Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The "No-Visible-Scars" Approach: Disciplining/Harming Kids and Others (29 June 2013)

Most of us learned as kids, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me," which we modify as adults to add, "Words just leave those invisible wounds that fester for years and years, poisoning relationships and our lives …."

I was going to write on this topic again anyway — indeed, I'd already written that opening paragraph — when I listened to David Sedaris's Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls (2013), which includes a story in which a young Sedaris gets paddled by his father. In earlier books, Sedaris had talked about his father's dinner-table custom of hitting his wise-ass kids on the heads with a heavy spoon, and I thought that a bad thing for the father to do: scalp wounds can bleed a lot, nerves in the scalp damage easily and take a long time to heal, frequent head trauma of even a minor sort can harm the brain, and I agreed with the instructor of the one psych course I took that it's unethical for big people to beat up on little people.

Still, the instructor noted that kids are pretty resilient and that the research as of that date (mid-1960s) indicated that all sorts of systems of discipline could work with children so long as the general environment was loving and the system applied fairly and consistently. As the instructor threw in, "It won't warp their little psyches if you hit 'em now and then; and there's your psyche to consider" — and then repeated the ethical point that adults shouldn't beat up on kids, ever.

In the story with the paddle, however, the young — but not all that young — David Sedaris wasn't beaten up by his father and had behaved really, really like a brat. What bothered me in the Let's Explore Diabetes stories about the elder Sedaris (and remember that these are stories, and we haven't heard Dad's side) — what bothered me with this to-some-degree-fictionalized Dad wasn't that he'd once paddled his son but that he consistently undercut him verbally.

There may be something in my personal background working here. I can recall only one occasion when my father hit me — on the arm, with an arrow I had loosed in the apartment — but our parents didn't work very hard to disguise that (CLICHÉ ALERT!) I was our mother's favorite and my sister my father's favorite. Also, I was "the good one," the occasional arrow-equivalent notwithstanding, and my sister "the smart one": all the way through to at least my PhD and getting tenure at a respectable university.

Quick story. My sister called me one time laughing and saying that she'd called our father to tell her that her son had made Phi Beta Kappa. My father sent on his congratulations, paused, and said, "Well, that can't be such a big thing; Rich made Phi Beta Kappa."

Anyway, and for sure, I was kind of sensitive to — let's call it "verbal negativity" and leave "abuse" for more serious issues — to verbal negativity by the time I was a junior or senior in college.

I recall helping to run my fraternity chapter's Hell Week then and having some inspectors from the Interfraternity Council show up for yet another surprise inspection and getting into a moderately friendly discussion with one on pledge training. He politely declined my invitation to camp out in our foyer (or some similar snarky remark) and noted that he and his colleagues had returned because there were rumors that my fraternity chapter included sweat sessions of the boot-camp persuasion in our pledge training. Neither confirming nor denying the rumors, I noted that IFC held us responsible for the behavior and, as we said back then, discipline of our pledges and wondered aloud what sanctions for pledge-ly mischief he would recommend.

He told me that his house used line-ups where a pledge would be verbally dressed down (and verbally torn down) in front of his pledge brothers.

"The 'No-Visible-Scars' approach …?" I said, innocently, and thought "Now that is barbaric" and said that we didn't do that, and wouldn't. We'd line pledges up and yell at them as a group, but if we were going to say hard things about a pledge we said them to the pledge in private; and however much we were willing to use Parris-Island techniques for motivational aerobic exercise, we avoided the Marine tradition of tearing a guy down (destroying a boy to build a man, breaking the man to build the Marine [see Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket or just about any Marine movie prior to the 1990s).

            I am a life member of the American Civil Liberties Union and close to an absolutist on free speech; and contrary to some of my allies in feminism and on the Left, I strongly differentiate between speech and actions and limit a phrase like "speech acts" to something like, "I now pronounce you husband and wife" (or whatever), or "You're fired!" And I note again that David Sedaris tells stories, and even if they are 100% true to his perceptions and memories, we don't hear from his parents and siblings. Still, to my ears, the elder Sedaris comes through as something of a villain.

            I can forgive him his heavy spoon and (far more easily), his occasionally swatting a bratty son. Cutting the kid down, though, figuratively, hitting him with "verbal negativity" at just about every exchange — now that is kind of barbaric and cruel.

No comments:

Post a Comment