Corporal Punishment and the Arrested Development of the ‘Adult’

In the past couple of weeks, I have quoted at length from Erik Erikson‘s Young Man Luther. First, to draw an analogy between the development stages of humans and nations via the notion of an identity crisis, and then, to point to perhaps a similarly analogical relationship between indoctrination and addiction recovery. Today, I want to point to a passage that is particularly insightful about corporal punishment:

It takes a particular view of man’s place on this earth, and of the place of childhood within man’s total scheme, to invent devices for terrifying children into submission, either by magic, or by mental and corporeal terror. When these terrors are associated with collective and ritual observances, they can be assumed to contain some inner corrective which keeps the individual child from facing life all by himself; they may even offer some compensation of belongingness and identification. Special concepts of property (including the idea that a man can ruin, his own property if he wishes) underlie the idea that it is entirely up to the discretion of an individual father when he should raise the morality of his children by beating their bodies. It is clear that the concept of children as property opens the door to those misalliances of impulsivity and compulsivity, of arbitrariness and moral logic, of brutality and haughtiness, which make men crueler and more licentious than creatures not fired with the divine spark. The device of beating children down by superior force, by contrived logic, or by vicious sweetness makes it unnecessary for the adult to become adult. He need not develop that true inner superiority which is naturally persuasive. Instead, he is authorized to remain significantly inconsistent and arbitrary, or in other words, childish, while beating into the child the desirability of growing up. The child, forced out of fear to pretend that he is better when seen than when unseen, is left to anticipate the day when he will have the brute power to make others more moral than he ever intends to be himself.

I was fortunate enough to never suffer the chastisements of an unhinged father (though he was, in his own way, a strict man with high standards) but I did see, in too many of my school years, teachers who thought little of vigorously handing out slaps and canings to their wards. In my fifth grade year in school, our teacher had such a reputation that she induced a severe panic into most of my classmates. The penalty for a missed homework was a public slapping, as was that for talking in class. Indeed, think of a possible offence, and you’d find the penalty was a ear-ringing slap across the face. We didn’t respect her; we just feared her. Without exaggeration, her replacement, a few weeks into the school year, by a young graduate of teaching college, who turned out to be a brilliant mentor to all of us, was one of the best pieces of news I have ever received in my life. The sense of relief I felt that day can scarcely be described. Then, she seemed grown-up and fearsome. In retrospect, I realize I had been confronted with someone who had never quite made the transition from child to adult.

Note: Excerpt from Erik H. Erikson, Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, W. W. Norton and Company, New York, 1962, pp. 69-70.

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