Guest Blog: Violence Does Not Teach

Violence does not teach

By Algernon D’Ammassa
The Deming Headlight, April 4, 2011


 Since Governor Susana Martinez signed HB 172 on April 6, banning corporal punishment in New Mexico’s public schools, I have been learning a great deal about my friends. Friends and family in Deming and Cruces have been opening up about their childhoods in ways I have never heard, revealing deeply-held views on parenting, discipline and the wisdom of spanking. The law changes nothing in Deming, where spanking was already forbidden in school. Even so, the topic often incites passionate responses. On Facebook, a lengthy exchange of written posts and ripostes by some of my Deming neighbors on HB 172 actually roused one person to cheer the armed policemen who recently used pepper spray on an eight year old in a Colorado classroom. “Kudos!” she wrote. “That kid will think twice next time.”

It is remarkable to witness such enthusiasm for police violence, appropriate or not, even when the subject is a child, with no equivalent enthusiasm for social workers and counselors who heal children’s hearts with listening and compassion. Children are not our enemies, but our deepest responsibility.

Our teachers know that children act out because of conditions, not because they are inherently bad. Children neglected or beaten at home, who are bored or feel helpless, will act out in school as surely as hungry children will hoard food. The proper question for educators is not how to make them suffer, but to engage them, keep them safe, and teach them about good choices while listening to their needs. Wise punishment reinforces good teaching.

To practice this, without giving way to anger, adults themselves need to be whole. An ancient Buddhist scripture says, “The mind does not find peace, nor does it enjoy pleasure and joy, nor does it find sleep or fortitude when the thorn of hatred dwells in the heart.” Hate is a wound. Hate is the product of a rift in our own being. If the wound is repaired, hate has no use.

Clinical research refutes the widespread notion that blows from open hands, paddles, switches, hairbrushes, wooden spoons, or belts teaches children how to distinguish right from wrong or the meaning of respect. In fact, the research shows the opposite. Violence does not heal; it is not meant to.

Real discipline is not to be confused with mere obedience to physical strength. That might be a good way to prepare children for life in an authoritarian society, but what if we want to raise autonomous and happy adults who love themselves and others? What if we want our young ones to aspire to something more than surviving childhood?

Perhaps it is possible for a parent to spank with love and wisdom. My son’s rear end has met my hand on two occasions. Was this parental firmness, did I get his attention, or did I lash out in anger? Parenthood is not a path of certainty. Every day we improvise, do our best, and pray that we aren’t screwing up our children. Sometimes the course of love goes underground and out of sight.

In every human being there are locked rooms and dark corners. In the shadows, it is difficult to distinguish rage from self-defense or justified force. Have we illuminated the darkness in ourselves? Have we reconciled our own traumas so well that we can wield violence clearly and compassionately, as a teaching method? I barely trust myself to make that choice as a father. It is not likely I would trust my child’s teacher — or a teacher’s aide I have not even met — with that responsibility. How confident should I feel that staff members I don’t know would pause to calm themselves or even check to see whether they have parental consent before striking my son?

It is too much to ask of our teachers, who are under impossible pressures themselves, to navigate these shadowy rivers. These are matters for the parent to consider deeply. It is not wise to place the burden on school staff.

Taking the paddle out of the classroom is no loss. The parent may still wield it, but let teachers teach. May all our children grow up to be whole and free.
Algernon D’Ammassa is Abbot of the Deming Zen Group.