The article“Parents sue state, cite right to spank” (April 25) caused me to ruminate a bit about the prevailing culture during my own upbringing. If you go back a couple of generations, you will arrive at the world of my childhood, which may provide some historical context to the issue of child abuse.

 

During the 1940s and ’50s, corporal punishment wasn’t an “issue.” It was a norm, expected by both the initiator and the recipient, and was encouraged by the public at large. Many people my age will testify that they deserved the beatings they received and are better for them. This, of course, shows how fickle memory can be.

Parents have always been judged by their ability to control and direct the behavior of their children. This often leads to annoyance, frustration and, sadly, physical abuse. We all know what it means to be taken to “the woodshed” and understand the proverb “spare the rod and spoil the child.” For better or worse, we are all products of our own upbringing and that’s what perpetuates both good and bad parenting.

If today’s child protection regime had been in place back then, most of the kids in my neighborhood would have been in the foster system.

Parents raise children in a much kinder and gentler way today than they did a couple of generations ago. There is certainly more research, professional advice and psychological insight available to them. My parents didn’t have the Adler Institute or Dr. Phil to fall back on, so they used what they did have — a strong sense of right and wrong, a sharp tongue and a quick, open forehand.

When I was a kid, adults ran the world and had been doing so for ages. Parents didn’t aspire to be young again. They were happy to have achieved adulthood and finally to be in charge. Family justice was swift, certain and memorable. Proceedings sped from accusation to punishment with little time for the defendant to present a case. Children were guilty until proven innocent. And this proof had to be beyond a shadow of a doubt; ties went to the prosecution. All this had some effect on what one dared to do.

If, after punishment had been administered, evidence came to light proving a child’s innocence, parents didn’t dissolve into a puddle of remorse and quake in fear of having done permanent psychic damage to their offspring. They just turned the failure of their justice system into an educational experience, saying, “Well, just make sure you don’t ever try anything like that.”

Schools, until fairly recent times, were virtually immune from lawsuits, and teachers took the concept of “en loco parentis” (standing in for the parent) very seriously. This meant justice at school resembled justice at home. The “board” of education wasn’t just an elected school governing committee, but also referred to a paddle employed to enforce compliance from recalcitrant students. A ruler wasn’t just a measuring device, either.

Teachers were definitely in charge, with the added weight of general parental backup. The last thing you wanted to have happen was a call to your parents. This would only result in the doubling of your sentence. To the schools’ and teachers’ credit, discipline was considered a local affair, something that rarely, if ever, went beyond the confines of the classroom. But just the threat of parental involvement back then was enough to have a civilizing effect on student behavior.

Church was an institution that required respectful silence, not usually a young child’s strong point. There were no crying rooms. The whole backyard of the church became a crying room. If a child acted up, they were dragged outside and thrashed until decorum was restored. I’m sure most youngsters grew up believing in an all-powerful Creator, if not necessarily a merciful one.

The neighborhood adult spy network was elaborate and had the support of the public at large. Adults in general were expected to gather intelligence on kids and report their findings to the parents. There were, of course, master spies, who were usually a bit older with a great deal of time on their hands. Even though infirm and often restricted to their houses and yards, these informers could spot suspicious behavior at great distances and were especially good at putting 2 and 2 together. They also learned to track the activities of certain high-value targets, those rascals who were most likely to offend.

Surrounded by all this vigilant expertise, the average kid found it difficult to sustain a life of crime and misdemeanor.

I do believe it takes a village to raise a child. I sometimes wish our village were a little tighter knit and stricter today. But I also think that parents, schools, our religious communities and other social institutions are doing a good job of helping our kids grow up with far less physical punishment, using often more effective, psychologically positive approaches to discipline.

However, I’m not at all sure I would trade my childhood for theirs.

Eddie Ryshavy is a retired school administrator in Plymouth.