The 50,000-Volt Pond — a few thoughts on corporal punishment
I don’t understand the rules of any organized sport (unless you consider Fetch organized), but I do love to watch humans play them. Let’s face it, most of the time, you guys are really boring in your actions. Walk to the car, get in. Walk inside, sit in front of a computer. Occasionally thrill us by going into the kitchen or picking up a leash, but otherwise… Yawwwwwwn.
But when you play a sport, suddenly you’re fascinating. Running, tumbling, banging into each other, and of course throwing or hitting balls (which we always love). It’s when you guys kind of act like US! So I have to say, I have a very strong bias in favor of athletes – they’re my kind of humans!
I also am a big fan of a lot of the values that sports give to kids. Teamwork, health, learning to accept loss and victory with humble dignity – these are great virtues.
So it’s always sad for me when athletes look bad. Recently, there have been a few of these cases here in the U.S. Camera footage of one infuriated football player punching his fiancée – just heartbreaking. And another superb player getting in trouble for having punished his four-year-old son by whipping him with a “switch,” which is an old word for a thin, flexible branch from a tree, usually with the leaves all pulled off. And when he was asked about it, he said that this was the way he had been raised, so he had seen nothing wrong with doing it.
Now I don’t know any of these men, and certainly don’t know the exact circumstances of these incidents. So can’t speak about them. But as a dog, I do know quite a bit about corporal punishment (which means punishing by doing something to someone’s body – whether a slap or a spank, or things far more severe).
You see, we dogs do corporal punishment! If you see a mother raising her pups, she’ll teach her young, who she loves more than even she can imagine, by giving them little bites when they’re naughty. And it works – the pups learn not to do those things. So it only makes sense that, for centuries, humans have trained us with swats and beatings. Because it’s worked, right?
Well, yes and no…
Here’s the thing about punishment. The real goal of training a dog or a young child is Discipline. And the word Discipline comes from the same old word as Disciple; it refers to Learning. You want that kid to learn not to cross the street without an adult; you want that dog to learn not to nip people’s heels for fun. And these are very worthwhile lessons! But any time you teach a child or a dog, their brains are large enough that they’re learning more than one lesson.
Of course not all brains are that big. For example, my human friend Handsome has a tank with some goldfish. These beauties have learned that, when he walks up to the tank, he’s probably going to feed them, so they swim up to the surface, as close as they can get to him, and start chomping their mouths, hoping some food will drop in. They’re not expecting anything else from him – not love or information or entertainment. Just food. And that’s fine – as their brains are a bit smaller than the goo that forms on the inner corner of my eye!
But when Handsome feeds me, there’s a lot more going on. I feel loved, seeing his care. He enjoys my excitement at the feeding, and I sense that too. Usually he’ll lightly pet my head or back while I start to eat, but being careful not to do anything that would distract me, as he knows that’s bothersome to any animal who still connects to their wild self (Some general advice here – unless you know a dog very well, best to just leave it alone when it’s eating; even a nice one might snap if it thinks you might be considering stealing its food!).
And similarly, when Handsome has trained me, there was TONS going on in me. I was getting attention, but I was also feeling judged and nervous. If I did what he wanted, I expected to get some sort of validation – petting, loving words, maybe a treat. And when I didn’t, it felt bad to hear him say “No,” and know he was disappointed in me, even if just for a moment. In other words, it’s not just that I learned to sit or stay, I also learned something about myself, and about him, and about our relationship. Every time we did it.
Think of what happens in a schoolroom. Sure, you learn something about Math or History. But you also learn that the teacher is happy when you sit politely; you learn what irritates the kid next to you; you learn which teachers like their students to offer opinions in class, and which really don’t.
But all these examples are about learning when there’s teaching clearly going on. What happens when someone misbehaves in their normal life, and gets a consequence? Well, again, they’re going to learn more than one thing. Sure they’ll learn that they shouldn’t have done the thing they weren’t supposed to do. But they’ll also learn how someone else reacted. And they’ll learn about how that person thinks about them. And they’ll learn about their own value, and how they have the right to treat others.
So when a dog mother teaches her young by biting them lightly, they’re learning not to misbehave, but also learning, gently, that other dogs bite when they’re not happy with us. A very valuable lesson!
But what if that mother angrily jumped onto her puppy and bit him so hard she injured his leg? What would he learn then – besides not to do what he did? Probably not to trust his mother! And that he’s in constant danger from other dogs. And that he’s not worthy of being treated well by anyone.
And this is the problem with corporal punishment by humans. It’s been around for years because it has worked to teach certain lessons, but more recently, people have come to realize that there are WAY better ways to teach these things! Giving a young child a “time out” where they have to sit by themselves in a corner is a great way to cool them down when they’re acting out, and teaches them that their parent is in charge, as well as the lesson they need to learn. Some child experts even point out that, when a kid is young, if a time out isn’t enough, the parent can just use silly threats of property, like “If you don’t stop that yelling, I’m going to take a pair of your socks away from your dresser,” and it works! The kid is still experiencing the parent having power and setting the boundaries, which the kid needs to see.
(It’s important to always remember, with both children and dogs, that a big part of that little brain wants the grownup to set that strong boundary, so the little one can know for sure that they’re safe in a rational world)
Meanwhile, if a human responds to a dog’s misbehavior by hitting the pooch, what are the lessons? “Humans are dangerous.” “Your human doesn’t love you.” “You deserve to be hit.” Or even… and this is very common… “Human hands are dangerous!” (So guess what happens when a friendly person tries to pet that dog’s head?! You guessed it… CHOMP!)
It used to be very common for humans to train dogs by hitting them with a newspaper. But those same humans were then often surprised when they walked into their living rooms to find the sports and weather in tatters all over the floor. Why would their loving dog destroy that night’s Times?
(I’ll tell you why – because that mutt was SMART! “I’ll chew that paper up before it starts in on ME!”)
Similarly, when an adult slaps or spanks, or really beats, a child, the kid learns so many lessons no one would want them to learn. “My daddy hates me because I was bad.” “I don’t have the right to my own body; it’s something for others to do what they please to.” “The world is a dangerous place; even the tree in my yard is a threat.” And worst, “I cannot trust my parents.”
(And to bring everything full-circle, another lesson a kid could learn is “The appropriate way to express anger is by hurting someone physically.” Which could mean that that kid might end up becoming a man who punches his fiancée!)
Now sometimes you’ll hear humans say, like that football player, that this is how they were raised, and so it’s how they want to raise their kids too. But I’ll argue on that count too. You see, I find, when people say that, that if you ask them more about why they want to continue this ‘tradition,’ they’ll eventually say “My parents worked so hard to make sure I had the opportunities they didn’t, and I don’t want to dishonor them by saying they raised me wrongly.”
But you see, changing how you discipline your kids isn’t insulting your parents. It’s the opposite. You’re just carrying on the great job they did of making sure you give your kids a better life than you had! Your parents weren’t wrong to discipline you in the best way they knew. But you would be wrong to not change to a better way of disciplining, now that you’ve learned it!
(Think of it this way – how would you feel about a doctor who prescribed medicine that wasn’t as good as a more recently-invented pill, and that had more and worse side-effects, just because they wanted to honor the doctor who’d treated them with it thirty years ago?!)
But what about when the parent loses their temper? Well, when I was a puppy, and Handsome was training me, I was absolutely horrible. Chewing and biting all the time, a total pain! He loved me, but he also found me constantly irritating and maddening. One day, he came out of taking a shower, to find that I’d chewed up one of his favorite possessions, and it was all over the floor. Fully enraged, he picked me up and threw me into our back yard. But the second he’d done it, he felt terrible, and ran to me, checking to see if I was all right, and covering me with love.
You see, he’d never struck me before that. He had worked very hard to make sure that I would trust him completely. And here, he really had screwed up!
But you know what? Because this was the only time he did that, I didn’t lose my trust. I knew I’d done something that had hurt him, and I felt bad about it. And I knew that he would never hit me, and that he would most likely never throw me again either! It was okay.
Because hitting me was something I knew he simply wouldn’t do.
Here’s my favorite way of looking at this. Being a child, or a puppy, is like walking out into a new landscape every day. And imagine you walked out one morning, and found a big beautiful pond, covered in ice. And you thought how fun it would be to walk out onto that frozen space. Now of course, you wouldn’t just plop out there, though. You’d gently test the ice with the end of your foot. And if it held, you’d test it by pressing a bit harder. And if it still stayed firm, maybe you’d walk fully onto it and stomp up and down – knowing that, if that ice was going to break, you wanted it to happen where the pond was shallow and you were close to dry land.
And imagine if, when you stomped, instead of the ice holding or breaking, you were suddenly zapped with 50,000 volts of electricity, like a police taser, because someone had set this up to keep people from walking on the ice!!!
What would you learn?
Well, you sure would learn not to walk out there onto the ice. But you’d also learn that ice is dangerous, and that ponds are dangerous. I imagine you’d never dare to learn to skate, or to play hockey. And you’d likely never know the fun of fishing, or swimming in a pond, or even feeding ducks who might live there. You might even learn to distrust all of nature.
Well, that’s what corporal punishment is like. It teaches the right lesson, but with all sort of wrong ones. And it can lead to a profound sense of distrust. In ways that the punisher, the disciplinarian, often doesn’t even know.
So my advice, as always, to all parents, and dog-lovers, is simple: Do the best you can, forgive yourself for the mistakes you’re guaranteed to make, but overall, just come from a place of love and enjoyment. Let that bratty kid and that rotten puppy know that the sight of them is the greatest joy of your life. And, clumsily and fitfully, you will raise someone absolutely wonderful, who will shock you with all they achieve.
Who knows? Maybe they’ll even grow up to become a great, and happy, professional football player!