On Prudential Judgment and the Question of Corporal Punishment

There was an interesting debate segment today on Fox News on the topic of Corporal Punishment, or “paddling.”  You can see the debate, hosted by Megyn Kelly at the bottom of this post. (cf also Washington Post article).

Not having been born yesterday I realize that the concept of spanking children is controversial to say the least. Paddling children in school is almost unheard of today though I was surprised that it is still legal in over twenty states.

Prudential Judgment – The question of paddling and the use of corporal punishment in certain cases exists in an area of decision making known as “prudential judgments (or decisions).” Prudence is one of the four cardinal virtues and I recall from Thomistic Philosophy that it was defined as recta ratio agibilium (right reason applied to practice). Essentially Prudence is the virtue whereby we are able to properly judge, using sound reason and moral principles, the best way to come to a desired end. That it is called an act of judgment means that we have a decision to make as to best means to an end using the virtue of prudence.

Now “prudential judgments” are not mathematical in the sense that they may vary from person to person. Reasonable men and women may differ within limits as to what is the best means to attain a given end.  This is because circumstances may vary from case to case and from culture to culture. Prudential judgments consider many factors such as the individuals involved, the various means available, the circumstances that both precede and follow from an action, age and or gender factors, cultural norms, moral norms and the like. Hence, as already stated, reasonable people may often differ in prudential judgments.

I point this out because I have noticed that many people treat the question of paddling or similar forms of corporal punishment as something that should be an absolute moral norm. Either they think it should be absolutely and in all circumstances banned or they think it is something that should be prescribed in accord with biblical or other traditional norms. I think the moral absolutism is more common on the anti corporal punishment side but it does exist on both sides.

Corporal Punishment is a Prudential Judgment – In discussing a topic like this it seems important that we should remember that we ARE  talking about a prudential judgment. Parents will often make different judgments about whether this form of punishment is helpful unto achieving the end (e.g. discipline or maturity) which they seek. Since there are many variables in each situation there will be different approaches. If we see the debate in this light it may be more possible for us to allow variability without all the harshness. (It should  be clear that severe beatings causing serious or permanent harm are to be excluded from any notion of prudential judgment).

There are many other issues in our culture which involve prudential judgment. But we seem to live in a culture where we want to make lots of rules for each other. There ARE rules that are essential to make but there are also many areas that admit of variability within limits. (Even our recent discussion on modesty admits of certain prudential judgments within limits).

Other things in the Church admit of prudential judgment such as what kind of music to allow in the liturgy, how and when to apply the Church’s social justice tradition to specific issues, how and when bishops should discipline lay people or clerics who stray from Church teaching, what is the best catechetical method, etc. We are surely free to try and influence each other’s thinking and priorities but we also do well to keep charity in mind since, in prudential judgments, reasonable men and women may differ.

As for corporal punishment I will say it worked for me. I was paddled in school and occasionally spanked at home. My parents did not often spank us but when we were young there was what I would call a judicious use of it. In school I was taken to the Principal’s office and paddled on several occasions in my errant youth. I once recall that Mr. Bulware the principal turned the school PA system on once while I was paddled. This is because I and another boy started a school yard brawl and I and the other instigator were publicly paddled to dissuade others from such actions. For me these paddlings had a salutary effect and my behavior improved. The Principal was skilled in that he did not seriously harm me but my back side stung enough that I was encouraged to avoid the paddle in the future. As I say it several such paddlings to bring the lesson home but I learned that misbehavior had embarrassing and unpleasant consequences.

Now this is MY story I do not say that every one’s experience was mine. Comments are open and you will surely have your own thoughts. But remember, this is a matter of prudential judgment and reasonable people can and do differ.

In the video debate you will see all the women are respectful of each other though one wants to impose, through federal legislation, a ban on paddling. She is free to attempt that of course but here is where I wonder why our culture insists on legislating in prudential matters. What do you think?

34 Replies to “On Prudential Judgment and the Question of Corporal Punishment”

  1. I was spanked too when I was little – mostly by my dad. My mom used to chase us with a wooden spoon. My case was similar to yours – I learned not to do it again, especially since my dad could spank HARD. My mom could make me feel really bad about myself just by yelling. I stopped being spanked when I became a preteen.

    I do think it depends on the kid with spanking. A lot of times a negative punishment, like taking away something that the kid likes, works better. I used to train horses and one of the trainers whose methods I followed also developed a system for children and it involved positive and negative reinforcement. The book is called Horse Sense for People by Monty Roberts if anyone has an interest.

  2. I think acceptability of corporal punnishment depend on ones come from. If one’s intent is to correct, and it is the ONLY means one sees to do that, “maybe” it could be okay. I think most of us understand that our words do have power. But, OFTEN, (various means) correction are lost in the attemp to humilate, wound, belittle and demean. By and large, correction should inspire by lifting up rather than beating down. To say, “I care sooo much about you that I’m going to now beat you,” seems ridiculous to a 42 yr old’s understanding, much less a 7 year old’s.

    And, if anyone were to lay a hand on any one of my children, good luck there!

    1. Yes, I suppose Anon that I would agree that a parent could use corporal punishment to humiliate but not necessarily. Also, would it have to be the ONLY means? can it not be among the potential remedies? I think it would be wrong to rush to use it but I am not sure it has to ba an absolute last ecourse either. Again it will vary a lot. My parents used corporal punishment only rarely and it was reserved for only certain matters.

  3. OFTEN, (various means) correction are lost in the attemp to humilate, wound, belittle and demean. By and large, correction should inspire by lifting up rather than beating down.

    I’m not sure I’m following you here. Are you saying that spanking is (or can be) an attempt to humilate, wound, belittle and demean, or that discipline other than spanking are often these things?

    If the latter, I would agree. I’ve seen times where a parent is opposed to spanking as being cruel, but then resorts to the use of emotional and mental abuse in the form of harranging, questioning, humiliation, berating, and demeaning. With spanking (properly done), it is administered and then it is over and done with; the physical pain lasts for a little bit and then is over, and then, the “debt” having been paid, there is a return to all is well and good. But with emotional and mental disciplining, that can cause pain and scars that do not easily heal or go away soon, and it could actually end up putting a wedge of resentment and avoidance between child and parent.

    1. I agree that spanking falls under prudential judgement. If parents resort to it, rage should be absent. Yelling should be absent. And I also agree with Bender that non-physical methods can cross the line into emotional abuse. The focus of any correction should be on the objectionable act (not the child’s mental shortcomings).

    2. Yes, the latter is what I meant. I find it hypocritical when a parent says they don’t spake and yet find it okay to “discipline” their children via making them feel stupid, burdensome and humliating them in front of others, which I believe is ridiculously cruel.

      I work with young drug addicts in recovery who all have a similar tape playing in their heads, “I’m not as good as others.” I can’t say it is applicable to other populations, or even other addict groups, but my kids all have stories of feeling bullied and belittled. Granted, addicts have a genetic predisposition to addiction, but a lot of other factors play into what “turns on the switch” for them and low self esteem is most certainly a big one.

      So, I take issue when ANY form of discipline that has the potential for a child to believe their value diminished.

  4. It’s not about spanking. It’s about the limits on the state to control your life. In a cultore that has excluded God, somebody has to make the rules. Who do you belong to – God or Obama? If you reject God, then the Obamas will step up to fill the gap. If you don’t care about a personal ruler who loves you and wants you to live with him forever as a son, then you get an impersonal god who has many ways to punish you and will gladly do so but not as One who loves. Who will we serve – God or the State?

    1. Yes, that is the under current in this debate. The principle of subsidiarity seems to once again be on the chopping block and the Feds are moving into a matter that is better dealt with at the State level. Further, since the matter is a prudential judgment it would seem that even the state or locals should stay out of parental decisions in this regard unless there are signs of true abuse.

  5. When I spank my son, the pain in his backside is just the tiny gadfly that stimulates him to notice his culpability and to repent. He’s a tough kid (almost four years old); he inflicts much more pain on him self on a daily or even hourly basis running around, bumping into things, falling down outside on tree roots, sidewalks, etc. When I spank him, I always do it slowly, very deliberately. I put him over my knee, I hold down his legs, and I give him *one* smack. The anticipation does all the work. What shows how effective it is, though, is that after that one smack and a bit of crying (less than when he falls and scrapes his knee), he comes to me with genuine remorse and tells me he’s sorry for what he did. Because he has estranged himself from his father by his own actions. Because he wants to be reconciled to his father.

    I sure do hate doing it though, especially when I look in on him in when he’s asleep at night. Times like that, you look at a sleeping child and you don’t want him ever to feel pain or sadness.

  6. Corporal punishment worked on me, too.

    If a child is maturing properly, he will go through different stages. At an early stage, he will avoid misbehaving because a spanking is physically painful. When he is a little older, he will avoid misbehaving because he is ashamed to be spanked. Some might see this as an “attempt to humiliate, wound, belittle and demean” on the part of the parents, but it really isn’t; it’s an attempt to use social pressure rather than physical force. (Of course, there are also some parents who genuinely *try* to demean the child in a truly abusive fashion.) Finally, we hope the child matures enough to avoid misbehaving because it is wrong, and to understand also why it is wrong.

    These same levels of maturity are present in the adult world, too. Some people avoid crime only because they don’t want the discomfort of prison; others, because they could not bear the stigma of being known to be a criminal. Ideally, though, people will avoid crime because they have a well-formed conscience.

    1. Yes you are right that age is a very important factor. I don’t know the exact age it should stop but at some point corporal puishment is no longer appropriate given the age of the child. I should certainly think that puberty should definitive mark the end of such things and do so after that might be a grave violation of privacy on a post pubescant minor.

      1. I actually think the isssue is more maturity than age, but corporal punishment is not likely to work after puberty. But your response reminds me of a story I’ve often heard from my dad.

        Apparently my great-grandfather was something of a scoundrel. I haven’t been told the details, but once when he was about 50 and my great-great-grandfather was about 70, he did something that my great-great-grandfather (who was a hoss of a man) considered shameful, so the older gentleman confronted him on it. The confrontation did not produce the desired effect, so the father put his son over his knee and gave him a good spanking, which was NOT a joke.

        I have to admit, I like the story.

  7. I was born and raised in MN where I was once paddled in elementary school for teasing another student. I don’t think the paddling worked as much as the embarrasment and humiliation. Later I was told by a high school math teacher (I was a straight A student) that I carried a chip on my shoulder an that I should lose it. Later that year we moved to Texas and I was swatted (paddled) for a brawl with another student. I argued that he was bigger than me and hit me first knocking me to the ground and I was only defending myself. There was no trial, and I dropped out of high school.

    Look at the map of the states that use corporal punishment in their schools ad compare it to the crime rates and dropout rates in their states vs the national average. You might then ask yourself, is it working?

    1. Hmm… any atatistics in this matter linking the two available. As for corporoal punishment, even in the sates where it is still allowed it is almost never used. I think Texas had one instance of it last year. I hardly think that such statistics could be found. As for you, I am sorry you dropped out but are you saying that was the main reason? At any rate I don’t want to dicount your story it is am important reminder that Coroporal punishment is not always a good idea in every case.

  8. I just heard on the local news hear in Texas that some students are warning about retaliation if corporal punishment is used in high school…things are already out of hand in our schools. We have the lessons of Don Bosco and still we don’t learn.

  9. In reading the comments, the more I lean to spanking being wrong.

    I have 6 kids and I don’t spank, never have, and my children are well mannered. My emphasis is on respecting my authority rather than fearing me. Recently, my son played ball in the house and broke one of my china plates (hanging on wall). I reiterated the rule about balls in the house and explained that the plate was special to me, and told him it upset me that his thoughtlessness cost me something I valued. He lost his computer and television priviledges. Later in the evening, he counted the money in his piggy bank and offered it to me to buy another plate. I don’t see how adding a spank would serve anything other than my need to give an outlet to my upset. It has always seemed to me that spanking is for those who have no other means exert their authority or have a need to satisy their own emotion.

    Furthermore, the logic in spanking alludes me, “I told you not to hit your brother! Hitting is wrong! Now, come over here and bend over so I can spank you.” I don’t get it.

    1. I get it. Hitting is wrong, except in matters of self-defense. Spanking is wrong, except in matters of true discipline.

  10. At the public grade school I attended, there was a bench outside the principal’s office called “the hot seat.” It was where one waited before they were spanked. And sometimes the principal would walk into our class carrying a yardstick. The message was effective. I caused little trouble.

    My parents spanked me as a child, and as far as I can remember, all parents in the neighborhood used corporal punishment.

    One must also keep in mind varying family and classroom sizes. The parents with only 1, 2, or 2.1 kids can coddle and monitor them constantly. Parents with larger families, and I’ve known families with 12 kids, and teachers with larger classrooms (a nearby private school use to have 40-50 kids in a class several decades ago) might need to use corporal punishment.

    1. Yes I remember that too! My elementary school principal had a rather large paddle he would often have sticking out of his jacket pocket. It was deterence writ clear!

  11. There is a difference between swatting a kid on the butt and brutalizing them. The former is acceptable; the latter is not. I don’t think corporal punishment belongs in the schools at all. My kids are not a discipline problem in school and never have been – but even if they were and if they were hit by a teacher or other authority figure, I would take them out of school. And if they were hit with a paddle or such the like, there would be hell to pay.

    1. Yes, I understand. According to the video they do not paddle a child without prior approval of parents. Back in my day they did not seek prior approval from my parents to paddle me. But in those days my parents (and other parents too) figured that I well deseerved the paddling I got and often received additional punishment from them for getting one! 🙂

  12. A mom of 10, I have spanked only very rarely, and that when the children were small and there was no other means available to me to get across the seriousness of the offense in a timely manner. For example, take the case of a young child, say three or four, who breaks away from you and rushes across the street without looking after being warned not to do so–just scolding him may not make the lasting impression you want to make, but a moderately firm swat on the behind more likely will. It’s hard to get a young child to connect other forms of punishment to the actual offense when they cannot be administered immediately, like a spank can. If Mommy takes away a toy or something of that nature–there is often confusion in the young child’s mind as to why, even if you try to explain it. As for older children, you always want to treat them with dignity and respect, even while punishing them. Personally, I find it hard to see spanking as fitting that criterion, especially when there are so many more ways to punish older children. Finally, my mom’s caution: you should use your own hand and not an object to spank, because without feeling it yourself it is hard to judge how hard you are actually hitting the kid. I know someone who left large welts on a small child by using a wooden spoon, and had no idea they were hitting the child that hard.

  13. I have witnessed paddling in school growing up in the seventh and eigth grade specifically. The paddles varied in shape, weight ,aerodynamics such as various holes drilled in the wides thin ones. What got my attention most was the anger and expression of the teachers administering the punishment and I must say it was psycologically disturbing and intimidating enough to make me avoid such discipline. My father was a stern disciplinarian and I caught my share of pain from his large hand making swift contact with my behind. I still vividly recall an incident around the age of four or five after my older brother encouraged me to call this kid in a black leather jacket a punk as he walked down the sidewalk in front of our house one day. My brother was in the thrid grade attending Catholic school and the other kid attended the public school right across the street from St. Cecilia School. I had never heard the word punk before and I ended up calling the kid who was probably in the fourth grade, a punkin. He stopped dead in his tracks and then walk up to me and my brother with this mean look and asked ” What did you call me?” Feeling intimidated, I pointed to my brother and said ” He told me to call you a punkin.” They immediately went into a fist flying brawl and my brother was getting the worst of it as he yelled, ” Bobby, go get Daddy!” about that time my father came out the front door and the kid jumped up and ran off. My father growled ” What started all that?” My brother pointed at me and said ” Bobby called that kid a punk. ” My father lifted me off the ground by grabbing my right hand and proceeded to flail away at my behind as I screamed, ” Bill told me to.” I was urinating in my seersucker shorts with pee running down my leg before my father let up and put me on my feet. He told both of us to go to our room. I definitely think I got the worst beating of us two. Then there wer the yard sticks and hickory pointing rods that I received once or twice as well as witnessed being administered by various “Sister Mary …” in my first five years of parochial primary school before moveing to a town with only a pulic school system. There I saw how real men administered corpral punishment. Personally, I can’t stand the ACLU because they are funded by tax dollars and take away far more than they supposedly protect when it comes to liberty. They are a socialist union leftist organization. I think that we could come up with a safer non injurous method of discipline by waterboarding with prudence.

  14. Paddling works if there is solidarity in the community. When I got paddled in the 7th Grade in 1960 my parents response was “you must have deserved it”, I did. In the US we let local control of schools slip away years ago. When a government is split down the middle with so called conservatives and liberals, reds and blues, etc. We have government that really represents no one and no-thing. The dignity of each person gets lost in the shuffle. No one can be held responsible for anything.

    The social doctrine of our Church speaks well to the issues, but we now live in a land where each one goes his own way and does what is right in his own eyes. Paddling should wait while we as Catholics live out our faith and lead others to Christ by so doing.

  15. I was never hit in school, but beaten heavily by my father. It taught me to control my own anger better and never to behave like him vis-à-vis my own kids. 🙂
    Nevertheless, I do believe that some paddling, as an ultimate “stick behind the door” (haha) is a good option. We gently smack puppies, don’t we? Why would little kids be different. After all “violence” is the source of all authority.

  16. In my opinion, physical punishment may not always be effective in correcting a child’s behavior. I’m not even sure doing it repetitively will have the same effects. Parents always thought that as long as they are not angry when they spank, it is OK. However, anger often exists in both spanker and spankee at some points. It is ironical to hit a kid to teach not to hit other kids. I also thought that physical punishment can introduce aggressiveness or fear in the child, more than learning. Other traumatic effects can include stress, low self-esteem, and depression. I’m not surprised to see that people tend to over protect their children from experiencing the bad experience they went through. Regardless, I still think that there are other effective behavioral techniques available out there. Words can be used to reason. Danger or adverse consequence can be demonstrated. Supplying and removing rewards can be used. These and many other non-physical strategies can give more focus on getting kids to come to a sense of their wrongdoings and learn to shape their behavior.

  17. Am a Junior in a HS in Texas. Varsity Football player and we get paddled in school. Especially by coaches, bend over, grap your ankles and get up to 15 swats. Usually have just a jock strap on! It stings, and if parents find out, I get licked again with my Dad’s belt at home. This is common, most of us Dudes get it twice. So cp is alive and well in most Texas High Schools!

  18. There was an incident not too long ago in Springtown Texas that made the news. The mothers of two high school girls complained that their daughters were paddled by a male principle which was in violation of the school’s own same gender paddling policy. The thing that really shocked me was that one of them had a male police officer as a witness. This principle must really be trying to humiliate these girls as much as possible. He could have chosen a female staff member to minimize the emotional damage but chose a male policeman instead. Involving the police in this is really crossing the line. Using a policeman as a witness could end up making female students distrusting of the police or give them a negative attitude toward law enforcement later on in their lives.

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