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"Spare Which -- The Rod or the Child?" from Better Homes and Gardens

by Ellis Parker Butler
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from Better Homes and Gardens
Spare Which -- The Rod or the Child?
by Ellis Parker Butler

Some eight or ten years ago in a talk with a college professor who is also quite considerable of a father he put an odd question to me. "Which do you believe?" he asked. "Do you think, when a child is whipped, it should be whipped in a hot and enthusiastic anger at its misdeeds, or in a cold and calm consideration of its best interests?"

That was a queer question. I had never thought of this child-spanking idea in that way, and he did not put it as being related to his children or mine. He asked it more as an interesting psychological query, as an astronomer might ask, "Do you think the moon would look better with an edge of silk fringe or scalloped and hemmed?" I think I replied that a dad ought to wale his kid while he was good and mad, because there is something cold-blooded in the idea of inflicting pain when you are yourself all comfortable and normal. I said there seemed to me to be a sort of cold-blooded cruelty in that. But my professor friend said he thought a man should wait until he cooled off, because inflicting pain when one was red-hot mad was uncivilized and like unto a dog that bites you because you step on its tail, and not because it thinks biting you will improve your morals.

Probably there is a great deal to be said on both sides, but it was certainly a new slant on the rod question and one I had not thought of before. I mention it here merely to show what a lot there is to this "Shall we spare the rod or spare the child?" question when we once begin to consider it. Once we decide that it is best to wale the child we immediately open up a hundred other questions, as "What is the best weapon to use -- a piece of lead pipe, a feather or a small but lithe rawhide whip?" "Should we begin to whip before the child has cut its teeth and should we stop before the child is ninety years old?"

When I was a boy I was whipped now and then, and I have turned out to be one of the noblest men in the country. It may be that my father whipped me once or twice, but I can't remember that; I know that my mother whipped me several times. I cannot say that I remember having taken the whippings very seriously. The whippings a very young child receives -- a child up to about five years old, say -- are not remembered at all, unless they are accompanied by some very great shock or fright. If, for example, a mother has always been very calm and ladylike and, when she sees the child needs a whipping, she gets wildly hysterical and lets her hair fall around her face so that she looks like a mad witch, and then yells and rants around and finally has a fit and falls out of the third story window, the child will feel that something is wrong, and that spank will be remembered. But if the child is merely yelling its head off from plain temper, and the mother takes that child and spanks it, the child will not remember the spank in a week. The good may be done and a basic change in the child's character effected, but the spank itself will be forgotten. We naturally forget unpleasant things. Our minds are so constituted that they thrust the very unpleasant memories out -- bury them under pleasant memories.

A child who is invited to a party, and who has been dressed for it, and who has soiled her frock and been spanked for it, will remember the pleasure had at the party and totally forget the spanking. She will, probably, always be more careful of her clothes, but she will not know why. In very small children a little judicious spanking, if it is really needed, is often a kindness. Punishment for an ill deed is usually a kindness unless it engenders hate, and a child is never so affectionate -- if the child is normal -- than after it has been spanked by the dear mamma it loves. Every mother knows this.

In very small children -- babies -- "temper" is often cured by nothing except spanking. Sometimes a cold-water cure works, but not always. I mean in the cases where a small child begins to yell and won't stop yelling. The child may have a pain, but you cure the pain and it still continues to yell bloody murder. Then a spanking takes the child's mind off its yelling-track. That child needs something to divert its attention from yelling, and a spanking often does the trick. Sometimes peeling all the clothes off the child and putting it in cool water in a tub does the job, but that is the same thing, to all purposes -- it is a shock.

To the very small child a spanking is nothing but that a shock. The pain is immaterial. The child learns that when it does something it should not do the act is followed by an unpleasant shock and it is likely to reform. Certainly it is better not to spank a child if it can be avoided, but that is like saying it is better not to have a child that will put its fingers against a hot stove. Some children will, in spite of everything, put fingers against hot stoves -- until they have the shock. Then they quit. Even as I have been writing this there has been a terrible tempest in a house nearby. Such a yelling and screaming! A year-and-a-half old got in a tantrum at its elder brother or sister -- I can see into the yard -- and each moment it was getting worse. It was behaving badly, and it was wrong. A few minutes ago its mother took it into the house, and I heard it being spanked. Now the little dear is out in the yard again as happy as a lark and as sweet as honey. I don't believe that spanking has upset the League of Nations or brought anybody to perdition.

On the other hand, we were at a summer resort a few years ago and over across the back-fence was another family -- several children and a mother with a temper like a wild cat. She was everlastingly whipping and spatting and spanking and batting on the head, and it did no good at all. As the summer wore on the children grew more and more impudent and rude to their mother, and she got so mad she lit into the father every time he poked his head above ground, and there was general Hail Columbia all day and every day. There was so much spank and whip around that lot that being punished wasn't a pleasure any longer for anyone concerned. Even the children didn't get any satisfaction out of it. It did not thrill them a bit; it was a mere bore to them. When whipping gets down to that level it passes out of our consideration -- it is no longer a form of punishment; it is merely a hot time in the old town.

I greatly doubt that the actual whipping, after a child is five, does much good to the child. To put jesting to one side, I doubt if any of the whippings I ever got did me anything but harm. They were not severe enough. I remember one I received when I was quite a big boy. I must have been eight or nine, possibly ten. My mother spanked me with a hairbrush, an article that ranked with the slipper and the shingle in those days. I was such a big boy that she made me lie across her lap to be spanked, and the chair had arms on it, and we had a terrible time getting laid across the lap so that business could go on as proposed. It was so funny that I laughed, and that irritated my mother and she became angry, and the anger took away her strength and the whole was a mighty poor excuse for the real thing. We lived on the third floor of a hotel without an elevator in those days and I remember that the next time I needed punishment my mother told me to go down to the lumberyard nearby and bring up a stick with which I was to be whipped. I came back with a slab half an inch thick, six inches wide and seven feet long. I considered that a joke, but my mother was so put out she wept about it, and we had to call that whipping off. From then on I was not whipped.

Now, that sort of whipping does no good. When a law and its punishment gets to be a joke it has no effectiveness. My mother's spankings and whippings were a failure because they were not strenuous enough. If she had been a big strong woman with an arm like a butcher's, and had whipped me now and then with a lithe and stinging strap I might be even nobler than I am and I might have received one vote on the 64th ballot at the Democratic Convention. I didn't get any.

On the other hand I knew a boy, one of my chums, who was whipped so much and so strenuously that he almost became an addict. He almost felt neglected if a day passed without his regular whipping. In school he was whipped regularly, and at home he was whipped even more regularly, and he got so that he worried no more over being whipped than over being stung by a mosquito -- and out there we had billions of mosquitoes and they stung everybody all the time. I remember one day when we were early at school and we were rummaging in the schoolroom closet for chalk with which to draw an interesting portrait of our teacher on the blackboard, we found the rawhide whip on the top shelf of the closet. I drew away with fear, but this chum of mine got out his knife and cut the rawhide whip into pieces an inch long, and laid them together so they looked like a complete and perfect whip. He said it would be a good joke on the teacher when she went to whip him that afternoon, for drawing her picture on the blackboard, and tried to pick up what looked like a good whip and found it all in pieces. She whipped him that afternoon with a brass edged ruler, but it just goes to show how too much whipping cancels its own value. If you whip too much it becomes, for the boy, a mere habit and has no corrective value; if you whip too lightly it does not bother the boy much, and it has no corrective value.

Among my brothers and sisters, and there were eight of us, we were all whipped more or less, but never severely, and it never did us any harm. Of my own four children I spanked one, the eldest, quite a few times when she was a baby, usually because she had a bad habit of refusing to be put in her crib and refusing to remain in the horizontal when put there. I never liked to spank her, and I got a nice sentimental mushy story called "The Day of the Spank" out of the experience. I read it aloud in public and the ladies weep. Looking back I think one reason the little girl behaved so badly at crib time must have been because we first "spoiled" her by giving in a number of times to her wish to be taken out of the crib. So we were more to blame than she was, but the fact remained that she had to be cured of that bad habit, no matter how it came to be. To tell the honest truth I can't remember whether the spankings cured her or she outgrew the non-sleep habit naturally. I can't remember that the three other children have ever been spanked. Moving to the country here helped, I think, quite a little. There has always been plenty of play space and a consequent occupation in play that needs no punishment. The children slept better in the cooler air, too.

Small spankings may be more necessary in crowded flat and apartments than in larger homes with outdoor play spaces, for the simple reason that what is "naughty" in a crowded home is not "naughty" where there is more room. All civilization shows just that; a city, with its crowded conditions, needs more laws than the country. A man may drive his automobile on a country road at a speed that would mean murder in a city. The porker is a sanitary consumer of garbage on a farm (or may be) but the city does not and cannot allow the keeping of pigs. Here in Flushing a man may keep hens, if he keeps his coops and houses clean, but he may not keep roosters, for the very good reason that the crowing of roosters is a nuisance to his neighbors who want to sleep and must have sleep or lack health. Just so we find in these suburban towns of ours that the most spanking is done by those who have newly come from the city apartments. They still have the habit acquired in crowded places.

I know a woman -- not my own mother, I'm glad to say -- who used what was talked about as "moral suasion" in the old days. She had a boy who, as I knew then, loved her most dearly. She did not believe in whipping at all, and particularly not in whipping this boy of hers because, forsooth, he was so sensitive." And he was sensitive, too -- of mind, She found him at fault one day and said, "Edgar, I am so sorry you have done this thing! You have almost broken my heart, for I did not think my boy would ever do a thing like this. Never do anything like it again; I would rather see you in your little coffin than hear that you have done such a thing." That changed that boy absolutely.

"It's all right," he told me once. "I thought the world and all of her once, but I care just about two cents for her now. 'In my little coffin!' She'd rather see me in my little coffin than catch me telling a fool kid fib! Do you know what that means -- 'in your little coffin?' It means dead -- dead and buried -- chucked into a grave. And she meant it, too. For telling a kiddish fib! Rather see me dead!"

That is the trouble with much of the "moral suasion" method of child control. It means breaking some mental or moral fibre that never heals. A few strokes of a snappy little rawhide across the legs or a little higher up never does that. There is a temporary smarting of the flesh and the boy says, "Gee! I don't want much of that!" and it is all over, but the moral suasionist, when he or she works it too hard, is merely another form of scold and whiner and is almost inevitably disliked, not always openly and not always knowingly, but subconsciously. I prefer to be licked twice to being scolded once; a licking makes the blood circulate, a scolding makes the spirit sour.

I have four children who, I think, are as well behaved as any I know, although most children are well behaved. They have never been whipped, as far as I know, but I am sure they all had the certainty that they would be whipped if need be. And that is, I think, the value of the whole whipping idea. Or let me put it this way: I don't believe in free and untrammeled whipping upon any and all occasions, but I do believe in whipping for serious offenses. Any law must have its punishment but that does not mean that it must be punish, punish, punish all day and every day.

The law, in New York, says a murderer must be electrocuted, but that does not mean that every man, woman and child must be electrocuted. The police don't come around and say, "Well, everybody in the Third Ward must come and be electrocuted today." The custom is to wait until a murder has been committed and then electrocute the criminal. But the law and the punishment are there all the while, a warning and a deterrent. The rod should be used in the same way. The less a child is whipped the more it profits when it must be whipped. The more dust there is on the rod the more impressive is the moment when the rod is taken down, the dust blown from it and father says, "Young man! Come with me!"



Saturday, October 07 at 1:11:54am USA Central
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