The Art of Spanking
So, thanks again
for the love in the cradle
and all of the changes that kept me dry.
And thanks again
for the love at our table
and tannin' my bottom when I told you a lie . . .
It’s a tear-jerker of a song, and the only thing that rescues Ricky Skaggs’ “Thanks Again” from excessive sentimentality is the fact that every word of it is true. But then again, it was a tear-jerker of a story that I was reading when that song started playing in my head.
The story appeared at Salon.com, and it was about parents spanking children, so right there from the get-go you’re bracing yourself for another left-wing diatribe against what my parents, and their parents, and, well, a fair number of the parents I’ve ever known did and do. And let us remember, wise King Solomon told us, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son.”
Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz were of a mind to take Proverbs 13:24 literally. Now I remember Dad’s belt and Mom’s wooden spoon, but neither would qualify as a “rod” in the literalist of senses. A length of quarter-inch plastic plumbing supply line comes closer. It was with such an instrument that the Schatzes (allegedly) beat their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Lydia, within an inch of her life, then proceeded to go another inch or two.
The beating apparently lasted for hours, and after the girl took her last breath, her lungs and heart just shut down, thanks to the amount of damage inflicted betimes.
The couple from Paradise, California, now faces a charge of murder, as well as more abuse charges pertaining to some of their surviving eight children, one of whom was hospitalized with massive bruising.
Another couple from “rural Tennessee” may face charges in connection to this case. It was Michael and Debi Pearl who suggested to the Schatzes that they buy the quarter-inch pipe and gave them a multitude of ideas about “Biblical chastisement.” In fact, they’ve given nearly a million-and-a-half people those ideas, because that’s the number of copies of To Train Up a Child that their representative claims to have sold.
When news accounts of this story first hit, the blogosphere lit up like a Christmas tree, and the Salon author graciously takes note of the fact that it was Christians who were first in line to condemn the ritual rod administration taught by the Pearls and practiced by the Schatzes.
One such condemnation was written by a “Laurie M,” who describes them as the warmest, most thoughtful people you’d ever meet, but tells of how the Schatzes had suddenly left their conservative congregation over an untold doctrinal dispute. “The Pearl Method was the missing link,” writes Laurie. “[I]t appears they were following Pearl teachings very carefully—in doctrine and in practice.”
One of those teachings has to do with “living the sanctified life.” It’s the sort of language that rolls off the tongue with ease among King-James-only fundies who fear Pool Tables and medicinal wine from a teaspoon.
Certainly, Saint James wasn’t joking when he said that “Pure religion” is “to keep oneself unspotted from the world.” But what does that mean? For some it means following neat lists of dos and don’ts. Check off every item on your list, and, congratulations! You are “sanctified.”
Thanks to religious publishing and the world-wide web, American Christianity now abounds in little lists of dos and don’ts, often with the scientific patina of self-help or psychology. “Parenting” itself is treated as a science, and the godly (or “well-adjusted”) child as little more than the right side of an equation.
Skipping ahead, one might counter that books that spell out what it means to “dare to discipline” are necessary in today’s disconnected world. And that what we need are more sound volumes like X or Y or Z, and less of the Pearls.
But what if “parenting” is less of a science and more of an art, something—like the fiddle—that you have to learn literally at the hands of someone else with experience and skill? Something that a thousand you-didn’t-know-my-father’s can’t change. What if the “pure religion” of which James wrote can only be found in a lifetime of struggle against sin within a flesh-and-blood community of families guided by a pastor? How did Israel know what Solomon meant by “the rod”? Why in the world didn’t he, or James, or even Our Lord spell out neatly the seven steps to better finances, or marriages, or parenting?
For taking me fishin,' and flyin' my kites,
And tuckin' me in, yes, night after night—
To my beautiful life-long friends,
Hey, Mom and Daddy, thanks again.
This article first appeared in the April 2010 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.