Mr. Watkins, the principal at Leak Street School in Rockingham, used a leather one.
The Rev. Sawyer, the school’s truant officer, used a wooden one – with holes in it, presumably to make it more aerodynamic.
Mr. Watkins’ leather strop and the Rev. Sawyer’s wooden paddle were the two main instruments of discipline when we were in school.
Whether such instruments are effective in making us do right is being debated all over the place because of the current scandal surrounding professional football player Adrian Peterson and his apparently sadistic definition of corporal punishment.
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Tom W. Smith, director of the University of Chicago’s four-decade-old General Social Survey, told me Wednesday that in a 2012 survey, 71 percent of Americans said they “strongly agree or agree” that a firm spanking is sometimes necessary in child-rearing.
Approval of corporal punishment was highest among blacks, Republicans and born-again Christians.
And they said we can’t all get along.
You’d have to be the Marquis de Sade, though, to try to justify what Peterson is accused of doing to his 4-year-old son, the least of which was beating him with a tree branch and leaving bruises on places where there should never be bruises.
Hardly any of the children with whom we grew up – even those who never had to take that dreaded walk to see Mr. Watkins or the Rev. Sawyer – were unfamiliar at home with the panic-inducing phrase “Go brang me a switch.” Yes, you usually had to fetch the instrument of your own doom.
By today’s standards, that means that most of the educators, parents and grandparents of the ’60s and ’70s would be judged criminals, at worst; unenlightened, at best. And their methods of imposing discipline are being ridiculed and lambasted.
To those people doing the ridiculing and lambasting, I respectfully say, “Aw, blow it out yer ear.”
Although we now know there are probably better ways of getting children to behave, and I’m not wistful for that era, I figure parents of that generation were doing what they had to do to keep us safe in a cruel world.
They knew how dangerous it could be if their sons left home and misbehaved or were perceived as being disrespectful or overly rambunctious out in the larger society: They might not return home – or if they did, it could be in a coffin.
I asked James Ashmore, assistant dean of Shaw University School of Divinity and associate professor of Old Testament Studies there, if people were taking the proverb “spare the rod, spoil the child” out of context, making it to mean something other than what it’s supposed to mean.
“My answer would be ‘yes,’ definitely. I’ll be the first one to admit that biblical times were pretty violent times, and I don’t have any doubt that corporal punishment on children was widely accepted and widely practiced,” Ashmore said. “The biblical literalists who are taking this as a mandate are really misunderstanding the proverb.
“When they’re talking about the rod, it’s shorthand for discipline and structure, not necessarily corporal punishment. The Book of Proverbs is mostly a set of observations about the way the world works instead of prescriptions of how it should work,” he said.
The Rev. J. Vincent Terry, pastor of Mt. Peace Baptist Church in Raleigh, attended the same school I did. I asked him about the biblical proverb that corporal punishment fans always cite when trying to justify the laying on of hands on their children’s backsides.
“There is a line drawn, a difference, between ‘correction’ and ‘abuse.’ ... I’ve had two paddlings in my life, and both were at Leak Street. It didn’t kill us, but it was more embarrassing than anything else,” the Rev. Terry said.
“I’d rather correct children at home than have them at the correction center.”
Whether corporal punishment corrects bad behavior can depend upon the child, licensed professional counselor Paula Sanders Newman of Raleigh said.
Dr. Newman, who specializes in working with children, said parents who corporally punish their children “sometimes don’t know what all of the options are. ... I tell parents all the time that if you do try spanking – which I’m not advocating – and you see that it doesn’t change behavior, then I suggest that you not try it.
“For some children, it may take (spanking) one time and they’ll say, ‘OK, I’m never doing that again.’ For other children, it doesn’t faze them at all and you have to come up with alternative ways to discipline,” she said. “Loss of privileges – anything you were going to buy them, any places they were going to be able to go, extra chores, earlier bedtimes. It depends on the age of the child.”
The innumerable “whuppings” – those are, mercifully, different from whippings or beatings – my aunt gave me until I became a teenager didn’t curtail my evil ways, didn’t make me straighten up.
The one time she didn’t administer a whupping did convince me to change course, though.
After one unremembered infraction by me that resulted in her having to take off work and come to the school to lobby for my reinstatement – the mills didn’t pay you if you missed work – I waited at home for her to come back and open up a can of her special whupping cream on me.
She never did.
I wish she had, because what hurt worse than anything with which she could’ve hit me was her resigned look and the realization that she’d apparently concluded I was too far gone for any punishment to save.
Now, that was painful.