I was playing with
my daughter at a playground in a park recently when two young boys ran up to
the swing set we were playing on and struck up a conversation with us as they,
Because the boys
didn't know who we were, they did not make any assumptions about my
relationship to my daughter. For example, because I was referring to her as
"kid" or "kiddo" as I spoke to my daughter, one of the
boys, perhaps about four years old, asked me if I had "stolen her."
My daughter laughed
and said, "No! He's my daddy!"
"Then why do
you call her 'kid'?" the boy asked.
"I call her all
kinds of things," I explained. "Kid, kiddo, bub, boop, sweetheart…
but her name is…" and then I gave her name. The boy looked confused, but
he seemed satisfied at having learned what her name was.
A few moments later,
the boy said something I don't quite remember, but he was talking in the
abstract about how my daughter, like other kids, should behave well. It was a
harmless, playful comment, I just don't remember what it was. Something sort of
like this: "You better not make any messes, or else your dad will give you
I said emphatically. "I would never swat her. We don't do that at our
the correction, the boy repeated the same comment, only this time he said
"spank" instead of "swat." I corrected him again, telling
him that I don't spank my daughter, not ever, and that no one hits each other
in our household.
The young boy gave
me a bewildered, drop-jawed look and said, "Then you're not a daddy."
He was very serious.
additional explaining, the boy either understood how discipline works at our
house, or he lost interest in the conversation. At that age, it is more or less
the same thing, anyway. Still, the situation stuck with me. The question for
this small boy was not whether spanking a child is appropriate. The question
was much more definition-level than that. To him, a "daddy" is a
category of human that is a sub-category of "things that spank
children." If someone does not belong to the "things that spank"
category, then someone cannot belong to the "daddy" category. And
that's just how it is.
We talk about the
appropriateness of spanking, but we never consider how that shapes a child's
understanding of the world beyond the mere act of spanking or the associated
disciplinary situation. How does a child who believes all fathers spank react
to the universe?
reaction is that the boy will interact with any male he knows to be a father as
though the threat of corporal punishment is always hanging over the exchange.
Maybe it doesn't matter; maybe the boy has been through enough spankings that
he doesn't fear them. If so, that
suggests that spanking is not an effective disciplinary strategy in the long
run. If not, then it suggests that spanking is wrong for a different reason,
namely that it instills fear and distrust of parental authority figures in
I have written in
the past about how wrong it is to spank children. All the psychological studies
I have ever seen have concluded that spanking is psychologically harmful. There
is no scientific argument in favor of
spanking. The best non-scientific
argument I've heard is that a lot of reasonable people I know were spanked as
children and turned out okay. That's not a terrible
argument; after all, a process that leads to a widely salutary outcome (good
people) is at least potentially a good process. But there's no telling how much
better these folks would be, how much better the world would be, had they been
given proper discipline rather than spankings.