A lifetime ago I was sitting at Sunday dinner with my parents. My mother and I squabbled while my father ate in silence. Seized with that squeaky truculence typical of most 10-year-old boys, I let fly a particularly nasty remark at my mother, whose hurt and shock I was just beginning to take in when the back of my father's hand exploded against my mouth. Coming from a truck driver and onetime amateur boxer, my dad's cuffing was hardly all he could have mustered, but nonetheless, the blow was a sharp one that fattened my lip and elicited a burst of tears. Of course, my mother leapt up to minister to her baby's wound. My father retreated from the room, embarrassed, my mother would later tell me, for having lost his temper and smacked me so hard. Indeed, it was the only time my father ever hit me with his hands. But mine was still a household where corporal punishment -- meted out with a belt -- was an occasional, though no less memorable, resolution to my boyhood defiance. By current child-rearing standards, I could be called an abused child. According to those standards, my old man shouldn't have belted me, but instead should have signaled a "timeout," during which we might have bid everyone's anger melt away so that afterward we could talk about those disturbing feelings.
As a kid born in the mid-'50s, I was raised during a transitional period of child-rearing philosophy. The folk notion of "Spare the rod, spoil the child" was giving way, at least among the educated classes, to less punitive methods of discipline. Instead of spanking, experts like Dr. Spock advised parents to treat kids as relative equals and refrain from possibly trauma-inducing violence. Throughout the '70s and '80s this approach was supported by numerous studies that suggested strong links between spanking and juvenile delinquency, low IQ, depression and low earning potential. For boomers coming into parenthood during these years it seemed as if every swat on baby's behind would drive their tyke deeper into social and economic disaster. And besides, like smoking and driving American-made cars, spanking was something done by the great unwashed. As a result, in upscale households, spankers joined the Tontons Macoutes, SAVAK and the Khmer Rouge as naughty, unenlightened brutes. A recent U.S. News and World Report article cites a survey done last year in which "41 percent of college-educated Americans disapproved of spanking, compared with only 20 percent of those who didn't complete high school."
The effect of social class in forming opinions about corporal punishment shows, sometimes contentiously, in my own house. My wife, Jane, is the daughter of two college professors. She was raised in an academic community where alternative schools and therapists' offices were pivotal institutions in family life. Many of her parents' friends were not only psychologists, but child psychologists, like Selma H. Fraiberg, author of the landmark book "The Magic Years." While Jane was growing up in the '60s, the prevailing ethos in the diploma-saturated milieu of Ann Arbor, Mich., was markedly progressive -- children were to be related to, understood. Punishment of any sort, especially physical correction, not only was believed to be ineffective but, in fact, pernicious: Spanked kids became aggressive kids. In addition, spanking carried a bad political taint -- at a time when the dad who threw away your pot stash was a fascist, the one who fanned his kids' backsides was ... a Republican. Any coercion was disdained as a remedy for disobedience. Indeed, obedience itself was an outmoded concept. The child raised in an enlightened home compromised or cooperated, not obeyed. For Jane, this notion -- treating children as reasonable creatures whose autonomy is to be prized -- forms the bedrock of her parenting philosophy.
I share this assumption with her, to a point. Yet my own upbringing asserts an atavistic pull away from such a noble belief. Without indulging too heavily in we-wuz-so-poor one-upmanship, it's accurate for me to say my parents and my neighborhood were working class. Most dads worked at local oil refineries and steel mills. Neither of my parents finished high school -- a fact that would not make them untypical in the neighborhood. In short, no one was reading "Summerhill"; no one was in therapy. Most parents parented reflexively -- the way they had been raised, without the mediation of even popular experts like Spock. They were almost completely unaffected by the ideological changes in parenting techniques that were registering elsewhere. What they knew of these new approaches they dismissed as soft-headedness, the kind of namby-pamby parenting that produced those stringy-haired protesters on TV. So they spanked toddlers -- you'd see a mom dusting the diaper-clad bum of her daughter as she shooed her away from a spilled glass on the porch -- and wailed upon older kids, mostly boys, with straps. More than once I saw someone's royally pissed old man arrive at a ballfield or corner hangout and begin peeling his belt off as his son dashed in advance of his wrath.
And my folks were no different. At least a few times a year before I reached 11 some screw-up on my part would net me either a wild (and especially frightful) thrashing from my mom or a measured set of 10 strokes from my dad. I was, as they say, no angel -- at my Catholic school I routinely got Ds in "Self Control" and "Obedience" from nuns who smacked me, pulled my hair and pulled my pants taut while they whipped (and I use that word with no exaggeration) my backside with a wooden pointer. The general picture, as I have reflected on it since, seems strange, if not perverse. Homes and schools were guided by the decidedly pessimistic belief that kids were to be trained -- like pets, or unruly cowlicks -- and pain, it was thought, made the message stick.
Of course, my wife is openly appalled by this history of mine; she rightly sees in my angry flare-ups at our 4-year-old son the legacy of this rock-'em, sock-'em childhood. To her, the very idea of spanking a child, let alone pulling his hair or hitting him with a belt, must seem like a vestige of some lost, primitive world. But for me, that world was mine, or at least that of my parents. Thus, our household debate about spanking -- I maintain that an occasional whack on the wrist or behind is hardly cause for concern, while she believes it does real damage -- is framed by our allegiances to our families and backgrounds.
Once while we were out in the car, I had to stop for a toddler who had wandered into the middle of the road. I beeped my horn to alert the adults on the deck of a nearby house. The father came running down to retrieve the little boy, who had already waddled back to the grass. When he reached the child he gave him a resounding smack on the backside as he yelled something about never going near the road again. Jane thought the discipline completely unjustified; the inattentive parent, she said, was at fault. I agreed about the parent but felt the swat was an effective exclamation point to the father's warning; the important thing was that the kid associated asphalt with ass hurt. This was before we had a child, and Jane's faith in communication and belief in parent-child equality gave me pause (as, I'm sure, she reflected uncomfortably on my approval of spanking). It seemed to me that her view condemned my entire upbringing; I couldn't help but think she was being naive. We have since both had our attitudes tested: Jane has given our son a rap or two and learned that he can survive the blow as well as she can weather the guilt. I have done likewise (more frequently), only to have my kid swing back, as if in dutiful confirmation of all those violence-begets-violence studies.
Yet, after four years of raising a pretty typical kid, I still see her readiness to consign any discipline problem to therapeutic solutions as the product of her rarefied background; she still, no doubt, sees my tilt toward physicality -- just pick the boy up and stick him in bed -- as a consequence of loving yet uninformed parenting. But the propensity for spanking among the uninformed has recently gotten some boost from the academy. While the general drift of experts' advice continues to frown upon, if not decry, spanking, some changes are afoot. After a 1996 American Academy of Pediatrics conference on spanking, the conference organizers, S. Kenneth Schonberg and Stanford B. Friedman, wrote in the journal Pediatrics: "We must confess that we had a preconceived notion that corporal punishment, including spanking, was innately 'bad.'" But the conference had convinced these researchers that "given a relatively 'healthy' family life in a supportive environment, spanking in and of itself is not detrimental to a child or predictive of later problems."
Other studies, including a much-publicized one done recently by Marjorie Linder Gunnoe, a developmental psychologist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., are questioning the connection between spanking and aggressive behavior by kids. She too asserts the need for a "warm, generally harmonious relationship with a parent." I find these studies heartening -- not only because they buttress my side in our ongoing household debate -- but because they offer redemptive evidence for my own kidhood. It's true I was hit; hell, at times I was beaten. That's what old-school folks like my parents tended to do. But, and I know for some people this might seem a self-deluded stretch, the punishment was dealt out in a "warm, generally harmonious" home. Certainly more harmonious -- on issues of child rearing -- than the one I share now.