Corporal Punishment and Primetime TV

by Doug Snauffer

The subject of corporal punishment is seldom addressed on TV these days, but that hasn’t always been the case.  Television periodically changes to reflect society (or perhaps vice-versa), and the idea of paddling a child is pretty much taboo in our time, particularly on TV.  But back in the 1950s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and even into the ‘80s, most fictional parents lived by the motto “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” At least that’s what TV producers wanted viewers to believe.

The issue was addressed — with a bit of a twist — on the CBS sitcom Family Affair.  In the episode “Love Me, Love Me Not” (12/5/66) young Jody (Johnny Whitaker) witnessed a friend being spanked.  8The boy’s father explained to Jody that he only punished his son because he loves him and wants him to behave and to stay out of trouble. This led Jody to question his Uncle Bill’s (Brian Keith) love since Bill had never paddled him.  His solution was a streak of bad behavior that would leave his uncle with no alternative but to discipline him. But Bill, being a relatively new and inexperienced father, was hesitant to resort to corporal punishment.

Brian Keith (left) and Johnny Whitaker in Family Affair.

Bill was eventually clued in to the cause of Jody’s bad behavior, and this time gave him a swat on the behind — with his hand, not a paddle — to which Jody responded with a big, satisfied smile.

Perhaps the most notable program to examine is The Andy Griffith Show.  Many times in the early episodes of the series, Andy Taylor (Andy Griffith) set his young son Opie (Ronny Howard) straight with the threat of a “whippin”.  For instance, in the episode “Mr. McBeevee” (10/1/62), Opie made friends with a telephone lineman named Mr. McBeevee (Karl Swenson), who was stringing a new phone cable through the woods.  The man wore tree-climbing spurs on his boots and a tool belt to carry the many tools — or “extra hands” — that he needed for his trade. When Opie described his new friend to Andy and Barney (Don Knotts) as a man who “walks in the treetops, wears a silver hat, has twelve extra hands, blows smoke from his ears, and jingles when he walks,” they laughed it off as an imaginary friend the boy created.

Later however, when Opie shows up with a quarter and claims that Mr. McBeevee gave it to him, Andy insists that he admit that his new friend is only imaginary.  Opie refuses, even though the consequence will be a paddling. But when Andy goes to the boy’s room to punish him, he realizes that Opie is more concerned that his father doesn’t believe him than he is about being spanked.  Andy decides not to follow through, later explaining to Barney that “a whole lot of times I’ve asked [Opie] to believe things that, to his mind, must have seemed just as impossible.”

Karl Swenson (left) and Ronny Howard in The Andy Griffith Show.

Andy had faith in his son despite Opie’s fantastic story.  At that point Andy needed to clear his mind, so he headed out to the woods and upon calling out the name “Mr. McBeevee” he was suddenly prevailed upon from above, and all ended happily without the need for punishment.

It’s also worth noting that Andy Taylor was known as ‘The Sheriff Without a Gun’ — he never wore a sidearm nor would he allow his deputy to carry a pistol that was loaded.  He believed in earning the respect of the people through non-violent means.  So it would only make sense that he’d take a similar approach in raising his son.

The sitcom Diff’rent Strokes (NBC, 1978-85; ABC, 1985-86) presented a situation somewhat similar to that of Family Affair.  Philip Drummond (Conrad Bain) was a Park Avenue millionaire who’d taken in the two young African-American sons of his late-maid— Willis (Todd Bridges) and Arnold (Gary Coleman).

In the first season episode “The Spanking” (12/1/78), Arnold ignored warnings to stop tossing water balloons off the balcony, leaving Drummond with a dilemma in regards to punishing him.  Having only been Arnold’s guardian for a month, he felt it might be too soon to lay hands on the boy. But when Arnold disobeyed him one-time too many, Drummond decided it was time to act.

Todd Bridges (seated) and Gary Coleman in Diff’rent Strokes.

At the last moment however, it was Willis who stepped forward to protest Drummond imposing punitive measures against Arnold, reasoning it was just too soon for their newly acquired steward to assume such duties.  The older boy also suggested that as Arnold’s closest surviving blood relation, that he himself should handle Arnold’s punishment. Of course Arnold fully supported the idea, thinking Willis was going to let him off easy.  But once Willis got Arnold alone, he delivered the genuine article — a spanking which Arnold would not soon forget.

One memorable episode of NBC’s Little House on the Prairie, titled “I Remember, I Remember” (01/23/78), featured the story in flashback of how Charles and Caroline Ingalls first met.  At school, the young Charles (Matthew Laborteaux) quickly alienated himself from the school teacher, Mr. Watson (Sorrell Booke), a strict disciplinarian with a strong proclivity toward corporal punishment.  Throughout the episode, the poor kid receives beating after beating both at school and at home. It ponders the question 0f how the adult Charles (Michael Landon) ever turned out the well-balanced man he did — and not another Mr. Olsen.

Sorrell Booke (adult) and Matthew Laberteaux in Little House on the Prairie.

These are just a few of the more notable depictions of corporal punishment on the small screen.  Arguably the most controversial, however, was an episode of Good Times (CBS, 1974-79) entitled “The Lunch Money Rip-Off” (03/18/75), in which younger son Michael (Ralph Carter) invited Eddie (Douglas Grant), the school bully who had been extorting him for his lunch money, home for the weekend hoping to bond and make a favorable impression on him.  But it didn’t take Eddie long to incur the wrath of the Evans’ family — particularly that of Michael’s father, James (John Amos). Eddie’s belligerent and rancorous behavior was bad enough, but when he refused to study with Michael and challenged James’s authority in his own home, he crossed the line.

James grabbed the young man and began dragging him towards the bedroom.  His wife Florida (Esther Rolle) attempted to object, but James was in no mood to hear it:

“James!” she protested.

“You know the boy got it coming,” James replied.  Then, turning back tomorrow Eddie: “Now get your behind in there.”

As Eddie received his punishment off-screen, the Evans’ children provided a comic-laden commentary:

“Question is… which beating [will] he get?” pondered sister Thelma.

“Well, Dad has three in his repertoire:  the regular, the super and the Big Mac!” offered older brother J.J.

(left to right) Douglas Grant, John Amos, and Esther Rolle in Good Times.

Afterwards, Eddie told James that nobody had ever paddled him before, to which James responded that someone should have done it a long time ago, and that he went easy on him;  if it had been one of his own kids, the punishment would have been much more severe.

Back in the living room, Eddie was about to leave when matriarch Florida (Esther Rolle) stepped forward and explained that she and James only disciplined their kids because they loved them.  If they didn’t, they wouldn’t bother taking the time.

“I didn’t know somebody could beat on you and care at the same time,” Eddie offered.  But the idea seemed to be getting through to him. He accepted the offer to stay, and even began studying with Michael.

John Amos, Douglas Grant, and Esther Rolle in Good Times.

Yet the controversy remains apparent:  It’s one thing for a parent or guardian to punish a child, but James beat an underaged teen whom he had no real authority over.  Such a scene would have little chance of making it onto prime-time TV screens today — especially if mom and dad were being presented as loving, responsible parents.  And today in 2018, James could very well have spent the next 20-years in prison for child-abuse.

These are just a few of the many TV programs which have dealt with corporal punishment.  Despite the strong insinuation that TV parents like Andy Taylor and Charles Ingalls subscribed to the adage of sparing the rod and spoiling the child, they were never seen actually doing so on-screen.  It appears producers even then had reservations about how viewers would react to such a portrayal.

Back in the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, corporal punishment was practiced in a great number of U.S. homes, with that number declining in each proceeding decade.  During these times and into the early 1990’s, it was also legal for teachers to paddle students in schools (in most states).  Today, 31 states have banned striking a child in the classoom.  And in homes, laws now clearly dictate ways in which corporal punishment must be administered.  If parents fail to heed these mandates, they can be jailed for child abuse.

Our country has clearly moved in a more liberal direction and corporal punishment, for the most part, has been villanized.  It is difficult to imagine many of today’s teenagers being deterred by the threat of a swat on the behind, and most parents and teachers now feel there are better ways to deal with youthful rebellion through communication. 

Prime-time TV seemed to be ahead of the curve on this one.  Producers realized that not all of the traits and vices that were a part of everyday society in real life, would necessarily fit into the wholesome TV programs they were putting on the air.    

Doug Snauffer is a TVWriter™ Contributing Editor.  His work has appeared in myriad publications and on SyFy Channel. He’s also the writer of several cult horror films and the books The Show Must Go On and Crime Television. Learn more about Doug HERE.

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