Top 4 Things I Learned in Juvi – Part 3 The Myth of the Spoiled Child

I bet you didn’t know that I’m psychic. For example, I predict that my 2 year old will hit someone and my 6 year old with start screaming at her sister before I finish writing this blog post. Further, I predict that if you go to a big media story about that school bus monitor who was bullied by a group of 7th grade boys, the comments sections will be filled with people claiming that what these kids need to turn them around is a good ass-wupping. Further, I am so psychic that I already know that at some point in the last couple of years there were a flurry of “I spank my kids so they don’t wind up in jail” messages on your facebook feed. And if you can stand one last display of my amazing psychic prowess, I predict that not a single one of those people talking about keeping their kids out of jail or how kids causing trouble just need a good ass-wuppin’ have actually spent time working with children in juvi. Not. A. Single. One. Of. Them.

Now, just let me say that I’m not some anti-spanking purist. I wish I could say that I’ve never so much as swatted my children on the heinie (although the rare swat is the extent of my version of spanking). In a more ideal world I would never hit one of my kids. But my children just aren’t that good (ha!). However, there is little that sets me off more reliably than people who think that kids wind up in prison because their lives lacked corporal punishment or a proper fear of authority. Idiots think that. Blathering, know-nothing idiots. I’m sure that somewhere in the juvi system there are 10 kids who were simply so spoiled that they thought they should be able to do whatever they wanted to do – including sticking up little old ladies. I mean, some people are born with tails. Strange things happen every day.* But I never met one of these unicorns of the juvenile delinquent world myself. Nor heard tell of one. But I promise you every single kid I met and didn’t meet in juvi had been on the receiving end of lots of spankings. And a goodly number of them were glad to be facing prison rather than their disciplinarian. The reality is that if you never discipline your child they will almost certainly wind up being vile human beings who everyone hates. But they won’t wind up in juvi.

Every time the subject of spanking comes up, I am always amazed at how attached people are to the idea that if you do not hit a small child, they will be terrible people. Just on it’s face, it’s a dumb idea. All children need discipline, of course. But discipline means teaching, not spanking. An occasional spanking MIGHT qualify as discipline. But there are a million other ways of teaching. (Frankly, I find that spanking can occasionally be helpful in getting a kid to stop a particularly noxious behavior. But it doesn’t teach anything!)

Now, I know that some people will insist that spanking does teach things. In fact, I once had a conversation with a man who I really respect where he tried to make just that argument. To demonstrate, he told me a story about the time that he was walking into church and had blithely opened the door without realizing that there was a little old lady behind him who he should have stepped aside and held the door for. As he was about to walk in, his father reached out and walloped him so hard he saw stars and told him to let the lady in before him. “And that taught me to be sure to hold the door and let ladies go in before me.” Now, this person is one of the best people I know. I think his wife is ridiculously lucky. So I said to him, “do you really expect me to believe that if your father had just pulled you aside and given you a stern talking to, you would be slamming doors in the face of little old ladies? Maybe knocking them over in their walkers in your rush to get through first? If your father had just yanked you away rather than nearly knocking you out, would you be shoving moms walking with a cloud of toddlers off the sidewalk as you went by? Really?” Which is the mistake that many people make; they assume that because some lesson got taught with a spanking, it was the magic spanking that did it. Which is silly. At best the spanking means the lesson doesn’t need to be repeated quite so many times.

Of course, many of you have probably rightly surmised that the kids I met in juvi had been on the receiving end of spankings that went well beyond being knocked upside the head. Which is true. These kids had been beaten with belts and extension cords and chairs and fists and sometimes even stabbed. Their “spankings” could go on for many minutes or even over the course of hours. One kid told me how his mom would find an empty parking lot at a nearby forest preserve so other people wouldn’t hear him screaming. Another told of alcohol baths to minimize welting and bruising after being beat. More than one got passed around to different relatives so social service workers couldn’t find them after a teacher saw their bruises and reported them. Kids wind up in jail because they’re spoiled my ass. Idiots. Not only did physical discipline and fear not keep these kids out of jail, it was often a direct contributor to their delinquency. In fact, the terrible discipline problems seen in many inner-city schools can be traced directly to the harsh punishments these kids receive at home.

Now, people who live in poor, high crime areas generally want their kids to avoid going to prison. And just like those idiot commentors on the internet, they believe that spanking a kid and putting a fear of authority into them is a necessary first step. Few people simply enjoy beating children. Nearly always, the sort of abuse that the kids I saw endured started with a parent who understood almost nothing about normal child development and began spanking early and often in order to make sure their kid was brought up right. However, the problem with spanking is that it doesn’t actually teach anything and second of all, the kid becomes immune to it fairly quickly. The first time you smack a kid’s hand it’s a shock and the kid freaks out. The 20th time? A small price to pay for a chance to climb on the counter. So, kids keep misbehaving and parents have to escalate in order for the spankings to continue suppressing the undesired behavior. Which creates a great vicious cycle in which parents become increasingly frustrated and intent on forcing compliance. Since most parents really believe that spanking works, when it doesn’t work they assume that it’s a sign of a really rebellious child who needs a bigger dose of the cure. Or you could do like my mother-in-law did and just go straight to extreme measures to make your kids so afraid that they never act up. In your presence, anyways.** Except that jails are filled with kids raised this way including more than one of my mother-in-law’s kids.

The problem, which carries a warning for those of us who think we can spank without becoming abusive and get the desired results, shows up when these kids go off to school. A child who has been controlled by fear quickly figures out that the teachers at school cannot do anything nearly as bad as what they are used to at home. So once they aren’t afraid, the fact that they have never actually been taught how to behave and why they should (other than to avoid pain) comes out. They start acting up. The school struggles to deal with their behavior. The parents don’t really trust the schools because they have their own issues. Or if they are the sort who will beat the bejeezus out of a kid who acts up, either the kid just learns to stop short of “calling home to mom” offenses or the school officials hesitate to get the parent involved, knowing that it will result in abuse. Then when a kid who is difficult to manage gets on the streets, the gangs often swoop in. They like kids who act out and are so used to getting their ass beat at home that they take their initiation lumps with pride. And they are very upfront about the fact that they will put you in the hospital if you step-out-of-line. Which makes the belt wielding mom look like child’s play to deal with. At which point the mother who started off thinking she was going to keep her baby out of jail loses any control she ever had over the kid. (Obviously issues of trauma, lack of empathy towards others – especially the weak, the normalization of violence and other matters all have a spanking related role to play here. But that’s a book and this is just a blog post. I’m just skimming.)

I want to be clear that I am not claiming that child abuse is universal in poor, crime ridden areas. Or that there is no difference between whipping your kid with an extension cord and a firm hand to the backside. However, both the person who loses control and goes to extremes and the person who just issues a firm hand to the backside intend to deter bad behavior by making its outcome unpleasant enough not to be worth it. In other words, at least at a very minor level fear is being created in order to bring compliance (or “teach a lesson” if you’d prefer to put it that way.). Personally, I am with Herr Einstein: “If people are good only because they fear punishment, and hope for reward, then we are a sorry lot indeed.” Sure, fear of consequences can work in a pinch. But ultimately our goal is to raise people who actually want to be polite and hold doors and not run around trying to shoot rival gang members or be the playground crack provider, non?

So, that’s the #2 top lesson I learned in juvi. Spanking does not keep kids out of jail.

*Cue 6 year old freaking out

**And there’s the 2 year old hitting someone with a broom. See – I told you I’m psychic! ;p

11 thoughts on “Top 4 Things I Learned in Juvi – Part 3 The Myth of the Spoiled Child

  1. There’s this concept of “counterwill.” Where “Your will has a will of its own, and that ‘will’ is a ‘won’t!'”

    If you’ve got anything like that (Naw!) you’ll see that trying to bully anybody, yourself included, into good behavior is likely to backfire. (When I was a kid, I snatched a pen out of the post office just because of a sign saying I could get 10 years for it!)

    & whatever you learn that way is likely to be so rigidly held that it’s hard to use flexibly. Very hard to unlearn. Like Mark Twain’s cat who wouldn’t sit on a hot stove– but wouldn’t go near a cold one either.

    My father decided to get a computer because of all the ‘practical’ things he expected to do with it. Months later, when I visited, it was still sitting on his desk. Not long after, a delivery guy was bringing the computer to my door, with a note saying he couldn’t keep it; either he would kill it or it was going to kill him! People who play with their computers… can usually learn to do anything they want with them.

    Cats… and ‘being psychic.’ They do, of course, pick up personality traits from people’s expectations. My mother-in-law’s cat, for example, was “the smartest cat in the world.” Just another cat.

    So one day when Anne & I were over there, she said, “Look at that lazy cat! Hasn’t done a thing all day!” The cat woke up, instantly. Ran out the door. Returned moments later, dumped a dead bird at her feet. Went on about his business.
    Along with all the psychological influences you’ve been talking about in these posts — It is really a less hospitable social environment for a lot of these kids, than in the late 60’s, early 70’s. You see less effort to make it by honest work because the objective chances of being able to do so are very realistically not open for many. Everybody in a criminogenic environment isn’t necessarily going to turn criminal, but much of the time, ‘That’s the way to bet.’

    When I was doing a street newspaper, I met a guy from a ritzy suburb who wanted to help out… & in the course of this he said: “I used to hope that poor people would turn out to be The Good Guys. But then I saw they were just playing the same games for smaller stakes.”

  2. Hi Rebecca,
    I loved this post. Personally, I find the conversation about corporal punishment quite strange. Experts in the fields of child psychology, brain science, sociology, and behavior, all tell us that hitting our kids 1) produces more violent children, but more shockingly for many 2) no attachment in the child with the “bad behavior” to the punishment. What the child learns from a parent that hits them is simply that when Mommy or Daddy gets pissed, they hit. Despite our vain attempts to teach our children about their behavior, they only really learn about our behavior. It’s like that old saying about computers: garbage in, garbage out.

    1. It really is strange how attached to the idea of spanking as a good discipline method people are. I think it’s kind of akin to how women who under went genital mutilation are the most ardent proponents of the practice. To really reject what was done to you is a risky proposition that requires facing one’s own pain. Not that I’m saying that genital mutilation and spanking are the same; just that they dynamics among its defenders seem similar to me.

      1. You are so right. There is something about making others go through our own experience. Two other examples of this are hazing and families of soldiers.

        Years ago, when I was studying WWI, I found a big turning point in support for the war came in 1915 or ’16 in which a letter to the editor supposedly written by a mother who lost a son to the Great War would gladly lose several more for such a righteous cause. It had the effect of squashing the internal debate about ending the war years before it would actually end. There is something psychological about imposing rightness onto unjust actions rather than deal with the deep scarring of the actions themselves.

  3. I have two brothers (making a total of three children in my household growing up). My mother, a chubby white woman chose to marry only the father of my youngest brother… the white kid. I myself am half black and our middle brother is half Mexican. My mothers husband was extremely abusive to my Hispanic brother and I, which my mother often joined in on his “fun.” My youngest brother however could do no wrong in the eyes of the parents. In fact… if he did do wrong, which was often, Joshua and I were beaten for it… severely, and often in front of Aaron… for why had we “let” him do whatever thing it was he’d done. Aaron was literally raise to think he could do no wrong. He was never punished for anything he ever did and consequently had his first run in with the law at the age seven. Contradictory I was beaten once for trying to take the Halloween candy I’d gotten while trick-or-treating to school to share with my friends. Aaron continues to be in and out of jail or prison (the fact that I know there is a difference between jail and prison makes me grumpy) and continues to live that same “The rules dont apply to me” life style. I’m not saying for even a hot second that being beaten was the way to go over no discipline ever… but you talked about not ever hearing about kids like my brother in the first part of your blog and I wanted to tell you they are out there. And they are possibly worse than the regular abused criminals because they have no basis for the consequences of right and wrong. They do not understand that there are negative outcomes to their negative behaviors. Going to jail is a vacation for my brother… he gets fed and doesnt have to worry about finding a place to sleep. And there’s free cable!!! BONUS!

    Anyways, I loved your article. I think it was spot on. Thank you for having a blog.

    1. What an awful story! I’m sorry you went through that. There was a similar dynamic in my husband’s family only he was the target child because he was half-white in a black family.

      Actually, I didn’t write about it, but along with the abuse, there was a lot of over-indulgence as well. Because discipline was anger driven it tended to be very inconsistent. Material things were over valued and providing creature comforts was seen as a form of love for one’s child. What a parent provided physically was expected to make up for any pain inflicted.

      Even though your brother wasn’t physically beaten, being exposed to and encouraged to take pleasure in violence against other people is it’s own form of extreme abuse against a child. Those situations are extremely harmful to the “favored” child as well as the children who are taking the abuse physically. It’s the trauma that does us in. Too bad your brother never developed the character he needs to deal with anything difficult. And as you well know, overcoming childhood abuse is an extremely difficult and painful thing to do.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Stumbled across your blog last night. Have been reading ever since!
    Really liked this post. I do abstinence education in high schools, and one of our topics is how hard it is to be a parent. In a class before Christmas, one of the students suggested that if a kid acted up, just whoop their butt. This was tangential, but I really felt like I needed to say something. I told them that spanking doesn’t teach a lesson, it teaches 1. if you are bigger than me, you can hurt me and 2. the people that say they love me can hurt me. And really, once you get too big for spanking what else can the parent do? They have no other tools and the kid knows that. This was a risk for me, to go against how these kids have been taught, but I thought it was worth it.

    1. You know what’s weird? After I wrote this, I lost quite a few subscribers. People are really attached to the idea that hitting children is vital to raising them well.

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