The concept of spanking as part of training a child seems to be at odds with the basic tenet of Libertarian philosophy: Do not initiate violence. Most libertarian discussion assumes adult to adult interaction, because the autonomy of adult individuals is straight forward. There is an equality among adults, a self-responsibility and self-direction, that is intuitively understood, even if not always openly admitted. But the parent-child relationship is different.
The mention of spanking triggers many people into a defensive frame of mind. All they hear is “hitting” or “angry beatings.” For this reason, let me make an attempt to define spanking and aggression.
Aggression is the act of using violent means to dominate another person, pursuing the result that the attacked person must concede the attacker’s superior power. It strongly implies destructive hostility to gain the power. The person subdued by aggression is not allowed any real power over his own substance or being. The aggressor can take what he wants and do what he wants to the overpowered one as long as he has the continued power of violence at his disposal.
However, power over others does not always mean that aggression has been used to attain it. Particularly in the parent-child relationship, a child is inferior to the adult in many practical ways. For the first few years of existence, the very life of the child depends upon some parental figure providing for and protecting him. If a toddler accidentally starts to step into a busy street, the watchful parent will yank him to safety. If an adult makes a similar mistake, an effort may be made to save them, but no one is watching intently over other adults because there is a high degree of expectation for self-responsibility.
Now, suppose your toddler has found some perverse delight in sticking pieces of metal into a electrical outlet. Anyone who says the answer is just to watch the child more closely has not met some of the children I have. When a child gets it into their head to try to get away with something, they can exhibit amazing creativity. Sure, the first time, you may just scold them, but if there are multiple events, you will naturally consider other methods to keep the child from killing himself. What is more humane? Tying him to a bedpost or a few spankings to help him learn self-control?
Spanking, in the truest understanding of the word, is not about subjugation or physical damage. It is about letting a child experience a much lessor pain to help them understand consequences and self-control. The sting of a spanking is worth the potential to learn the lesson. I say “potential” because a wise parent knows that discipline is not about crushing a child’s will, but rather about directing the child toward good choices. Some consequences are beyond the scope of a child’s mind, spanking makes serious lessons available to them at a much lower cost.
So, why do I think this does not violate the non-aggression principle? After all, we don’t spank adults who are clearly being irresponsible and have important lessons to learn. Unfortunately, logic and maturity of character are choices some adults don’t make, even though they have been given ample opportunity. Why are children given special consideration?
First of all, as already discussed, it would be cruel to let a dependent child suffer the full weight of adult consequences. Children don’t have the ability to understand and evaluate life like adults do. Even selfish, dishonest, or lazy adults have a high degree of capability to know what the results might be of what they choose. They also have comparatively much greater physical stature, mental cognizance, and social choices to help them problem solve effectively. Not so for children.
Very few people would argue against the unique role parents have in a child’s life. A child is born to specific parents. Unless there are extreme circumstances, that bond is like no other. And while there are no perfect parents, there are no perfect children either. All involved know that it is the job of parents to do the best they can to train the child for adult life. Even the child knows from a very early age that their parent is uniquely important to them. The parent quickly becomes much more than a caretaker. The parent must help the child develop skills and discernment. To leave the child to his own devices is rightly termed neglect.
It is a hard fact of life that not all important lessons are learned willingly. It is a parent’s job to guide, sometimes quite firmly, into learning as situations arise. I’m not talking about academics here. Academics or vocational learning will follow with astonishing ease if lessons of character are learned.
There is another important difference between parental discipline and aggression: A parent is preparing a child for a a future independent life. This is often done by providing incentives to guide the child to make beneficial choices, to help them learn self-control and clear thinking, to stimulate the realization of a world of people beyond their own immediate desires.
There are many non-physical ways to provide such guidance most of the time, but it is a rare child who will not at some point need the temporary, loving application of a spanking. To remove this tool of training from a parent’s options is to strip them of real authority in their household of responsibility.
Now, I know that many libertarians and peace-loving parents have a negative gut reaction to the word authority, so let me try to explain. The degree of responsibility expected of parents necessitates authority over children until an age when significant independence is possible. Responsibility and authority are two sides of the same coin. Probably everyone would agree that children need total parental oversight until age 8. This is probably actually true until about 12 or 13 years old. After that age, the parent-child relationship is significantly different. A child is now capable of very adult thinking and work, and probably doesn’t like being called a child anymore. He has a more complete sense of autonomy.
If trust has been nurtured, there will likely be an overall deference to parental leadership, because a wise young person of this age recognizes his own limits, much like any adult can see their own weaknesses and lack of knowledge in given areas. There is also the likelihood that the young person is still living in the household of the parent, so some of the aspects of respecting another’s property are applicable. The young person does not co-own the household just because he grew up in it. Practically speaking, a young person of this age could set out on the adventure of life with reasonable hopes of success, if the government would let him.
We must be careful to understand the difference between having authority and claiming authority. Parents have authority, alongside with responsibility, over their children. This is innate in the set-up of being born into a family that is by design destined to take care of children. Adults can only claim authority over other adults, often using aggression to try to validate that claim. Parents use their temporary authority, which sometimes includes spanking, to prepare their children for the ultimate freedom from authority. Governments attempt to keep everyone in a child-like status in perpetuity. Parental authority, even if imperfectly wielded, is a source of security to a child, protecting him from others AND himself. Government authority denies other adults the opportunity to put into action lessons learned from their parents about how to use their freedom.
Parenting requires patience and creativity. Sometimes the best approach in a given circumstance is to firmly incentivize a child toward more self-control. No one is in a better position than a parent to judge what a child needs. There may be instances where closely connected adults may deem it best to intervene when a particular parent is putting a child at risk, but in most cases no one will be better at making decisions for the child than their very own parent. Loving discipline is NOT an act of selfish, hostile violence to harm and humiliate a child because of inconvenient behavior. If someone is doing that and calling it spanking, they are wrong. Spanking, administered by a caring parent (which most are), can be an important way to help a child learn not to harm himself or others. That way, the child will be much less likely to initiate aggression against others as an adult.