When science and life don’t mesh

Tom Dunn

Tom Dunn

This article is going to betray my age, and it will probably betray yours, too. If you are in your sixties or older, the story that follows may elicit a smile and perhaps even a memory of a similar event from your life that you remember to this day. If you are younger than that, you may recoil at the horror of the Neanderthal-like conditions in which you think we older folks were raised.

The impetus for this column was an article on child discipline titled, “The Spanking Debate is Over,” which recently appeared in the journal Psychology Today. The gist of the article is there is no research that suggests that spanking children as a form of punishment is anything other than undeniably bad for them and that doing so may saddle them with future personal problems like anxiety, violence, resentment, hostility, fear and shame.

In other words, it doesn’t work.

I often recite research when I argue about what is best for children, so I take findings like this seriously. However, there are times when scientific studies don’t correlate with my own life experiences, and that is certainly true of the debate on spanking children.

In the 1950s and 1960s, I grew up in a home where spanking was an arrow in my parents’ quiver of potential punishments for inappropriate behavior. I can’t remember many times when receiving a swat on the backside was necessary, but my siblings and I knew the possibility existed, and there is little doubt that knowledge impacted our behavior in a positive way. Although that was apparently a bad thing, we all seem to be relatively well adjusted adults today.

One particular instance that remains embedded in my memory occurred when I was still quite young, when I announced to my parents that I was going across the street to shoot baskets. My father’s response was short and to the point. “First of all, you don’t tell us what you’re going to do, and second, no, you can’t go, because it is almost dinner time,” he informed me.

Upon hearing my father’s denial, in a decision I can only attribute to a case of temporary insanity, I inexplicably and uncharacteristically defied him while announcing I was going anyway.

When my father heard my idiotic proclamation, he informed me that if I went, a spanking would be awaiting me upon my return home. He, in fact, said it in a much more colorful, albeit calm manner, but the message was clearly sent and received.

And, for God knows what reason, I went anyway.

I’m certain I had a jolly old time on the basketball court that day, as I loved shooting baskets, but I have no specific recollection of my time doing so. What I do remember, however, is what awaited me upon my return home. It was my father, with nary a belt, club or paddle at hand. He calmly instructed me to bend over his knee and accept my punishment for disobeying him, which was an application of his open, bare hand to my backside.

In other words, he kept his promise.

Now, if I am to believe the research highlighted in the Psychology Today article, on that day more than 50 years ago, my father taught me that violence was OK, and he damaged my psyche while turning me into a fearful, shame-filled adult who needs therapy because of the intense resentment I feel toward him for spanking me.

Of course, nothing remotely close to that is true. The lessons I learned that day were actually quite valuable. I learned that neither I, nor any of the other Dunn kids, were running the show in our household and that there was a hierarchy where we kids were ranked well below Mom and Dad on the decision-making tree. I also learned that idle threats were not issued and that my father was not interested in spending a lot of time exploring my feelings about his decisions, debating the wisdom of his rules, or counting to five while I decided if I wanted to comply with his wishes. He and Mom were in charge, and we knew it. If we decided to defy them, consequences would ensue. It was really a pretty simple (and loving) life.

Despite how the research suggests I am supposed to feel today, at no time in the more than 50 years since this event occurred have I ever felt resentful, violent, stifled, unloved, threatened, anxiety-ridden or any of the other myriad of negative feelings that are apparently attributable to being spanked as a child. In fact, quite the contrary is true.

What I remember most is that when reasoning with me didn’t work, another option was employed.

And, I remember it worked.

Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.

Tom Dunn
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