exactly that

Pain as Discipline

When I hear or read of parents discussing discipline it isn’t a far leap to remember being spanked as a child.  Of stepping out of the lines of expectation and getting the belt.

And I remember the intense feelings of fear, anxiety and ultimately, betrayal, as the punishment was laid out.

Because we build up this idea of our parents in our minds at young ages.  They are supposed to love us and keep us from harm and protect us from things that hurt.  They chase bogeymen and clear closets of monsters and check under the bed for Critters.  They hold your hand when crossing the street so you don’t become a Kid Pancake.  We hold them up, no matter what as a paladin whose sacred charge is us, worthy of our unconditional love and devotion.

And some parents violate this by intentionally causing pain and brushing it under the rug of discipline.  We call it discipline, but the more correct term for it is abuse.

Spanking, in any form is abuse.  Hitting a child is wrong.

I am not even sure what spanking is supposed to accomplish, since it only teaches children that if you don’t get your way then it is OK to hurt another person.  What do you do if your child hits another child?  Do you spank hir?  That wouldn’t send the message that violence is the answer now, would it?

To physically violate another person’s body.  It breaks the principle foundation of our home:  My body, my business. My face, my space.  You never violate another person’s body or space without their permission, by touching them or hugging them or making any contact without first making sure you have their OK.  Bodily autonomy is rule #1.  We teach The Kid that you shouldn’t even hug your friends without making sure it is OK.  If you are “tickle fighting”, and someone says stop, you stop.  Full stop.  My body, my business.  It’s a foundation to making sure that when children become adults that they are confident to draw the line as to what is and is not allowed on their bodies.  How can we help them do that if we, the first teachers they have, teach them that we can violate their bodies whenever we feel it’s OK?

And the lesson that we teach our kids who step across the lines we draw as parents (lines mostly drawn for good reason), that they need to obey out of fear of pain.  That the love and protection we offer them is in fact conditional upon their total submission to our (the parents) will.

So I see things like this, sent to me by a friend on Facebook, who is currently “training” her children (like they are sled dogs or something), and at first I thought she meant things like self sufficiency or doing chores, which, sure, we all “train” children in one way or another, I guess.  We teach them how to take care of their own hygiene and grooming and how to do chores.  We teach them how to make beds and comb their hair, so that we don’t have to chase after them for their whole lives doing it for them, and we teach them how to put away dishes and fold laundry so that we don’t have to do it all ourselves.  Sharing responsibility.  I am all for that.  I had just never heard anyone say they were training their children.  Training for what?  The circus?  A play?

But this training up a child thing goes a step further (please remember as you read this that it is a parenting guide, not a pet owner’s manual or a military drill instructor’s instruction):

Training does not necessarily require that the trainee be capable of reason; even mice and rats can be trained to respond to stimuli. Careful training can make a dog perfectly obedient. If a seeing-eye dog can be trained to reliably lead a blind man through the obstacles of a city street, shouldn’t a parent expect more out of an intelligent child? A dog can be trained not to touch a tasty morsel laid in front of him. Can’t a child be trained not to touch? A dog can be trained to come, stay, sit, be quiet or fetch upon command. You may not have trained your dog that well, yet every day someone accomplishes it on the dumbest mutts.

When headstrong young men join the military, they are first taught to stand still. The many hours of close-order-drill are simply to teach and reinforce submission of the will. “Attention!” pronounced, “TENNN–HUTT!!” is the beginning of all maneuvers. Just think of the relief it would be if by one command you could gain the absolute, silent, concentrated attention of all your children. A sergeant can call his men to attention and then, without explanation, ignore them, and they will continue to stand frozen in that position until they fall out unconscious. The maneuvers “Right flank, Left flank, Companeeey–Halt” have no value in war except as they condition the men to instant, unquestioning obedience.

We live in a horse and buggy community where someone is always training a new horse. When you get into a buggy to go down a narrow, winding state highway filled with eighteen-wheelers and logging trucks, you must have a totally submissive horse. You cannot depend on whipping it into submission. One mistake, and the young men are again making several new pine boxes and digging six-foot deep holes in the orchard.

Words like “submissive”, “fall out unconscious”, “respond to stimuli” or “perfectly obedient” are not words that I associate with parenting.  Not with the caring, supportive and nurturing environment that children depend on and thrive in to build up their confidence as people that we hope to achieve in our home.  We want a home that is a safe environment for a child to stretch their will and make mistakes without fear of getting hurt or hurting others.

In the parenting class I took at Ho’ala we talked about it being a parenting achievement when a child tries to bend the rules or even break them (the ones that are not directly harmful, things like running into a car park are not negotiable), because it shows that we have given our children the tools to think for themselves and to consider their choices.  It is a road to their personal accountability and teaching them to live with the consequences of the decisions that are theirs to properly make.  We still have clear boundaries and rules, because you need them, but with rules comes the opportunity to follow them or break them, and the consequences of decision making is a major life skill that needs to be taught in a secure setting.

And I can not stress enough that a secure setting is not, in fact, a sheltered corner of your home far away from the contact of the world outside or non-family people.  This isn’t a Stephenie Meyer novel; real life has conflict and learning to resolve it on our own is part of what shapes us into the adults we become.  If we only surround our children with ourselves and the like-minded think tanks we are never giving them a chance to face a real problem and find out if they have what it takes to to stick to their principles when we are not there to watch.  A child who can mind in front of their parents or away from influences that might challenge their beliefs has made no achievement.  A child who can face a challenge to their core beliefs and can make the decisions that still align with those values.  We can’t keep our children in our safe harbor forever, and it is our responsibility to give them the tool to navigate the world when they eventually wind up in it.  Otherwise we have done nothing but create mindless drones who only know to hide from the real, grown up world.

Apart from that, if you use pain and spanking as a method of achieving the mindless obedience you are hoping for you don’t really have happy children.  You have children who are afraid to step across any line or question anything for fear of a switching.  You raise children who are afraid to make mistakes, and inevitably will lie about those mistakes rather than come to you for help.  They will hide their questions and actions from you, because they will eventually be outside of your direct supervision, and that will put them at risk.  If you raise kids who are afraid of making mistakes then you have raised kids who will be so ashamed of themselves that they will put themselves at risk.  Like the great philosopher House says, pain is a great deterrent, but the fear of pain is stronger.  Or something.  The point is that humans will go to great lengths to avoid pain.

And that isn’t discipline.  It’s fear mongering.


Comments on: "Pain as Discipline" (12)

  1. i must admit my Dad spanked me once but i had just burned down an acre of woods by our house so i give him a pass on that.

    other than that that was it.

    they didnt try to “train” me they encouraged me to be me

    as ive said about Me before she was strong enough to watch me fall down and also strong enough to help me up when I needed it

    • she was strong enough to watch me fall down and also strong enough to help me up when I needed it


      Because sometimes, the best thing we can do is nothing. Sometimes that takes more strength of character on behalf of the parent.

  2. It was abuse, not discipline, in my house, because it was always and ever about how angry my mom or dad was at any given time. The physical pain was easier to deal with than “I’m doing this because I love you.”

    Fucked me up for years, that one did. I learned fear and how to lie very well indeed.

    And the quoted writer is wrong on several counts. Close-order marching drill doesn’t have much military value now, but it sure did when trying to move hundreds of soldiers armed with twenty-foot pikes across a battlefield without them stabbing each other with them. These days it’s purely for show and for tradition’s sake, but it really did have a purpose once. Not to mention that instant unquestioning obedience in modern war gets you and the people around you killed. Though the military does like to break down any existing value system and install its own.

    • The purpose that teaching close-rank marching now is simply to teach unthinking obedience. you are right, it has very little practical value, and is used at boot as a display of discipline, personal discipline.

      I agree fully that pain as discipline teaches lying. People will go to great lengths to avoid pain. Children lie to avoid pain because by inflicting pain we violate their trust. It only gives them more reason to lie.

  3. I was spanked very lightly as a child, never enough to really hurt. It’s not a source of trauma for me (not consciously, at least), but the underlying attitude of obedience and submission was a theme that had much bigger consequences. Though my dad stopped spanking my sister and me at a young age (probably around 7 or 8), he threatened to spank us anytime he got upset with us until we moved out of the house. When I was 17, those threats of spanking were basically threats of sexual assault. Surely my dad must have been aware of that, but he didn’t care. The main thing was to try and scare us into obedience. Even when I went to college, he would scold me for disobeying him and staying at my boyfriend’s house for the weekend.

    I have a much-younger brother, and when I was home for the holidays last December, my dad was trying to get my brother to go to bed. My brother put up a fight, they yelled at each other for a while, and my dad said, “You need to learn obedience,” as if obedience were an essential character trait for people to have, like honesty or generosity. I was like, “Dad, he’s thirteen. He’s past the point of mindless obedience. He needs to start learning how to make his own decisions for the right reasons.” Then I just got a lecture about being a know-it-all. I know I don’t have kids and don’t fully understand the frustration of them behaving badly (though I have done my fair share of babysitting, so I have some idea), but I’m pretty sure raising a kid isn’t about making them do whatever you want them to do. It’s about preparing your kid to be a responsible adult living independently. Spanking them into submission seems to betray a lack of understanding of your kid as anything other than a possession or extension of yourself.

    • Very much this. Especially when a child has grown some.

      Teaching a child obedience does nothing to “train” him for life when he DOESN’T have an authority figure lurking over his shoulder dishing out the orders and guidance. They need to know why certain things are silly and unwise and why not to do them beyond “dad said so.”

  4. This was an interesting post. The passage from the “training guide” was horrifying. There is most definitely a difference between discipline and abuse – one seeks to guide or influence while the other not only seeks to control, but leaves lasting damage on a soul. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  5. I clicked the link read the whole “training guide” with ever greater developing horror. Putting attractive things within children’s reach – INFANT’S reach – then smacking them when they reach for it? That’s not training – that’s a cruel headgame

    My parents never had to “train” me. Because I DO have reason. And as a reasonable being, like any child, we have the capacity to be reasoned with, to learn respect.

    Ultimately, his training is about fear. The kids obey him because he causes them pain when they don’t. If they were adults we wouldn’t even come close to finding this acceptable. Violence as coersion is barbaric – how is it less so when applied to children

    His household is about tyranny – he is deliberately setting up situations to tempt his kids into disobedience to prove his dominance over them. He calls them just to make them come to him, to acknowledge his power over them.

    He doesn’t see children, he sees chattal.

  6. I agree so much with this post. Perfect obedience to authority is NOT something you want to teach your children. As a parental authority figure, you may have their best interests at heart, but such is not the case for all authority figures.
    I was subjected to various physical punishments as a child, including hard bare-bum spankings with a leather belt. I was a logical child and I think I would have benefitted greatly by adults just explaining (I know, novel concept) why something was bad rather than just basically sending the message “if I catch you doing this, you will be punished with pain.” All that really teaches a kid is, next time, don’t get caught. Oh yeah, and that your parents, lovely people though they are, think nothing of beating on your body which is half the size of theirs.

  7. because your idea of parenting is different, and so it the age of parenting in this age. Yes, you do want obedient children, when they get older they can do the questioning this and stay outta trouble.

    • Asada, I am not sure that I want mindless obedience at the expense of trust and self worth. If you “train” a child into this type of obedience all you are teaching hir is to be afraid of pain when a mistake is made, and how to hide it from you in order to avoid pain.

      Children are supposed to question authority and occasionally disobey. It is how they learn who they are separate from their parents and how they learn to think for themselves.

      No amount of mindless obedience is worth sacrificing that.

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