"Then You're Not A Daddy"

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, themselves played.

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 fifty swats!"

"Oh, no," I said emphatically. "I would never swat her. We don't do that at our house."

Seemingly accepting 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.

After some 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?

One possible 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 children.

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.

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