I can remember that we once shared a fairly strong consensus in America, at least in my little part of it, that good manners and respect were important traits needed in our society, a consensus that seems to have waned. Getting to good manners, though, is no accident. It must be taught early and often – sometimes with a little pain or so we used to think – leading us to disciplining kids with a “spare the rod and spoil the child” way of thinking. But not now.
Is there a true cause and effect relationship between the two, less rod equals fewer manners? We’ll probably never really know for certain, but having grown up in a “spare the rod – spoil the child” environment, I would have to say there is a cause and effect relationship, if not through scientific study then by observation and experience.
Children were expected to be quiet and well behaved at school then and discipline was strict. Boys fairly routinely got a well-deserved paddling, including me. Corporal punishment was practiced frequently and was taken for granted by children’s parents who, at least in my case, never knew I was paddled. That was lucky for me. Had Dad known, I would have gotten it a second time at home.
Washington Post writer Valerie Strauss on Sept. 18, 2014, wrote, “While 31 states have now banned corporal punishment, 19 states still allow it. The last state to abolish it was New Mexico, in 2011.” While legal in North Carolina, for all practical purposes corporal punishment is nonexistent in our state as the last school district in the state that allowed it voted to prohibit it in October 2018.
According to a New York Times column by Christina Caron, “Corporal punishment, defined as paddling, spanking or other forms of physical punishment, is legal at public schools in 19 states, mainly in the South, and is also allowed at private schools in 48 states. A recent Government Accountability Office report examining federal data from the 2013-14 school year found that black students, boys and disabled students are punished at greater rates than their peers.”
According to my wife who attended Annunciation Catholic School in Havelock in the 1950s, while there was a nun or two who would hike up her habit and jump rope with the girls during recess, most of the nuns were to be feared and not toyed with.
My wife says that at Annunciation, the nuns showed little of the discrimination described by Caron, instead “hating everyone equally” as we used to describe U.S. Marine Corps drill instructors during my time in the Marines. And the comparison of Marine drill instructors and nuns wasn’t that far off. The nuns were tough as nails and expected strict compliance … or there’d be “Hell” to pay.
And while racial and disability discrimination need to be dealt with and eliminated, concern about gender discrimination in corporal punishment is misguided and not based on gender realities. Is there actually anyone reading this column (the one or two of you out there who are) who has raised a boy that doesn’t agree that boys NEED corporal adjustment more than girls? Boys do need it. I’m a prime example.
Additionally, is there anyone out there who actually believes that we’re living in a more polite, mannerly or disciplined society than we used to live in, manners and respectfulness that must be properly instilled in youth or lost forever? Young or done.
According to Strauss, “The practice (of corporal punishment) persists because some educators and parents believe it helps modify disruptive behavior despite no conclusive evidence that it actually does.”
What “conclusive evidence” does Strauss need? Some expensive study conducted by non-parents? She must not have raised boys. “Some students are hit for severe infractions of school rules, and others for minor ones, like being tardy,” Strauss writes.
While corporal punishment – and it’s prohibition or non-use – may be defined as “paddling, spanking or other forms of physical punishment,” in practice its prohibition (according to my teacher sister-in-law) actually means teachers are discouraged from even yelling at students and forbidden to lay their hands on kids for an “attitude adjustment,” like an arm grab to usher them to the front of the class for a tongue lashing to help them remember to “be on time” or “don’t speak until called upon” (in other words, “don’t disrupt my class”). Embarrassing kids at the blackboard? Fire the lousy teacher!
But not in Catholic school in the 50s. Disciplinary touching was accepted, even embraced. Sister Edward Mary grabbed both my wife’s pig tails in first grade, (she still vividly remembers this) and jerked her to the front of the class to write on the blackboard, sobbing, “I will not speak in class until called upon,” 100 times.
Not only did my wife learn some good manners, but her first grade classmates learned some as well. And we’re all better for it.
So I can report my wife is very well adjusted as an adult. She has no PTSD from her Catholic school upbringing. Polite? Yes. Manners? Yes. But don’t expect her to hold her tongue when something needs to be said, called upon or not. That lesson she never learned from Sister Edward Mary.
And I’m OK with that.
Award-winning columnist Barry Fetzer of Hubert is retired.