Cult of Compliance

“I was spanked, and I turned out alright…”

The above headline is not true. The first part is, I guess. However, science demonstrates again and again that spanking, or corporal punishment, or swatting, has lasting detrimental impact on our psyches.

I love science. Especially five decades of science.

Why do parents spank? In my own anecdotal experience, many have said they spank for immediate compliance, when a time-out or a conversation about negative behaviors will not suffice. The lead researcher on the study, Elizabeth Gershoff, stated:

 “We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents’ intended outcomes when they discipline their children.”

Co-author Andrew Grogan-Kaylor said:

“[S]panking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children. Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do.”

In short, spanking has no proven short-term effect.

What about long-term effects? What about we adults who were spanked as children?

The more they were spanked, the more likely they were to exhibit anti-social behavior and to experience mental health problems. They were also more likely to support physical punishment for their own children, which highlights one of the key ways that attitudes toward physical punishment are passed from generation to generation.

We didn’t turn out “alright.” We only think we did, and are thus more likely to continue supporting the use of spanking.

The line that hit me hardest, and I will continue to shout from the rooftops every time someone tries to differentiate between spanking and “real abuse” came toward the end of the press release:

Both spanking and physical abuse were associated with the same detrimental child outcomes in the same direction and nearly the same strength.

The difference between spanking and physical abuse is slight, and only by degrees. Spanking is abuse.

I’ve written about this before, regarding the use of corporal punishment in schools. Physical punishment damages children. It damages the adults who perform it. It damages the bond between the spanker and the spankee. It violates trust, bodily autonomy. A child’s brain cannot discern the difference between a “spank” and a “strike” meant for abuse. A hit is a hit, especially when we’re teaching our children not to hit.

In a country where the Cult of Compliance is the modus operandi from schools through law enforcement, it is not surprising we still cling to outdated modes of discipline in our homes. It doesn’t work. It never worked. Buying into the Cult of Compliance fuels such beliefs as “If he’d just listened the first time…” and “The officer had no choice…” Resorting to violence with our children warps our thinking.

I originally shared the Mic article on my personal Facebook, but the press release from the University of Texas at Austin is necessary reading.


A Tale of Two Idahos… actually, it’s the same Idaho

Content note: gun violence, police violence, police-involved shooting, intersection of race and disability, accidental shooting, human death, animal death

Idaho has made a lot of headlines in the last few years.

During the 2014 legislative session, Idaho lawmakers made us the 7th state to approve conceal carry on college campuses, despite vocal opposition from nearly every stakeholder, and the failure of the same bill in 2011.

In September 2014 the first month of the first semester the law was in effect, a professor shot himself in the foot while teaching on one of our university campuses.

In December, a two-year-old child accidentally shot and killed his mother with a concealed handgun while rummaging in her purse.

I’m starting to see a pattern here.

On Friday, The Guardian ran a lengthy piece on two officer-involved shootings in northern Idaho. From the article:

The first victim was Jeanetta Riley, a troubled 35-year-old pregnant woman, shot dead by police as she brandished a knife outside a hospital in the town of Sandpoint. Her death barely ruffled the tight-knit rural community, which mostly backed the officers, who were cleared of wrongdoing before the case was closed.

The second shooting, in nearby Coeur d’Alene, sparked uproar. There were rallies, protests, sinister threats against the officer responsible, and a viral campaign that spread well beyond the town and drew an apology from the mayor. The killing was ruled unjustified, and the police chief introduced new training for his officers.

The victim of the second shooting: a dog named Arfee.

I live in southern Idaho, a nine-hour drive from Coeur d’Alene. Just 10 minutes away in the town of Filer, an officer shot a dog last year. There was outrage then, too. When the officer was returned to duty, outraged citizens started a petition to get the mayor recalled. Nothing came of the petitions, but they added an eight-hour training course for dealing with dogs.

In the comments surrounding the stories I linked above, a pattern emerges: It was the professor’s fault he got shot–he must have been carrying his gun unsafely. It was the mother’s fault she got shot; her gun was stored in her purse unsafely. Jeanetta Riley deserved to get shot–she was on drugs and she didn’t comply with police directives.

In other responses, to the other stories, a second pattern, another Idaho, emerges: OH MY GOD WHO WOULD SHOOT A DOG?!

These are the comments and messages and conversations I’ve heard over the past seven years: If you respect guns, you’ll be fine. If you raise your kids around guns, they will have a healthy respect of guns. And, likewise, if you listen to the police, you’ll be fine. Everything boils down to this: Just follow the rules, and you won’t get hurt. It follows that if you get hurt (or killed) then you did not follow the rules, the blame falls squarely on you, and you can expect little sympathy. The fact that dogs elicit more sympathy, empathy, and outrage than human lives should tell us that something is wrong with that lens. The fact that Arfee’s owner got an $80,000 settlement, while Jeanetta Riley’s family have not even received an apology, should tell us something is wrong with our system.

The incidents with the dog in Coeur d’Alene and the dog in Filer each prompted targeted training for officers handling potentially aggressive dogs. That is reasonable training to have. The officers also need training in recognizing and deescalating a crisis situation with a person with a mental illness or psychiatric disability. Their department provides it, but neither officer had taken it. That is necessary training to have.

I would like to submit another story for your consideration: In December, police in Twin Falls, Idaho, arrested Randy Scott Hill after a 25-hour standoff, during which time Hill brandished a knife, yelled at police, exited and reentered his home, threw the negotiation phone back at the police, waved a hammer around. No one was injured or killed.

Hill, a white male, survived his encounter with police after they put in 25 hours of patient attempts. Riley, a Native American female, died as a result of her encounter with police after only 15 seconds. Both reportedly have a history of disability and violent behavior; for Riley, the intersection of race with psychiatric disability, as has been well-documented by others, proved fatal.

This is the Cult of Compliance. And here, in Idaho, all of that is wrapped up in the added layer of gun saturation.

Last month, two local schools (a mile from my house) were placed on a three-hour lockdown because a man was walking down the street with two firearms. Police inquiry revealed he was simply doing just that: walking down the street with two firearms. He was within his legal rights to do so. A commenter on the newspaper’s website wrote, I support open carry and I support this kind of response from our educational and law enforcement leaders. This is why Idaho is great. 

The day after the Veronica Rutledge was killed by her 2-year-old in Wal-Mart, the Washington Post wrote a piece of Idaho conceal carry apologetics to indicate that this was so much about guns that it wasn’t about guns:

“In Idaho, we don’t have to worry about a lot of crime and things like that,” [Sandow] said. “And to see someone with a gun isn’t bizarre. [Veronica] wasn’t carrying a gun because she felt unsafe. She was carrying a gun because she was raised around guns. This was just a horrible accident.”

This is the Cult of Compliance: the energy and logical acrobatics required to maintain status quo.

Hair (More or Less)

I have a great many follicles. Those follicles produce a prodigious amount of hair. I was born mostly bald, but by the age of three I had thick hair down to my butt.

I have a student whose hair rivals mine in thickness but far surpasses mine in personality and texture. She reminds me of Miyazaki’s Ponyo: she is loud and expressive and loving and mischievous and her hair matches her mood. Also she loves swimming. And ham. Her hair has been long and curly-wavy as long as she’s been in my class, which has now been three years. When she was in first grade, we spent a lot of time using the quiet room and learning how to deescalate; most of our one-on-one rapport-rebuilding time involved me extracting her cochlear implant from her hair, combing her hair, and either braiding it or putting into a ponytail. Like me, she associates tress-TLC with affection, and I applied it liberally. Bus trips returning home from field trips are challenging for her (really, any transition is hard for her), and I still play with her hair to help her stay relaxed and fall asleep. When a child communicates in unique ways, you learn their language as you help them learn the language of the world.

Third-grade Ponyo hasn’t needed the quiet room in two years. Third-grade Ponyo got her hair cut this winter; it was the shortest haircut she’s had since she enrolled here in preschool. It bounced and swooshed and sproinged with every move she made. She looked lighter and brighter with each step. She practically levitated with each step and couldn’t wait to tell me all about her exciting weekend when Auntie cut her hair. Her fingers were flying with the details. KISS-FIST!! she exclaimed. My hair beautiful! My hair fun! I LOVE IT!

This morning, I arrived at the cafeteria to retrieve my class from breakfast and found Ponyo with red eyes and tears streaming down her face. Her jaw was clenched as firmly as the fist holding her hot pink hairbrush. My alarm bells went into overdrive: this was one frustrated and hurting child.

Ponyo is one of our residential students. She lives at school in the cottage during the week and goes home during the weekends. Except last weekend the ISDB Adaptive Ski and Snowboard Club went on the final weekend trip, so she hasn’t seen her family since March 8. And she’s been with her school friends since March 9. School friends become like siblings, and they bicker. And starting tomorrow is Spring Break. And transitions are hard. So bottled up inside Ponyo are a lot of feelings: she misses her mom, but she knows she’ll spend ten days home with only rudimentary communication; she’s tired of her friends, but she knows these are the most communicative people in her life right now; she’s learning not to be a bully, but her friends don’t always trust her yet; she’s exhausted and excited.

And this morning, after who knows what precipitating events, Ponyo refused to brush her hair.

When I got to the cafeteria, I got the abbreviated version of events and a to-go container of her breakfast. Ponyo refused to brush her hair and left the cottage–that is in violation of the morning rules. She was not permitted to eat until she brushed her hair. As she had not brushed her hair, she had stood in the cafeteria gripping her brush for 30 minutes while her friends ate. She refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, refused to look at any teachers or paraprofessionals in the eye, and now it was time for her 8 a.m. speech therapy session.**

Today the only power Ponyo had was the power to not brush her hair. None of this was about the hair. None of this is about the cottage aide that issued the false choice of do-hair-or-no-breakfast, either.

It’s about the system that told me that fixing her hair after a “blowout” in first grade was denying her the “natural consequences” of her behaviors. The system that labels a child “defiant” instead of “hurting.” The system that invades her personal boundaries to tell her to be respectful to adults. The system that uses or withholds food as part of the behavior management system.

That system is wrong.

It is ableist and dehumanizing to assert that my students can only respond to a reward-and-punishment style of discipline.  They can handle real conversations about expectations and behavior. To insist otherwise is insulting to their intelligence and their humanity.

It compounds the dehumanization to extend consequences beyond the immediate time frame of the behavior; my student will not walk around with unkempt hair all afternoon because she misbehaved in the morning. Teachers are not bullies.

It is harmful to ignore the whole child and focus only on behaviors. All behavior is communication; we need to listen to what our kids are trying to tell us.

It is invasive and hypocritical to disrespect a child in order to teach respect. It’s like striking a child to teach him that hitting is wrong. Or shouting, Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!

It is unhealthy to use food as a bribe or reward; it is unhealthy to withhold or delay food as part of a punishment.

Ponyo felt awful all day. She cried at least half a dozen times. Was brushing her hair worth disrupting her learning today? Was it worth a recess where she refused to go outside because, Heart sad cry?

It’s a complicated issue, all wrapped up in her bouncy, swooshy KISS-FIST hair. Food as punishment. Cult of Compliance. The gendered implications of If you don’t brush your hair, it will look messy all day, as though messy hair supersedes her need to transition home smoothly, feel success in math, and read her favorite graphic novel.

gif animation: Ponyo (as a fish) gnaws on a piece of ham.

gif animation: Ponyo (as a fish) gnaws on a piece of ham.

**The speech therapist was amazing this morning. She always uses a calm voice and clear signing with my kids, provides clear choices and follows through. When Ponyo came back at 8:30, she was doing much better. Another aide saw us in the hallway later having some special teacher-and-Ponyo time and stopped to ask about her My Little Pony shirt, which brightened her spirits right away. There are a lot of positive supports built into our school. There’s a lot that needs work, though, too.

The Boss of My Body

Content note: bodily autonomy, child abduction, stranger danger, child sexual abuse, classroom discipline

Each of my students is the boss of his or her own body. That sentence may seem simple, straight-forward, and fairly basic. But the more I dig into it, the more radical it becomes for me to abide by it in my classroom.

I grew up in an era of Stranger Danger. When I was four years old, Jacob Wetterling was kidnapped. The fact that it happened only three hours from my hometown, which is just a stone’s throw in rural areas like North Dakota, made it hit pretty hard. I remember asking my mom if the Jacob boy was home with his mommy yet. I also remember yearly Red Flag Green Flag® programs. But I lived in a small town, where no one was a stranger, so it was an odd juxtaposition for me.

As time has passed, our fear of strangers has reached a fever pitch. Neighbors call the police when they see children walking home from school unattended. Kids are often not allowed to play in their own front yards. But stranger abductions like Jacob Wetterling’s are extremely rare, so our focus on Stranger Danger is often misplaced. What we need are kids (and teens who used to be kids) who develop a sense of autonomy over their own bodies, and who trust their gut when it comes to saying no.

In college, I worked at a daycare and after-school program for kids with special needs. One of my favorite clients was a child who loved to hug. He was full of love and wanted to share it with everyone. When he got to middle school, his teachers came down on him hard and said that hugs were no longer age appropriate. Um what? I don’t think people grow out of hugging at some magical age, and his teachers’ concern about the inappropriateness of him hugging girls and women missed the point. The issue wasn’t age–it was consent.

Starting in first grade, my students ask for hugs. I usually say yes. Their friends usually say yes. But when they say no, we accept the no.

I have a student who uses a wheelchair. Her friends are prone to over-helping, and that contributes to disempowerment. So we have a two-part rule: the chair is an extension of her bubble, and everyone must ask before offering help or push her chair. And by everyone, I mean everyone: students and staff. If she says no, we accept the no.

I don’t use time-out as a behavioral consequence very often. I like to create a community with my students, and sending the message that they can be banished for rule infractions does not sit well with me. Most rule infractions can be handled with a look or a conversation, usually short. My students are capable of discussing their behavior and any precipitating factors; they do not behave in a vacuum, and we all know this. I respect them enough to have these dialogues. The only times I use a time-out or a break is if a student is making the classroom emotionally or physically unsafe for the rest of the students. Then we exit the room to have our conversation (ideally). Here’s where it gets radical: if a student says no, we accept the no. 

If a student will not remove himself or herself from the classroom when asked, directed, or reminded, the rest of my students practice self-care. The move to a different part of the room, bring their work to the couches in the hallway, or if the student is still physically safe, they have been known to assert themselves by saying, You are not being fair to my feelings and my learning, and I think you need a break. 

I play the long game with my students. And the long game takes time and infinite patience. The long game does not depend on immediate compliance, but on multiple small conversations and reminders and tending the seed that sprouts and grows into an understanding of why we behave the way we do. It grows slowly. Sometimes painfully so.

I will not violate my student’s bodily autonomy to enforce immediate compliance; I’m trying to dismantle the Cult of Compliance, not reinforce it. My desire for order, or respect, or discipline, or consequences, or whatever classroom management buzzword of the week happens to be floating around does not supersede a student’s right to be the boss of their body. That is an abuse of my power and position. If I teach my students they are the bosses of their bodies, and then demonstrate that as an adult I can violate that rule, what message does that send? Since the majority of sexual abuse cases involve an adult known to the child, and since children often get in trouble for telling their adults no, am I not upholding rape culture by rejecting the very word I am trying to build up??

When a student says no, I don’t remind them to be “polite.” No is no; the content is more important than the tone. And the content of NO can’t get much clearer than that.

For some great Safe Kids rules, including I AM THE BOSS OF MY BODY, click here!

For a perspective on the cost of physically forcing compliance, and what that means for the bodily autonomy of an autistic child (as told by a parent), read this: the cost of compliance is unreasonable.

For a perspective on those outcomes, as told by an autistic self-advocating adult, read this (trigger warning: stories of abuse, poverty, discrimination): No You Don’t 

MDA Lock-Up and the Cult of Compliance

I took yesterday off from the social medias. It was a holiday and I was sad and tired.

On Facebook this morning, I read about the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s current fundraising effort.

MDA Lock-Up

MDA Lock-Up

I personally know a few people who are participating in the local version of this event. It is my intent to think critically about the power and language behind the Muscular Dystrophy Association using prison-culture imagery for their fundraising efforts, the kind of privilege inherent in that kind of decision, and how that plays into the Cult of Compliance.

This is not the first time a national organization dedicated to serving a population of people with disabilities has used police imagery in their fundraising campaigns. Last year, Special Olympics Washington organized a number of Run From the Cops events. Such an event is inherently privileged. It completely ignores the context of deadly encounters between the police and people with disabilities.

The troublesome imagery in the MDA fundraiser goes further than the encounters with police. People with disabilities have fraught and often dangerous experiences in the prison system. The Rikers Island abuse cases focused heavily on inmates with mental illnesses. Neli Latson, a young black man with autism, spent the better part of a year in solitary confinement. His initial arrest stemmed from a loitering complaint and the police officer that didn’t understand his autism. In January, Georgia executed Warren Hill, a man with an intellectual disability whose execution had been stayed several times before. Many of the articles covering the execution wrote that Hill “claimed” disability; a clearer example of ableist privilege I cannot find right now.

In the world of disability advocacy, police violence against people with disabilities is a significant issue. We live in a culture that has made immediate and total compliance to directives from police and other authority figures absolutely mandatory. Failure to comply has tragic results. Inability to comply is never considered. The intersection of disability and race–in the cases of Neli Latson and Warren Hill–is an especially dangerous place into which to be squeezed.

It is in this context that I find myself fielding requests to donate to the MDA fundraiser to help my friends “make bail.”

People with disabilities don’t get the chance to crowdsource their bail. Men of color with intellectual disabilities don’t have flashy web campaigns and cute kids to tug at the heartstrings and open the pursestrings.


For a post about why I later reconsidered and retracted the cuteness of this post, please click here.

Description: A black frame with the words WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE printed on the edges. In the middle is a doll of the My Little Pony/Equestria Girl named Fluttershy, held by an out-of-frame child.

This happened. It’s cute. It’s actually tied to my broader thoughts on obedience, compliance, and playing the long game. Also about sexualized dolls targeted at elementary school aged children.

But for now, just enjoy a cute picture of Fluttershy, the baddest criminal in the school.

“Swatting is acceptable in certain situations”

I’ve written this blog post four times. I’ve written it angry, discouraged, royally pissed off, and totally deflated. I’m not sure what mood I am experiencing at the moment. It’s a mix of tired and something.

The other day, a friend posted an article about using restorative practices rather than zero-tolerance policies to address behavioral infractions, thus cutting off the flow to the school-to-prison pipeline. I was very interested in this article, as I have been following the writings of David Perry as he develops and shares his essays and posts on the Cult of Compliance, which he explains thusly:

Here’s some of the thinking behind the “cult” language. I could have said a culture of compliance, or a culture that doesn’t accept non-compliance, or any number of other ways of framing the problem. Cult, though, implies an unthinking adherence to an idea, principle, group, prophet or deity that you must venerate at all costs. To me, in our police culture but also our American culture more broadly, we venerate compliance.  It’s not just the police to blame, but all of us who accept the “he/she didn’t comply” rationale in any given case. (emphasis in original) (source)

I should have known not to get involved in a comment discussion; I end up frustrated and jaded and I smash my face on the keyboard. The first three comments made it clear that Jerkface McPoopyhead (not the original poster) had either not read the article or did not comprehend the article he’d read. He first asked the original poster what the alternative should be (even though the entire article was about the alternative: restorative policies. He must have only read the headline). He issued quite a missive about how sending kids to the principal doesn’t work and suspension is the only way to punish both the kids and their parents. He peppered his comments with references to his experiences in law enforcement, which made the leap from Cult of Compliance (as related to police) to the Cult of Compliance in schools an easy one to make.

I can’t break his arguments down into component parts; it was my first big reminder that just as spheres of oppression intersect, so do spheres of prejudice. Very rarely is someone just racist or just sexist. Mr. McPoopyhead said the school-to-prison pipeline doesn’t exist because rules are not actually enforced unfairly. Blacks are disproportionately represented in the discipline statistics because they disproportionately break the rules. The reason is they all come from broken families, because the black family unit is deteriorating, because black welfare mothers kick the men out so they can collect more benefits. And everyone knows that fathers (men) are the only people who can provide any kind of structure for children and teens, and, by extension, for society. See? Gender essentialism and racism all wrapped up in one little package. I can’t extract one from the other. It’s ampersandwiched bigotry, coming to you live on Facebook.

I wanted to let it go. But I couldn’t. As an ally, I cannot remain silent if I see racism in action. Moreover, he said that things were better back when we could swat kids on the backside. He held himself up as an example of a kid who knew how to behave because of corporal punishment. I put on my typing gloves.

The conversation was like playing Calvinball, except with an adult with a who is going to become a teacher some day.

I started small: “Swatting and spanking children is not an option. Please stop holding it up as the reason you turned into a well-adjusted adult.” We should not need to have that conversation, but I will continue having it, even as every person who uses such an argument loses all credibility with me.

Physical discipline damages children. It does. There is mounds of evidence to support that assertion. If we are going to be discussing the problems with school culture, or with school discipline, or with the preschool-to-prison pipeline (which is a real thing, people), I feel like we need to at least have this recognition in common. We need to at least be on the same page and agree that physical punishment does not belong in our schools.

And yet, I found myself staring his reply in the face: “Swatting is acceptable in certain situations.” On the same day I read a new report that “minority children, and disabled children, make up the largest majority of children paddled by their teachers.”


Take note of the recent heavy press given to police brutality, aggression, excessive force. Call it what you will, but we have a problem. There is an underlying belief that some people will only respond to force. That some people just have it coming. That a physical response is necessary for failing to comply with verbal directives given by a school resource officer, or a police officer, or off-duty deputies. Because this is where it starts.

The more I see it, the more I cannot ignore it. So when someone asserts that black children and teens are more inherently deviant, and that swatting is acceptable, I will engage. Because minority children and children with disabilities are disproportionately represented on the receiving end of corporal punishment and zero-tolerance policies, and we should be seeking restorative practices for all our students. Because the #CultofCompliance depends upon early adoption, early indoctrination. The #CultofCompliance depends upon the silence of bystanders to maintain its foothold in our schools and in our police stations.

And I will not be silent.