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.

[silence]

Trigger Warning for discussion of suicide, suicide ideation.

I live in the Magic Valley. At times, it has been referred to as the Tragic Valley.

The latter label applied this weekend.

A student from a nearby high school completed suicide on Friday. On Monday, his friends and classmates staged a walkout, at which point the hand-wringing commenced.

Local media outlets posted the story on their Facebook pages, and the community responded. During the morning show (I moonlight as a morning show personality on Fridays), my friend James talked about the situation and took phone calls from students who wanted to tell the community what was going on. Then we posted a question prompt on our Facebook page. Some of the responses were empathetic. Some were not. It is the second type of response I want to discuss.

Much of the criticism leveled at the students can be distilled down to a main argument: We are the adults. Let us handle this. This sentiment was summed up so perfectly in a comment we got on the radio station’s Facebook page.

You see, they are adults. They understand how sensitive the situation is for the family, friends and their school. They do not resort to anger. Yes, anger is a natural part of grief, but what we need to do is teach our children the right way to deal with their anger and other grief stages.

Do adults have more life experience? Yes. Do teachers and counselors have more training for dealing with this kind of situation? Usually. Are they better at grieving than students? Not necessarily.

My family has a complicated history with mood disorders and suicide ideation. Even staring it in the face hasn’t helped me understand. But I’m also not going to pretend to know how to “make” other people understand, simply by virtue of being an adult. And while it’s easy enough to be an armchair administrator today, I hope that if faced with a similar situation, I’d listen to the content of what the students were trying to communicate, even if their delivery appeared ill-conceived or ill-timed to other adults in the room.

The way I understand it, the students who walked out did so quietly and returned to class relatively quickly. They were frustrated, sad, grief-stricken, angry. All within the range of normal human emotion. But I don’t think this is really about whether or not the students were grieving properly. This is about authority.

Details are still scarce, but we do know that the student completed his suicide on Friday, and that students heard about it and talked to each other via text and social media over the weekend. When it appeared that nothing was being planned at the school for Monday, they coordinated the walk-out. And the fact that they planned it without the prior approval of the school administration is what upsets people. They may couch it as concern for glorifying suicide. It seems to me that what angers them is the students did not follow the adults’ plan for their grief.

I’ve written about the Cult of Compliance before. It’s one of those things that once you see it, you cannot unsee it. This may seem like a bit of a leap, but if you bear with me, you may see it, too.

Although the context was different, this conversation-of-sorts played out like many encounters between the powerful and the powerless. Feeling that no one was listening to them, the powerless (that’s the high school students) say Enough! and offer a demonstration. The powerful, while appearing to hear what the powerless are saying, divert attention from the issue at hand with distractions about timing (You should have waited for the administration to make an announcement), tactics (Leaving class isn’t going to solve anything. You would get further by talking like a mature adult), and appeals to authority (The teachers know what they’re doing. Just wait for them to tell you how to grieve appropriately). Again, as a teacher, I am assuming the teachers were doing the best they could while dealing with the death of yet another student. Most of my frustration isn’t really directed at them, anyway, but at a system that is more concerned with enforcing compliance than it is with comforting the aggrieved. There are people who spent more keystrokes expressing their disapproval for the quiet protest than they dedicate to learning about the underlying factors that may contribute to teen suicide in this region.

Frankly, I find the above sentiments condescending. Downright insulting, if I’m feeling particularly rankled. Yes, young people often need guidance through grief. But so do adults–I went through a thirteen-week support group program to get unstuck from my own grief a few years ago. I am sure the teachers and administrators had the best of intentions for helping their students; after all, they lost someone too. But people who are hurting often hurt other people in the process. And I sure as hell am not going to tell a group of grieving students that their anger is wrong.

All behavior is communication. The students communicated this: We are sad, we are angry, and we have no voice. The adults who felt the need to scold the students communicated this: My discomfort with the way you showed your grief is more important than the reality of your grief.

Sometimes we adults need to remember we don’t have all the answers by sheer virtue of being adults. Sometimes we need to listen. This is one of those times. And we need to listen hard, because we can’t hear the sounds of hearts breaking if we’re too busy scolding them for making a mess.