Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Think Before You Hit

Several years ago one of my colleagues in the ministry told a story in a sermon that has haunted me ever since I read it Let's see if it will haunt you.

There was a little boy in Shreveport, Louisiana, who was causing all kinds of problems at the First United Methodist Church. He lived in one of the run-down neighborhoods nearby. He was always getting into cars in the parking lot or managing to slip into the church late at night. But no one could catch him, though they had a pretty good idea who he was and what he looked like.

One evening, Dr. D. L. Dykes, who was the senior minister at the time, happened to be walking in one of the darkened halls. This little fella came scampering around the corner just at that very moment and ran right into Dr. Dykes' arms. He tried and tried to wriggle loose, but Dr. Dykes held onto him tightly and wouldn't let him go. Finally, the little fella gave up. He was only eight years old and he had no clothes on except an old pair of faded jeans - no shirt, no shoes, no socks.

Dr. Dykes decided to take the boy back to his home - not to the police station, not to the juvenile authorities, but back to the child's home a block or two away. When they pulled up out front of the house, the boy's father was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch. When he saw D. L. and his son walking up to the house, he bounded out of his chair and came running right at the two of them. And when he got there, the father swung at the little fella and slapped him across the ear. Then the father yelled at his son and said, "What in the blankety-blank have you done now?" Out of breath, he turned to Dr. Dykes and said, "I'm sorry, mister, for whatever he's done. I've tried everything. I don't know what on earth to do with that boy. I try to beat some sense into him every night, but it don't seem to do no good!"

The story reminded me of the practices of the discipline of children I occasionally saw in the rural culture in which I grew up in south Alabama during the 1930's. I remember hearing some parents brag about how much and how often they ‘whipped' their children as if this were an indication of their godly duty in proper parenting. I remember children who sometimes came to school with bruises and red stripes on their arms and legs. I remember their humiliation. I remember how some of them took this as a license to be violent to other children; and some of them took the beatings as a confirmation of their lack of worth as persons and never got over it in adulthood. A child could be whipped for having been whipped by the teacher at school - without any inquiry as to how and why it happened. I've seen children whipped for ‘disputing' their parent or even a non-related adult. There was a laundry list of offenses for which a child was likely to be whipped. I am not talking "spanked" here, I am talking about "whipped" with some instrument other than the hand.

Oh, I took a few pretty good licks myself for a variety of infractions. I have no perceptible emotional scars for the experience, but I doubt I was any better for it. I sometimes hear old-timers (my age) longing for the good old days when whippings were the standard remedy for almost any infraction. I hear some brag about having been whipped by their parents. I usually write this off to a poor memory about the efficacy of the experience or poor judgment about the usefulness of violence to prevent violence and produce civil behavior. Violence in family life tends to produce one of two results: more violence or hang-dog humiliation which crushes the spirit. There are exceptions, to be sure, but not many.

As an observer of human behavior, I resonated with a quote I recently read which is attributed to Jane Nelson. She said: "Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?"

Now, before you decide that I am an ‘ecclesiastical Dr. Spock' who, in my dotage, has lost touch with present-day realities, let me readily acknowledge that there are some people, young and old, whose psychopathic patterns of behavior are not amenable to correction by loving-kindness and gentle persuasion. There are people who, at least in the short term, will respond only to raw power. Thank God for law enforcement people, judges and social workers who can differentiate between those who can and will respond to conventional help and those who, for the protection of society, must be treated by incarceration and some species of force.

I am aware of the extent to which a problem child can try one's patience. But the use of violence with children is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline. Striking a child should be the last resort. It can very easily becomes a form of domestic violence, when generated by anger. And domestic violence has become an increasing problem in our time.

I would not assume, unasked, to suggest how you should rear your children, even though I have become an expert in the field since my children are grown and gone!! But, I feel constrained to suggest that physical and emotional violence is not a good or lasting solution to family problems. It is not just unwise; under some circumstance, it is against the law. In my observation of family life, the use of corporal punishment ultimately turns out to be counter-productive instead of a permanent quick-fix.

When gentle won't work, a child usually needs therapy - not thrashing. Children need love most when they deserve it least. Think about that next time a child provokes you. When angered by the misbehavior of a child, it is a good practice to take a deep breath and remember who the adult is in the situation.