Period piece

From: The Outlook (periodical published in New York) 5 July 1913 p. 523-6

When Corporal Punishment for Children is Right: A Story of Personal Experience

My mother is a stepmother, and a kinder, more patient, more conscientious mother never lived. She loves children instinctively, otherwise the moods and caprices of her little stepdaughter must have utterly discouraged and estranged her. As it was, she declares she grew fonder of me every day.

Our struggles lasted for nearly two years, from my fourth well into my sixth year. And the sole cause of the conflict lay in the fact that I was the kind of child that needed a slap, and my sensitive stepmother, wither her Quaker inheritance of non-resistance, did not believe in slaps.

My first four years must have been normal and happy ones. They were spent with my maternal grandmother, who is also of Quaker descent, but who is evidently a reversion to the more combative, less introspective type of human kind.

I remember well how this grandmother, in brusque, kindly fashion, used to slap my hands when I became unmanageable and sent me about my business without very much ado, and how I used to come back very soon and actually get in her way in order to receive some sign of forgiveness and love. She never talked to me about my faults, or tried to develop my conscience. Therein was the chief difference between her and my stepmother, in so far as the affected my childhood.

When I was capricious with my stepmother she would talk to me by the half-hour, not reproachfully or didactically, but in a way which, if I had been some years older, would have appealed to my sense of personal responsibility and self-respect.

She also had the habit of continually praising my character as a preventive against fits of naughtiness, and when the preventive failed to work she would assure me that, however I may seem to be during those moments of aberration known as a loss of temper, she, my loving, understanding mother, knew perfectly well that her little daughter meant and tried to be reasonable, and that for the most part she succeeded admirably well.

Sometimes, when this undeserved praise of my character fell upon a particular mood of mine, it irritated me far more than reproaches would have done. Or rather –I feel it still –a normal reaction on my mother’s part of resentment and reproach would have brought me to my senses at once.

But her reiteration that I was really a very good and reasonable child provoked in me at such times a desire to do something so bad that she would be obliged to recognise my wicked intentions. It was as if my still savage little soul was running away and instinctively longed for a checking hand, or the firm support of opposition!

What I needed and was actually suffering for was a little authority of the kind, unquestioning sort, and a great deal of wholesome indifference or laissez-faire.

I very soon understood that no matter what I did, my mother would never ‘slap’ me. I dare say she told me so, for she detested even the thought of corporal punishment. The act itself was, in her eyes, unworthy of human dignity – as if the child, a little undeveloped savage, can be reared according to the requirements of human dignity!

Certainly, the prepossession that no matter what I did, I would meet no summary punishment had a decided effect upon my whole temper and conduct. I was morally and intellectually unequal to the dignity conferred upon me of having my peccadilloes result in spiritual instead of physical uncomfortableness.

The inborn stubbornness that characterises at least nine-tenths of the human young developed in me very rapidly, owing to the knowledge on my part that, no matter how unreasonable my whim might be, I would nevertheless be permitted to argue my point; and even if I did not gain it by this means, I would at least postpone an adverse decision. As I look back on some of those long-drawn-out contests, I realise that I was simply experimenting with my mother just to see what was going to come next.

To send me to my room – to banish me if need be for a whole day – was, according to my mother’s code, the extreme penalty. I hated this punishment – the open disgrace, the solitary meals, the reproachful looks of the servants who loved my mother and pitied her because of me.

But most of all, and quite indescribably, I suffered from an incubus of moral and spiritual demands of which I had no adequate comprehension. A function was required of me for which as yet I possessed no organ. I suffered at such times as much, perhaps, as a child can suffer, and that is so much that in after years, one is never able to forget.

I cannot remember that I ever blamed my mother or felt angry with her. My suffering appeared to me inevitable. And it used to seem to me that if I could only make myself jump from the window and end my life, in that may I might pay off the incomprehensible debt I owed to my mother and to everyone who was not pleased with me. For all my genuine distress, I was not without appreciation of a spectacular end.

I had been told so many times that I ought to experience certain feelings – the desire to be ‘good’, to make others happy, to feel grateful for my books, playthings, pretty clothes, and for the father and mother who loved me so much; and also that I ought to feel sorry for having acted foolishly and having hurt myself and others in consequence.

These kindred reflections my stepmother would suggest to me as she tenderly held me on her knee or prepared me for bed after a wretched day. And with tears and sobs and heartache, I would wearily answer yes or no to anything she wished. But in reality, I was no more capable of seeing my conduct objectively, or of picturing the abstract qualities of gratitude or remorse, than I was of solving a problem in longitude and time.

My mother has told me that she was often frightened by my moral obtuseness. Sometimes, when I ought to have seen that I was wholly in the wrong and that my mother was deeply hurt, I would go to my room, and, after amusing myself for a while, I would fall asleep. One day, I turned all my dresses and petticoats into big rag dolls, which I arranged as best I could on the model of our singing class at the kindergarten. I myself represented the teacher.

As I was singing at the top of my voice my mother opened the door. I saw that her eyes were red with weeping. I knew I was the cause. But I felt no remorse. I was all alive, however, to the possibilities of a quick release and a run in the yard with my little neighbour and chum.

Kitty, my little friend, was apparently not a subject for that reverential respect of child nature which was bestowed upon me. She was occasionally spanked and slapped. I knew that my stepmother disapproved of this. She once said to me: “Kitty minds because she is afraid; but I want my girl to mind because she understands.”

And yet in the background of my thoughts there was a kind of envy of Kitty and of the lack of respect and deep seriousness that left her so merry and free. Young as I was, I felt the difference in the atmosphere of her home and mine. I had seen her spanked by her mother, and ten minutes later they would be chatting and love-making as if nothing unpleasant had occurred.

I observed also that she was never expected to be ‘sorry’ or to think about being ‘good’. I asked her once if her mother did not sometimes talk to her about right and wrong – and talk and talk and talk! And she said: “No, never; only just about fairy stories.”

My grandmother came to visit us when I was nearing my sixth year. Oh, how earnestly my dear mother appealed to me to be my best self – to let ‘Grammie’ see what a sensible girl I was! I agreed, of course, and for a few days all went well – then came the night that proved to be a turning point in my experience.

It was my habit to remain up in the evening until my father came home from the city. But I was always in bed before he and my mother dined. On this evening, shortly before my bedtime, there came a message from him saying he might not return for dinner, that my mother and grandmother were not to wait for him, and that he would see me in the morning. He sent me a ‘goodnight’.

I don’t think I was acutely disappointed – it was merely a childish whim that I wanted to remain up till he came. I announced my intention of doing so, like the irresponsible little tyrant that I was. My mother began to explain, but reasons fell upon stony soil.

At first, however, I felt only a fragile, kittenish opposition to the regular routine of going to bed and if my mother had been firm with me – downright absolute – all would have gone as she wished. But the longer I fenced, the stronger grew my will. At last it seemed to me that I must have my way at any cost.

My mother, with angelic but to me irritating patience, had succeeded in undressing me. But as she was about to put the night-gown over my head, I threw myself full length, face downward, on the floor. At the same moment my grandmother entered the room.

“I heard thee talking to her,” said my grandmother, “and thee has talked long enough. If she doesn’t get into bed this instant, thee must give her a good slap.”

My mother quickly drew her aside into her own room, and they talked for what seemed to me to be a very long time. I began to wonder what the next move was going to be. Had they decided to let me lie there till morning if I liked? The thought did not please me at all.

Then my grandmother re-entered the room where I lay and closed the door behind her. She came up to me with a decided step.

“If I wasn’t afraid thee would take cold, I’d shut the doors and leave thee where thee is,” she began. “Come, get up this instant. Thy mother has talked to thee long enough.”

I did not stir.

“Be quick,” she commanded, “or I’ll spank thee on thy bare legs!”

“You wouldn’t dare!” I flashed out, turning my face a little on my folded arms.

But the next instant I was lying across her knees, and, sure enough, my bare legs were smarting under her firm little palm. It was over in a minute, and I stood sobbing on the rug while Grammie buttoned my night-gown and smoothed back my hair. She kissed me as I lay on the pillow, and promised that mother would come in directly to say goodnight.

My darling mother bent over me, her eyes full of tears. “So Esther got spanked,” she murmured. “Does it smart?” And she passed her hand tenderly over my hot legs. “Yes, it smarts, mother,” I sobbed. “but I think I like it better than being talked to.”

I went to sleep without feelings of resentment toward any human being. There was nothing to keep me awake – no dull, incipient presentment of my own depravity, no unconscious hypocrisy prompting me already to smooth me path by pretending to be something I was not – the still incomprehensible Sorry, Grateful, and Good.

I experienced a strange feeling of well-being which I shall never forget – as if a throbbing abscess had been lanced, and I had only to lie there, a little sore, but exquisitely comfortable, waiting for the ‘smart’ to cease.

But there was no abnormal longing to have this experience repeated. It was not that I enjoyed the beating in itself, for its own sake. In fact, I continued for the next year or two to entertain a wholesome dread of running into those extremes of naughtiness where my state of mind recalled to me those sharp slaps and the stinging afterglow on my legs.

But it was not alone my state of mind that I had to dread. My mother had become convinced that my grandmother’s method of giving the naughty child a slap was more normal and more humane than her own.

I know very well that some children do not require corporal punishment. But the great majority do. It is not much they need, to be sure – just a touch at the right time to save the young things till their own reason matures.

Our modern child-worshippers make the mistake of assuming that reason and moral sentiments develop in us much earlier than they do.

The average child, until it reaches seven or eight years of age, is essentially unreasonable and unmoral. And for that reason, all long-drawn out punishments such as confinement in a room, the taking away of playthings, the cancelling of some expected pleasure, only arouse and cultivate in the young child feelings of resentment and bitterness. It cannot see clearly the relation between cause and effect.

But I have yet to find the little one who clings less lovingly to his mother because she occasionally gives him a slap. On this subject, as on many others, we may take some hints from the lower animals. They discipline their children in one way only – by more or less gentle cuffs. And the normal and healthy human child during its first few years is little more than a young ‘lower animal’…plus enormous possibilities for development.

Thanks to Daryel for finding and sharing this article.

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