Not so long ago, a parent publicly administering a healthy swat on their child was met with nods of approval from witnessing adults.
Parenting needed to be done with a firm hand and it served so many functions. It was a punishment for misbehaviour while also a deterrent for future misdeeds. A well-placed smack also reminded children of who held the power in the family. Parenting is not a democracy and respect should be born from fear, not admiration.
Fists, open hands, belts, rulers, soup ladles, books and boots were all suitable equipment to deliver parenting justice on a child that needed to be brought in line. Not just parents but teachers and priests were also not just allowed, but encouraged, to dish out physical punishment as part of good child rearing.
A couple of generations later and a parent seen yelling at their child in a public place is met with glares, not against the child but the parent. And if that parent has the audacity to apply an open hand to their child's backside in public, someone might call the cops.
The changing view of spanking is part of the broader evolution of childhood. Childhood, as we know it today, didn't exist until the 20th century.
For most of recorded history, children were non-entities in society, with no unique culture of their own. Unless they belonged to the ruling class, children in most world cultures were put to work as soon as possible and educated only to the extent that they needed to be to do a good job.
Even in the Victorian era and the early 20th century, children were seen as adults in training. Escaping childhood as quickly as possible was socially desirable and "behaving like a child" was an insult with bite.
As the industrial revolution developed and the bulk of the population moved to cities, childhood started to take shape. Rather than taught to take over farming the family plot or become a farmer's wife, children had to be educated for longer to work in an increasingly technological economy that now needed engineers, accountants, lawyers and bankers.
The rise of consumerism was the single biggest contributor to the modern concept of childhood.
Children once played with whatever was lying around the house and these were their toys. Consumerism allowed parents to set aside specific items and call them toys. Once kids had their own things, then they had their own rooms, their own identities and the culture of childhood rapidly developed.
In a society that now reveres children and childhood, mild physical punishment of children is still legal in Canada but now there is now a study that shows spanking can be linked with mental disorders in adults. The authors of the study were quick to stress that this is no necessarily a causal relationship.
The question that researchers asked were what long-term harm comes from spanking, reflecting the now-commonly held view of spanking. If they had asked what good comes from spanking and found that mild and irregular spanking helps kids become responsible adults, their study would likely be rejected as nonsense.
There is nothing conclusive on either side to show that spanking is good or bad, or no spanking is good or bad. Some say the problem with kids today could be solved if they tasted the back of mom and dad's hand a little (or a lot) more often while others say it's that taste that is the cause of so many personal problems today.
The advice many parents now give (and get) about spanking boils down to "don't spank them when you're angry." That advice is shorthand for "don't hit your kids at all" because only a sadist would strike a child for reasons other than anger. Once you're calm about the situation, it's best to use what happened as a teaching experience. Hitting your child only demonstrates that you can't control your own emotions and you need to hit someone or something when things don't go your way.
The rise of individual rights in Canada and the U.S. keeps the rights of parents, as adults, to discipline their children in the way they believe is best, unless that spanking is abusive.
Instead of worrying about when spanking becomes abuse, it's best to just get rid of spanking all together, not out of reverence for children, but because it's bad behavior for adults.
-- Managing editor, Neil Godbout