashion.

 Then comes advice from Dobson that somewhat staggers the mind. Once the son acts masculine, then it’s important for him to bond with his father’s masculinity—so they should take showers together—and the young son should get a good look at his father’s adult genitals. This, Dobson claims, will establish a healthy goal in the young son to grow up to be just like his Christian dad—masculine and virile. The irony is that this silly theory will probably end up with many repressed young men who leave home and start hanging out in the shower room at the Club Houston.

 So what exactly is at the heart of corporal punishment? In a word, it’s intimidation. And throughout human history, intimidation has endured because it’s quick and effective in the short run. However, it often later implodes on itself. George W. Bush Jr. wanted a war no one else wanted. So, in the short run, he intimidated his advisors, the military, the press, and the nation into waging it. Then later he imploded and left office as the most unpopular president in U.S. history.

 Barack and Michelle Obama are committed to leading us into a new world of discussion, understanding and negotiation, instead of resorting to dogmatic ideas and intimidation. They will continue to parent their two daughters, just as they have. But now they will also be Dad and Mom to about 300,000,000 Americans.

 Not a moment too soon, The Decider has been replaced by The Listeners. I believe that during the next four years the Obama daughters will mature into young women of wisdom and compassion. And probably we ourselves will grow into adults who are kinder and gentler. Because in America, good things seem to trickle down.

 Brandon Wolf founded the online group, Houston Activist Network (Han-Net), which is now LoneStarActivists.

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Brandon Wolf

Brandon Wolf is a regular contributor to OutSmart Magazine.

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