Corporal Punishment, Reporting for Duty

How many of you have children?  Let’s see a show of hands (no fists, please).  My wife and I don’t, even though she wants to have a baby, and I don’t know the first thing about raising kids.  I only know how to make them.  Let that serve as a disclaimer for what I’m about to tell you about what I’ve seen and heard when it comes to corporal punishment here in the merry old land of South Korea.

Fortunately, my parents never hit me as a child, or even as an adult.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but they never shot or stabbed me, or roasted me alive with a flame thrower either.  Neither my mother nor my father ever threw a grenade at me, riddled me with machine gun bullets, strangled me with barbed wire, stomped on my face until my brains shot out my ears, put me on a rack or Procrustean bed, or disemboweled me with a chainsaw.  In short, they had a lot of self-restraint.

My wife Jina, who is Korean, claims that her father, who is now one of the gentlest creatures you could imagine, a true Christian in every sense of the word, used to hit her calves with a stick when she misbehaved as a little girl.  Her experience is not at all unusual for Korean people.  Most of my students claim that their grade school teachers used to whack their palms with a bamboo switch, and my wife’s niece received several painful lashes on the backs of her hands from her math tutor, who subsequently lost his job, the sadistic piece of shit.  (This may be because corporal punishment is now officially illegal in Korea.  Not that that prevents the practice from continuing, at least for male students, as I’ve heard from some who’ve had pain inflicted on them recently by excitable teachers, and from a former co-worker who worked at an elementary school for a year or so and said that it was common practice for some of his male co-workers to develop their golf or baseball swings on the backsides of students–not that they used golf clubs or baseball bats to do it.)

Jina and I teach a group of twenty-plus kindergarteners once a week at the library owned by her church.  Today I arrived before Jina and was stunned by the sight of a woman disciplining her two year old, who’d just knocked over a wastebasket, by flicking his forehead with her finger.  He covered his eye and winced.  What made it especially disconcerting was that she smiled at him as she did it.  (This same woman apprehended the toddler a few weeks ago while he was trying to run out of the building and spanked him several times–hard.  She then smiled at those of us who saw it happen, as if to say, “Kids–what can you do?”)

When I mentioned it to Jina later while we were waiting for the bus, she said the reason the woman smiled was to let her son know that she loved him.  I didn’t bother pointing out that this sounded like a surefire way to confuse the boy by sending him mixed signals, basking in a private moment of cultural superiority.  The reason I didn’t want to pursue it was that I know it wouldn’t have led anywhere, that it would have gotten us into a fight, and I was too tired and depressed to resort to that kind of vivacious animosity, preferring to stew in the solitary confinement of my perennial mid-life crisis.

Still, it’s hard not to feel like some kind of an enabler when you sit idly by while some woman attacks her own kid.  Not to say that I’d necessarily be any better as a parent–probably not.  I know that Jina would have no qualms about hitting our child if we were crazy or dumb enough to have one (I say that not out of some kind of blanket cynical rejection of children, but because our relationship is so messed up, adding a baby to the mix could only serve to compound an already volatile cocktail of intolerance, disagreement, and mutual exasperation).  I’d hope I’d have the presence of mind not to condone it and, moreover, to roundly condemn it, and certainly not to participate in it myself.  At least, as I said, I have my own parents’ pacific example as a model.

But I’m inclined to agree with journalist Chris Hedges, who writes a weekly column for every Monday, when he says that the Occupy movement must resist any temptation to use violence–either against people or property–as it will destroy their credibility and make them lose the moral high ground to their oppressors.  He points out the paradox of finding power in powerlessness, the formula introduced by Buddha, pitched by Jesus, and developed and perfected (as much as anyone has been able to thus far in this imperfect world) by Gandhi and Martin Luther King.  

King referred to it as “the weapon of love.”  Let those of us who have the wherewithal to reproduce use it in raising our children too, so that they may raise their hearts and their voices, but never their fists.


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