What if Spanking Works?
IT DIDN’T TAKE LONG for me to realize that asking a man why he spanks his children is like asking him when he stopped beating his wife.
I’d been trying to interview parents about spanking for weeks when I finally got the name of one mother who, as a friend we shared put it, had more opinions on the matter than Jimmy Durante had jokes. I gave the woman a call one day and began to explain what I was working on — that’s when she slammed down the phone.
A few moments later, she called back to apologize. “I’m at work — that is not a conversation to have around other people,” she hoarsely whispered. “I know you say a mutual friend told you to call me. But for all I know, you could be Social Services or something.” She insisted that I not call her again.
Things continued more or less like that with more than a dozen other people — uncomfortable silences, hang-ups, an astounding number of variations on “Thanks, but no, thanks” — until I reached Kevin Cargill, a 35-year-old real estate professional in Boston.
“I can’t lie, my wife and I do spank our daughters, and I’m not ashamed of it,” Cargill tells me with a nervous chuckle. He says spanking has sometimes been the only way to get through to his girls, who are now 12 and 13. “But at the same time, I can’t say that around everyone. It’s a serious thing, man. And there are people out there who’ll think you’re a beast if you admit to spanking.
Countless debates at the edges of playgrounds may roil over how much screen time is too much and the right age to stop breast-feeding, but there’s no more radioactive topic in parenting today than corporal punishment. This despite the fact that it was almost universally accepted just a generation ago. These days, a mother in a mall parking lot who merely raises a hand above her youngster’s backside — the disciplinary equivalent of a poker player’s bluff — is sure to generate dirty looks and tsk-tsking from complete strangers. And if she dares follow through on the threat, she stands to lose friends and the respect of her colleagues and may even find herself the target of a state investigation.
Spanking your kids isn’t illegal in Massachusetts, or anywhere else in the United States, but that mother’s worry that I was an investigator was no idle concern. This was a lesson Don Cobble, former pastor of a Woburn church, learned the hard way.