My brand of depression is a chicken-egg sort of quandary: I can never quite tell if my bad brain chemistry starts me down the road of existential doubt or vice versa. Perhaps it works both ways for me; that’s my current conclusion. One thing I have known for a while is that I cannot pay attention to the news when I am depressed. Obviously, “if it bleeds, it leads” works for the news stations, but for me, it sets me reeling, asking why there is so much injustice in the world, doubting what little shred of faith I’m still clinging to…and down the hole I go, deeper, deeper, deeper. When my depression is bad, I have to simply avoid the news as much as possible.
As an escape, I gravitate to sports. Given that I like things such as literature, deep talks, etc., some people find my passion for sports a bit surprising. One student even told me once, not entirely in jest, that her opinion of me had gone down a few notches when I admitted to loving football. I chose football over improving her opinion of me and stuck with my passion for a good old weekend of college and professional football…barbaric men using physical force to assert their will and dominance over other barbaric men (when I put it that way, I guess I see why that student lost her respect for me, but alas, I love it!). When I told a different group of students about my avoidance of the news in favor of sports and sports news, one of them pointed out that sports news often involves “bad” news just like the “regular” news. I agreed, but since the majority of sports news is about who wins and loses, who made a great play, what games are coming up, etc., it has always been a fairly safe form of news for my brain.
Until Adrian Peterson had to go and “spank” his 4-year-old…you know, the sort of spanking that involves a tree branch, bruises, Peterson’s arrest, $15,000 bond, suspension from his job, and a lot of lawyers. That sort of spanking. This is the same Peterson who recently lost another child to child abuse…as in, the kid died, but not at Peterson’s hands. Take all of this and then add in the fact that Peterson not only admits the “spanking” but he claims he was doing it in love, and he defended his actions’ appropriateness by saying the same was done to him as a child by adults who loved and cared for him.
For a normal brain, this is probably simply “sad” or “disturbing” or perhaps even “a bunch of nonsense trumped up by the media over our culture’s unwillingness to discipline children the good old fashioned way.” For me, it has me on the all-too-familiar brink of despair. In part, I suppose it’s just because I hate seeing a 4-year-old harmed, but it also must have to do with the fact that I am surrounded by so many people who defend spanking as a legitimate, even “Godly,” form of discipline (see Prov. 29:15 for the typical “spare the rod…” defense of spanking).
Now before I address this subject from a logical and/or philosophical standpoint, I feel that I should offer true confessions about my own biases regarding spanking. As a child, I was spanked. A lot. Suffice it to say that I resent it and am undoubtedly biased in this discussion. In fact, when I bring this topic up, most people tend to look at me like I’m over-reacting to an obviously-healthy form of discipline. A fact that I find odd, and in that very oddity lies the slippery road of existential depression:
Why does no one else see these sorts of things like I see them? Why aren’t other people as outraged as I feel by news stories like Peterson’s? Why do people post things on Facebook about our need to “extinguish” our enemies because we have a God-given right to our own ideals (paraphrased from an actual post recently on a friend’s wall), failing to realize that such rhetoric is dangerously close to the bad guys’ rhetoric?
And on and on, endlessly, aswer-lessly, maddeningly. And what do all my questions do for me or for the world? Well, seemingly absolutely nothing other than make me feel somewhat hopeless.
Now that I’ve confessed to my own biases and probably depressed you, I’d like to attempt to tackle (football pun…get it?) the issue from a (hopefully) more objective vantage point. Two simple points will demonstrate why I think spanking is a dangerous form of discipline, even when it doesn’t result in criminal charges:
1. If you change the word from “spanking” to “hitting” and no one in their right mind would say they’re okay with “hitting children.” I actually tried a poll in my AP English class the other day. About 2/3 of them said they were okay with spanking as a form of discipline. When I asked how many of them were okay with parents hitting their kids, not one hand went up. Hmmmm.
2. Consider this scenario: A child whose parents use spanking (let’s say it’s the kindest, gentlest version of spanking that involves hugs and love from the parent immediately after the discipline has occurred. Shoot, let’s even say the parents cry every time they have to spank their kids; it hurts them “worse than it hurts the kid” in a very literal sense) comes home from 1st grade with a note from the teacher that little Johnny got into an altercation on the playground that involved him punching little Freddy in the arm to get the ball from him because little Johnny had it first. Mom and Dad read the note and know what they have to do:
- “Johnny come here, please! … Is this true what your teacher says about you punching Freddy to get your ball back?”
- Little Johnny, tearful: “Yes, but we had it first and he just stole it. He does that all the time. All of us get sick of it!”
- “Johnny, you know our rule. We’ve dealt with this when you get angry with your sister, too. You can’t hit people to try to get your way. Unfortunately, (mom and/or dad start tearing up at this point) we have to give you a spanking for this. That’s the rule, buddy.”
- “Mom, Dad, please no!”
- “I’m sorry, Johnny, but when you hit someone, the way we have chosen to handle it is to spank you, but know that we love you so much. That’s why we discipline you.”
- Little Johnny suddenly takes on the persona of blogger Tim Blue and says, “But mom and dad, don’t you see what you’re saying? You are going to hit me to teach me that I am not allowed to hit other people. That makes no sense!”
- “Johnny, it’s a spanking. It’s different than punching someone in the arm.”
- “But how? Just because it’s on my butt? At least I didn’t hit Freddy with the wooden spoon you’re about to use. He didn’t even cry; he actually laughed at me. But you’re about to do something that hurts bad enough that it makes me cry. How is this logical? How is this fair? Just because you’re physically bigger than me and can exert your will over me at this point in my life, why does that make it okay for you to do something that would get me in the worst trouble I’ve ever been in? I can’t imagine what sort of spanking you’d give me if I took a wooden spoon to school and smacked somebody with it just because I was bigger and I thought they needed to learn a lesson!”
- Mom and Dad stand in stunned silence as the curtain closes on this dramatic scene. The audience sits in stunned silence and the slowly, gradually gives Tim Blue’s inaugural play a 30-minute standing ovation. Blue becomes world famous. Spanking is outlawed everywhere. Parents apologize to their children across the world. Blue goes on to become an advocate against any and all forms of illogical discipline, and when he dies, his name sits next to people like MLK, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela as an advocate for peace and justice. (Or nothing happens and Tim just feels a little bit better for having verbalized his long-held opinions on spanking despite the fact that he has yet to convince anyone to adopt his view no matter how often he has shared it over the past 15 years.)
3. I have trouble counting, I suppose, since I promised only two points in this already very long post, but most of you have probably quit reading, so I might as well keep going until I have said what I want/need to say. So, speaking as someone who has obvious mental health challenges, I think this form of discipline has potentially very dangerous consequences for children whose brains are already chemically imbalanced. I won’t use my own experiences, though I am confident that being spanked had plenty of negative consequences for me and my brain. I’ll simply quote a student of mine who said that to this day she hates being touched and she thinks it’s because she was spanked as a child. Whether or not this is the case, she said she definitely harbors resentment toward her parents for the physical discipline, and she suffers from a lot of anxiety, though it manifests as perfectionism and over-achievement. Generally speaking, she’s about as put-together and smart as they come, so the consequences will not necessarily be outward or obvious, as in cases of blatant child abuse.
Even if I’m wrong about this third point, why take the chance by choosing spanking as a disciplinary tactic? There are plenty of other options that still teach children important lessons. A friend of mine whose kids are grown and who feels the same way I do about spanking raised three very intelligent and responsible adults who any parent would be proud of. My kids are only 4 and 7, but even if our strategies for discipline backfire later in life, I can at least say that we have yet to hear that they behave badly or disrespect authority (they certainly have their bad moments…plenty of them, but I doubt anyone would say they are generally undisciplined or wayward).
Why have I bothered writing this post that is only tangentially related to mental health? I suppose it’s since because this issue has long been one of those that causes me to lose sleep and sanity. Other than my classroom, this is the best platform I have to stand up for an issue I feel passionately about and one that I’m semi-confident has a potential impact on people’s mental health. So, since it’s all I can do, I’ll simply use this particular platform to make this plea: Don’t use Adrian Peterson’s form of discipline OR his excuse: “This is how I was raised, and things worked out okay for me!” That argument is the equivalent of this one: “But so and so does such and such, so why can’t I?” which doesn’t get most teenagers far with most parents. “Someone else doing it” has never made anything morally right. Ever.
Next, consider the double-standards our culture endorses and get angry about them. Then do something or at least say something about them. My previous post about my friend who died due to mental health and addiction struggles led me to the same exact conclusion, so I beg you yet again to not sit around thinking “we should really do something more about such and such.” Go ahead and DO SOMETHING. You don’t have to change the world, and you don’t have to take up the cause of ending spanking. But if you are troubled by some societal injustice, the only way to alleviate feelings of impotent rage is to take one step in the direction of justice. Then one more. And who knows? Maybe you’ll start something BIG. Or maybe you won’t, but you’ll have done what you can.
For me, writing about things helps me process them. Writing this post has been cathartic in a way, and there’s that not-so-small part of me that hopes this post adds a little bit of good to the world…keeps one spanking from happening or one family from thinking they have no other disciplinary options. Who knows? But at the very least, my thoughts are more organized, and I feel like I have voiced my opinion, and I know for a fact that voicing my opinion is critical for my mental health. I hate feeling ignored and/or neutered, and if you’ll let me have my say, I’m usually willing to move past my frustrations. I’d be lying if I said I feel 100% better because I’ve written this post. Maybe it’s more accurate to say I feel 38.52% better. But hey, that’s something, so find your “something” and help yourself feel 38.52% better by doing it. What do you have to lose?