The Church and the Trapezius Muscle
by Shaun Horton
The trapezius is a muscle that extends from the base of the neck to just below the shoulder blade, and appears to serve little purpose other than to feel pain. It occasionally assists in movements of the neck and arm, but mostly it gets sore when you have been sitting at a computer for too long. According to James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family, the trapezius muscle also provides an ideal means of disciplining uncooperative children. Simply grasp the muscle firmly where the shoulder meets the neck, and squeeze. The child will be pacified immediately, and parental authority will be restored.
Fig. 1: Nature’s mute button
In 1970, James Dobson’s Dare to Discipline sought to put the pain back into child rearing. He presented his first book as a corrective to the “permissiveness” that had crept into American parenting since the publication of Benjamin Spock’s Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946. Dobson blamed the decline of Protestant authority in public life directly on America’s infatuation with permissive parenting. Permissive parents indulged their children’s desires without exerting the control needed to inculcate them with discipline and respect for authority. Spock’s detractors argued that love and nurture were not enough to raise a healthy child. Children needed discipline.
Dobson considered pain a necessary tool to that end. Children were naturally rebellious, prone to open defiance of parental authority and ill-equipped to deal with their own sinful natures. When authority was challenged, that challenge had to be met decisively – with pain. Otherwise the child might grow up with no genuine respect for authority of any kind, be it parental, governmental or divine. By denying the discipline that pain helped to inculcate, parents were unwittingly raising children who would be receptive to the hedonism and radicalism of the antichristian political leftists who plagued American college campuses.
Despite the traditional acceptance of spanking in our society, we tend to consider pain in itself a negative force, even a destructive one. In her discussion of torture, Elaine Scarry portrays pain as an appropriation of the victim’s agency. For Scarry, intense pain subverts speech, rendering the victim inarticulate. Pain becomes the “cultural insignia” of the regime that its administrator represents, allowing the administrator to assert the regime’s authority when no other argument for its legitimacy will suffice. It is a foolproof way to turn a defiant “no” into a submissive “yes.”
Dobson had a chance to use his neck-squeezing technique during the turbulent 1960s at a local drug store. A group of teenage boys, about 14 years old, were running out of a neighboring hardware store, taunting the angry proprietor for being “Jewish and rather overweight.” They had run down the isles, knocking bottles and paint cans off the shelves, leaving the place in disarray. They recognized Dobson as he approached them. He had chased them out of the drug store earlier that afternoon, and was now returning to pick up an item he had forgotten to purchase.
Glaring up at Dobson, one of the boys yelled, “You just hit me! I’ll sue you for everything you’re worth.” Dobson put one hand on either side of the boy’s neck and squeezed. That shut him up. The boy collapsed. His friends fled. Before leaving, one of the other boys said to Dobson, “I’ll bet you’re a school teacher, aren’t you?” (He was.) A police officer later told him that the same group of boys had been terrorizing local businesses for weeks, but their parents had refused to discipline them or cooperate with police. Dobson’s account of the confrontation implied that the barabarism of these unruly youths had stemmed from an unhealthy lack of pain in their upbringing. The failure to apply systematically what Dobson had provided in one moment had produced a pack of chronic delinquents.
Dr. Dobson would probably not like Scarry’s assessment of pain-as-torture being applied to the case of corporal punishment. True, both the parent and the torturer use pain to alter the subject’s speech, to turn no into yes, defiance into obedience. But Dobson would find this view too oppressive. As critics of Scarry have pointed out, pain is a polyvalent phenomenon. It can be an obliterative force that constricts language, but it can also be a creative force that informs the articulation of meaningful experiences.
Dobson stressed the importance of applying just the right severity of pain when punishing a child. Parents needed to be aware of their children’s emotional states, punishing them with just enough pain to make them cry with sincerity. (Fake crying was to be ignored.) This emotional catharsis left the child uniquely sensitive to parental influence. It was during these moments of catharsis that parents needed to be reconciliatory towards their children, allowing the painful experience to strengthen the bond between them.
“After the emotional ventilation, the child will often want to crumple to the breast of his parent, and he should be welcomed with open, warm, loving arms. At that moment you can talk heart to heart. You can tell him how much you love him and how important he is to you…This kind of communication is not made possible by other disciplinary measures, including standing the child in the corner or taking away his firetruck.” (Dobson, Dare to Discipline 35)
This post-cathartic communication made the pain meaningful. It allowed the parent to emphasize that it was the defiance that was being condemned, not the child. It allowed the parent to heal as well as to hurt. Most importantly, it allowed the confrontation between parent and child to be framed as a learning experience, one in which the child, with the aid of an authoritative parent, moved a little closer to maturity.
Once the defiance was corrected, the child had work to do as well. Punishment – corporal and otherwise – was part of the process of teaching children to control themselves in a society that no longer seemed to value self-control. Dobson emphasized that the child’s will was not to be broken, but “shaped.” Children had to cultivate their own virtues. Adults had to instill within them the desire and the wherewithal to do it. To accomplish this, parents needed to impress upon their children the “cultural insignia” of their parental regime. They had to subvert their rebellious children’s attempts to control the home. Parental authority, Dobson argued, must be absolute and unquestionable.
With the right degree of control, corporal punishment became an extension of the natural laws of cause and effect. Just as the pain of a hot stove taught a child not to touch it, so the pain administered by a loving and well-disciplined parent taught a child not to challenge parental authority.
From Dobson’s perspective, this use of pain might more closely resemble Scarry’s description of work. For Scarry, work is the business of creating new things in the world: a bench out of wood, a sculpture out of clay, a story out of memories. In Scarry’s terms, pain is an obliterative force for “unmaking” the subject’s world, while work is an act of “making.” Work entails the “aversive intensity” of pain, but mitigates that intensity into “controlled discomfort” in the course of making new things.
For parents, proper punishment entailed the aversive intensity of self-discipline. It was work – difficult work, as any parent can attest. Lazy parents nagged their children, yelled at them, or put up with their misbehavior. If a parent failed to do the necessary work on the child, the child’s rebellious streak would grow and solidify. By late adolescence, the child’s personality would be almost irrevocably warped.
Dobson’s early books contained stories of spoiled children who turned on their doting parents like wild animals, including one account of a teenage girl named Becky who bludgeoned her mother in the head during a party. Becky left her mother bleeding and unconscious in the upstairs bathroom. Then she went downstairs, as though nothing had happened, to dance with the “mob of dirty, profane teenagers” who had “swarmed into the house, breaking and destroying the furnishings as they came.”
Michael Fisher (CC BY-NC 2.0)
“Mob” appears to have been the accepted collective noun for dirty, profane teenagers.
The image of the teenage mob was a familiar and powerful one in 1970. Its use in Dobson’s grisly example of intergenerational conflict was not a coincidence. The success of Dare to Discipline and its sequels, Hide or Seek and The Strong-Willed Child, lay in their ability to subsume religion and politics under the more immediate everyday concerns of conservative Christian parents. They advanced the view that much of the church’s most important work in the world was being done in the home by nurturing mothers and hard working fathers. Dobson’s advice required the maintenance of a patriarchal social order in the home. If children did not know how to submit to traditional patriarchal authority, then they could not appreciate the importance of submitting to God.
Herein lay the inextricable political implications of corporal punishment. Like Becky’s home, the patriarchal family was under attack. Feminists denigrated the homemaker in favor of the working woman. Movies and television glorified sex, violence, and unconventional family arrangements. Secularists methodically chipped away at the conservative evangelical heritage of the public school system, while proponents of “free love” threatened to do the same to the institution of marriage. By attacking the traditional family, they attacked evangelicalism and threatened the psychological well-being of American children.
Dobson wrote Dare to Discipline with the spectacle of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in recent memory. During the months following the convention, one explanation for the chaos surrounding it resurfaced frequently: the young activists involved had been spoiled as children, and were now incapable of functioning as rational, mature adults. Raised in a world of material abundance and instant gratification, pampered by permissive parents, they suffered from low self-esteem and an inflated sense of entitlement. Sure, they might have some legitimate complaints regarding the unequal treatment of black citizens or women, but they lacked the capacity to form rational goals and to pursue those goals responsibly.
Abbie Hoffman: a kid who should have been spanked
Dobson’s manifesto on discipline developed this theme into a sustainable framework for understanding the apparent declension of Christian values during the 1960s. In Focus on the Family literature, the Sixties became the decade in which things went wrong, when a society dominated by Christian values lost its way.
Corporal punishment was more than a tool to safeguard children against growing up to become psychopaths. It was part of a broader project to correct the errant course set by the previous generation of parents, a crucial strategy for training up a child in the way that he should go. Beginning in the late 1980s, Focus on the Family’s literature began to take on a more overtly political bent, encouraging its members to actively lobby for institutional enforcement of a conservative Christian way of life.
“Picket an abortion clinic. Serve on the hospital lay committee. Take a teacher to dinner. Examine the policies of your local library. Support your neighborhood crisis pregnancy center. Accept a pregnant teenager into your home…Support the work of your church in reaching a lost and dying world for Christ. And by all means, do these things in a spirit of love that would be honoring to the One who sent us.” (Dobson, Children at Risk 41)
Parents needed to take control of themselves, of their communities, and of their children in order to safeguard their children’s freedom. God had designed humanity to be self-reliant and spiritually mature, but only through “controlled discomfort” in the service of careful cultivation could this design be realized. This cultivation extended outside the home to every institution that affected the lives of young Christians. Spiritual life, political life and domestic life were all inseparable parts of the same work. In order to make Christian children, parents had to make a Christian world.