Sunday is Father’s Day and my sons know what I’m hoping they will give me. I’ve asked for it every year since they became adults. I want them to make me the last Kahle on this branch of the family tree that spanked his children.
Nathan and Dylan are now older than I was when either of them were born. Neither have any immediate plans for parenthood, but they are preparing themselves nonetheless. If their devotion to their dogs is any indication, they’ll be great fathers when they feel they’re ready.
Sons have an implicit contract with their fathers to follow the footsteps. Breaking tradition is usually instigated by the younger generation, but I’m not waiting. I’m asking my boys to break the pact I didn’t break with my father.
Karen and I aggressively sought guidance as new parents. We read books and picked up magazines. We talked with others about parenting tools. Most favored “time outs,” but reserved the right to spank if necessary. It was considered an unfortunate necessity. We looked around, but we especially looked up — to the elders in our circles.
Dr. Isaacson had been Branford’s most esteemed pediatrician for longer than we had been alive. Karen went to school with one of Dr. Isaacson’s sons and he was considered “a straight arrow.” (No wonder he later became a chiropractor.)
All I knew about Dr. I. was that everybody called him “Doctor.” And that neighborhood kids didn’t trick-or-treat his house, because he gave fruit instead of candy to the children. I’ve always loved that stern streak in New Englanders.
One of Nate’s first check-ups with Dr. Isaacson didn’t go very well. He was especially squirmy that day. (I’m referring to my son, not the doctor.) We were chagrinned that we couldn’t control our baby. “This child knows no fear,” the doctor said, using only the lower register of his voice. It sounded to us like he was confiding a secret. Then he reached for a pamphlet, as if it contained the solution we three were seeking together.
We took the pamphlet home, still reeling from the disappointment we felt we had been as parents to this tribal elder. It started with “spare the rod, spoil the child” — and then claimed this old proverb was also good advice for modern parents. The good doctor had placed a tangerine in our candy bag of parenting.
That was then. Much has changed since.
Study after study has shown that violence of any sort first begets more violence. We’ve mapped and labeled psychological do-si-dos like sublimation, displacement, and overcompensation, learning that cause and effect don’t always happen one after the other. We’ve learned that children’s psyches absorb information whether they can process it or not, and so the processing can sometimes be quite unpredictable. In other words, we’ve learned that corporal punishment is almost never worth the risk.
I don’t blame Dr. Isaacson or our parents. The world has changed so much since they were children. They grew up with barbed wire fencing to keep dangerous farm animals in and more dangerous wild animals out. Life was a risky proposition. Modifying behavior immediately was essential. There might not be a second chance to learn a lesson.
Without antibiotics, a simple cut could lead to an infection. Medicine lacked the tools to prevent simple ailments from becoming life-threatening. “You’ll catch your death of a cold” was a literal statement a generation before it became a comical cliche.
In the span of just a generation or two, barbed wire fences turned into white picket fences. Life became less perilous. Mortal dangers became numerable.
Not that you can tell a parent that — you can’t. Every son or daughter should receive their parents’ undivided attention, but that necessarily omits perspective or proportion. That’s why I’m asking my boys now to make me the last of my kind, before they begin the work of becoming the first of their own kind.
Spanking can be kept around to be inserted into the middle of the phrase “brand new” for emphasis, but it has otherwise outlived its usefulness. My sons know what I think. Maybe I should put it into a pamphlet.
Don Kahle (firstname.lastname@example.org) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs.