06 October 2008

Spanking: Under the Acacia, 6 October 2008

Fellow Negros Times columnist Richard M. Gelangre last Monday raised the dilemma he faces as a parent and as a teacher: To spank or not to spank? I’m not a parent but am a teacher and at various times over the last 40 years have taught and given retreats to students at first, second and third level.

As an adult I have never struck a child. I cannot recall my parents spanking me but I know that they did. I know that on those rare occasions they used the palm of their hand on my “behind”. They never used any kind of instrument and the punishment was more “symbolic” than physical. One time my brother, three years younger than me and then a toddler, ran out on a busy road but, thanks be to God, wasn’t hit by a car or truck. However, he was hit by my mother – her reaction of shock and relief – with her hand in a way that didn’t hurt him but that conveyed to him that he must never do such a dangerous thing again – and he didn’t.

My quick-tempered mother scolded us but never screamed or shouted at us. My father’s favorite threat – he never raised his voice at anyone - was “I’ll give you a good clip in the ear if you do that again”. As we got older we used to joke him about it because, at one level, it was an empty threat but, at another, a clear reminder to behave properly.

I remember when I was 13 I said some very hurtful words to my mother in front of a visitor. I didn’t realize at the time how hurtful they were until my father took me aside later and let me know clearly. He didn’t tell me what to do but I knew what he expected.

Around that time my parents gave me the key of our house. In Ireland the house-key was the symbol of adulthood. You legally became an adult at 21 – now it’s 18 – and 21st birthday cards all had a picture of a key on them. I didn’t know anyone else who was given one at 13. This gave me a great sense of being trusted and my response was to prove to be worthy of that trust. There was only one occasion when I failed to do that, through thoughtlessness rather than by design. I had permission to go to a dance on Saturday nights on the other side of the city. I went by bicycle with a classmate. Our parents told us to leave at 11. One night we were enjoying ourselves so much that we waited till the dance ended at 11:30. Then we went to the nearby house of another classmate for a late night snack.

I arrived home at around 1 A.M. feeling great because I had had such an enjoyable evening. I was surprised to find my parents waiting at the door and got a right good scolding from them. The word “killjoys” was running through my mind but I didn’t say anything. It was probably the following morning I realized that they had been worried sick, thinking I might have been in an accident and lying in a hospital ward – or morgue. We had no phone and that was decades before cell phones.

But my parents said no more about the matter nor did they confiscate my house-key.

My father and mother had a united front when it came to discipline. I don’t recall being able to play one off against the other.

In my time corporal punishment was legal in schools. In the local kindergarten run by the Irish Sisters of Charity the teachers occasionally used a ruler on the palm of a student’s hand, as far as I can recall. My use of that expression indicates that my childhood wasn’t blighted by the physical brutality of adults, at home or in school. In the boys’ primary and secondary schools I attended, run by the Congregation of Christian Brothers, some of whose Australian members now work in Kabankalan and Maasin, teachers – all men – were allowed to use a leather strap with which they could beat a student on the palm of his hand. “Six of the best” was for a serious misdemeanor, but I rarely saw it happening. The usual was two “biffs”, which would leave your hand tingling for a while, but which we took in our stride. Parents implicitly backed the teacher’s authority and unless there was excessive physical force used, something I never saw but know occasionally happened, none of us would report at home that we had been punished. I don’t remember any of my high school teachers using the “leather”.

Richard M. Gelangre’s story of the child left in the locker by the teacher seems to have the elements of an urban myth. But I have been horrified at stories of parents using a two-by-two, which he mentions. I’ve heard of parents leaving children hanging in sacks for a while. No adult has the right to treat a child with brutality and parents, while they have the primary responsibility for their children, don’t own them.

The society I grew up in 50 years ago in Ireland was far from permissive. It is somewhat more so now and it’s not unknown for teachers, who cannot any more use corporal punishment, to be sometimes treated with brutality by students.

I’m grateful to my parents for the “symbolic” spankings I know they gave me but can’t remember. I’m grateful for their example, for their united front, for their sense of fairness, for their inner discipline – genuine discipline - and for their trust. I’m grateful also to my teachers who used the “leather” sparingly.

My experience is quite different from that of a fourth-year girl in a Catholic high school retreat I gave in Mindanao more than 30 years ago. Small in stature and immature in her behavior, she came to me privately and cried for at least five minutes before telling me, “My parents give me everything I want. But they never ask me ‘How did you do in school today?’ And they never even scold me”. undertheacacia@gmail.com


Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Well Fr I'm not saying anything on this one apart from NEVER!

Jackie Parkes MJ said...

Or should we make that a ' No, Ney, Never!'