Why I oppose spanking

TW: Mild self-harm

I was spanked as a child.  I was a well-behaved youngster who needed little discipline and was generally obedient and respectful to the best of my ability.  I can probably count the number of times I was spanked on my fingers.  I was not scarred for life by this ordeal, I am well-adjusted, and I have never reacted by being violent to others.  To all appearances, I am a testament to the value of the practice of spanking.

And yet, I oppose it.  Vehemently.

This was not always so.  For most of my life, I assumed that spanking was a generally useful practice that taught kids to expect consequences to their actions.  It promoted personal responsibility, I was told, and enforced respect.  I fully expected that I would spank my own children (hopefully not often).  I further expected that children who were not spanked would likely be unruly, disrespectful, and lack a sense of responsibility and self-control.

However, as I began to reassess the value of the authoritarian parenting style that I was raised with (which did NOT leave me well-adjusted) I began to confront my perceptions of spanking as well.  What lessons had I really learned from these punishments?  Were the changes it wrought in my behavior actually positive?  Or can I contribute my good behavior primarily to other parenting methods instead?

I clearly recall how the punishment was carried out.  I was informed of my error and I would generally apologize.  My mother would accept my apology, but if the error was severe enough, she would indicate that I was to be spanked as a punishment.  I would be told to fetch  the big wooden spoon from the kitchen and I would go into her bedroom.  She would close the door and tell me that she loved me, but she needed to do this anyway.  I would be told to bend over and she would strike my backside with the spoon.  Generally, I would feel humiliated enough that I would not want to cry in front of her, so I would hold my tears in as long as possible.  However, before long, I would always give in and cry out, and my mother would hit me only one more time before setting the spoon aside and then holding me.  She would tell me again and again that she loved me and calm my tears until I had stopped crying.  The punishment was now over.

By the standards of most spanking advocates, my mother did everything right.  She never left marks or bruising that I was aware of.  I was no longer sore within 5 minutes of the spanking or so.  The punishments were always coupled with loving words and assurances that I still had her affections.  And yet, they did me absolutely no good.  Indeed, they taught me several lessons that were quite counterproductive to my moral and ethical development.

Spanking did not teach me to accept consequences; it taught me to avoid them.

Spanking causes pain and humiliation, but more than anything, it causes a fear and dread.  Most children will avoid that fear at any cost.  Sometimes this meant behaving well to avoid punishments.  But at other times, when I had either misbehaved or simply made a mistake, I learned to try to silence my conscience and hide my misdeed rather than owning up to it.  As a clear testament to this, I recall an incident when I was probably only 4 or 5 years old.  I had just been playing around in the bathroom and somehow ended up getting toilet paper strewn around the floor.  I left the mess behind when I got distracted by something (I was a very absent-minded child) and it was discovered later by my mother.  She called the whole family into the bathroom and asked who had made the mess.  I distinctly recall a pang of fear as I considered the possibility that an admission of guilt could result in a spanking.  I wanted to tell my mother that it was me and to apologize for it, but the fear was too great.  Instead, thinking myself very clever, I asked “what will happen to the person who says they did it?”

“Nothing except they will have to clean it up,” she responded.

“Oh, well in that case, I did it.”

And there lies the first problem with spanking.  I was fully willing to take responsibility for my mistake and even make it right by cleaning up the mess I had left.  But while the threat of physical pain and humiliation was held over my head, I shut my conscience off and was ready to lie.  And lie I did, about the glass bowl that I broke years later.  I was never found out.

This is not a productive result of a training method that is intended to INCREASE personal responsibility.  Reasonable consequences that allow the child to make up for the mistake that they made are much more likely to be effective.  That leads me to my second lesson.

You can’t make up for your mistakes; you can only suffer for them.

Now, I will be the first to admit that there are plenty of mistakes in real life that cannot be fixed.  Sometimes you just have to deal with the consequences.  But even so, approaching every mistake with this defeatist mindset is a sure way to destroy your life.  A healthy person approaches every mistake with an openness to correcting it, or at least making the best of it.  Anytime we fail at something or harm someone, our response should be to say “I am so sorry… how can I make it better?”

But spanking was a discouragement of this kind of thought, for me.  I was not spanked often, but when I was, it was always a sign that my crime must have been too grievous to make right.  Apologies, offers to fix things, attempts to ease the damage that I had done were useless.  All that was left for me was physical punishment.  Pain would atone for me.  I could not atone for myself.

The last spanking that I can remember occurred when I was probably 9 or 10.  I had gotten distracted while doing my morning chores before school and started goofing off.  Again, absent-mindedness and distraction were common themes in my childhood… and adulthood for that matter.  My mother always required that we start homeschool at precisely 8:00am.  When my goofing off led me to miss that deadline, I was due for punishment.  My mother came upstairs and saw me laughing with my sister while I fidgeted around with the bed I was supposed to be making.  She scolded me angrily and told me that I was already late for school and my bed wasn’t even made yet.  Startled, I apologized, told her I had lost track of the time, apologized some more, and then offered to make my bed faster.  She did tell me to finish making my bed.  And when I was finished, she said, I should come downstairs for a spanking.

That was always a heart-wrenching feeling.  It didn’t matter if I was sorry, or if I promised to do better, or if I made my bed on time for the rest of the week, or if I even offered to make hers for her to make up for it.  I had sinned, and the only proper punishment was physical pain.  Indeed, forgiveness could not be obtained from my mother until she hit me and made me cry.  It seemed unjust to me, but more than anything, it was heartbreaking for a young child.  I truly wanted to make my mother happy and to do right by her.  But, when spankings became involved, there was no way to make it right anymore.  It was only my fate to accept the pain in order to be forgiven and returned to my valued place in the family.  That is a horrible lesson to teach a child.  It is also a dangerous lesson, because…

Spanking teaches children that violence and humiliation can be deserved.

I have never been physically abused by anyone.  I suspect I am quite lucky in this regard.  However, I have physically abused myself.  And when I did, I thought of it as a method of atonement.  Can I trace this mindset reliably back to my parents spanking me?  Perhaps not.  I suspect that many other factors played a greater role in my self-destructive habits, including sheltering and authoritarian principles.  However, I think it is likely that the mindset instilled in my by using spanking as a punishment was a contributing factor.

When I was 23 years old, I came out to my family.  I was already in graduate school on the other side of the Atlantic from my parents.  We spent many hours discussing the topic of homosexuality on the phone, arguing over scriptures and opinions, and often crying over harsh words and cruel remarks.  Despite all of this, I felt compelled to come home for a Summer to try to talk to my parents face-to-face, help them come to terms with my sexual identity, and heal the family wounds.

Instead of offers of peace, however, I was met with militant efforts to fix me.  My access to the internet and phone were restricted, I was shamed into being silent about what was happening, I was harangued and bullied daily by my parents, and I was blamed for “destroying the family”.  I honestly believed every accusation they threw at me, and I began to feel I had made myself too worthless to be redeemed.  I couldn’t make things right.  So, I decided I deserved to be hurt.

I restrained myself from causing too much damage, largely because I didn’t want my family to be able to recognize the marks.  I would kick my shins against the end-table in the living room to raise welts and bruises.  I would scratch at the skin on my stomach, upper thighs, and arms to make myself bleed.  I felt like I deserved to hurt; I deserved violence.  I deserved their humiliation.  I deserved their emotional abuse.  All of it, I deserved.

And why shouldn’t I?  My family had always taught me never to let anyone hurt me, always to respect myself, and always to stand up for myself.  But yet, they crossed those boundaries repeatedly when I was a child.  I was taught that there WERE situations where violence, humiliation, and a lack of self-respect were deserved.  Those were the situations when I had been bad.  I was a bad child.  I deserved pain.  Is it so hard to imagine that these toxic thoughts could have carried over into my adulthood?  Is it possible that I was horrifically susceptible to abuse by my parents because of some of the lessons that corporeal punishment taught me?  I think it is likely.

Let me offer some fundamental pieces of advice.  You should always be honest enough to own up to your mistakes.  You should always try to make those mistakes right.  And you NEVER deserve violence or humiliation… not from anyone else, and not from yourself.  I think most people would agree with the statements above.  But then, if I truly believe these things, why would I advocate for a form of punishment that taught me the opposite?

I do not believe my parents abused me as a child.  They were loving.  They were faithful.  They were gentle.  They were wonderful parents, in many ways.  But their choice to spank me was unwise.  It didn’t ruin me.  It didn’t cause me to become violent or socially repressed or less intelligent.  But it was not healthy.  We need not talk in extremes in order to still condemn a practice that is teaching children unhealthy lessons.  I can do better than the last generation.  I will not spank my children.

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7 responses

  1. I was rarely spanked, but my mother was a screamer, and constantly humiliated all of us children. I’d rather be hit than endure some of what was said to me. Worse, even though I was determined not to do that to my own children, I did. It took years for me to break the terrible habit. I believe that very young children make mistakes simply because they are young. Giving a child to make it right–like cleaning up a mess made–is the wise way to discipline. The child learns what behaviors are not acceptable, but also allows the child to make a reparation, and therefore, allows reconciliation to occur. After all, isn’t that how our Heavenly Father treats us?

    1. I agree that young kids probably rarely need actual punishment, but rather guidance. Any punishment should likely be less a punishment and more a removal of the child from the situation where they are behaving badly (like throwing a tantrum in a restaurant) until they learn to control themselves. A lot of what kids do seems OBVIOUSLY wrong to an adult, but it just isn’t to a kid. I remember drawing all over the countertop in the kitchen in white crayon. It never crossed my mind that this would be considered bad behavior until my sister came over and told me I needed to clean it up before my mom saw. Kids don’t need punishment for these sorts of things… they need instruction and grace. That is, supposedly, how the Father treats us as well.

  2. I got spanked regularly. I don’t feel damaged for a lifetime over it. I just feel. well. it did not do what they were trying to do, and it, actually, was counterproductive.

    1. Yeah, I definitely feel you there. I don’t think parents realize how much of a different message they might be sending than what they intend. Trying to coerce good behavior is like herding cats. You might be preventing wrongdoing in one way, but the child is suffering and misbehaving in another. I wasn’t scarred for life or anything either, so for a long time, I figured spanking had worked for me. But, in retrospect, it really just didn’t do any good.

  3. What I needed back as a kid was guidance. Having been raised by a single mom, she’s not to blame and I could understand that. I look back though and wish that someone should have upheld me and appreciated my creativity, since now I feel like having very little direction.

  4. GalacticExplorer–you are mistaken when you say that you were never physically abused. You mother was a child abuser. Just because what she did was called “spanking” rather than “beating” does not negate the fact that hitting a child is ALWAYS physical abuse. It was also emotional abuse, since, as well as inflicting pain, she had the goal of humiliating you.

    The fact that she wouldn’t stop hitting you until you cried clearly shows that the primary function of spanking you was to impress upon you her absolute power over you. I guarantee that whatever your perceived transgression was, it was not the real reason for her use of corporal punishment. Your behavior made her angry and when your mother became angry she felt as if she were losing control over herself. The only way she could regain self-control (and the self-esteem that comes from the knowledge that one is capable of self-control) was to make sure that you understood that she had total control over you.

    I have no doubt that your mother’s behavior stemmed from her own nature and nurture, especially the “nurture” provided by a fundamentalist evangelical Christian culture. But she was the adult, how she handled her anger and impulse to assert her authority was a choice that she consciously made. There were other ways in which she could have handled your so-called misbehavior.

    I’m so glad that you have been able to put your negative childhood experiences in perspective and have a clear understanding that being hit by someone who is supposed to love and protect you was never your fault. You have been successful at turning the dross into gold–I only wish that I could say the same for myself.

    1. Excellent points, Peggy. I have to both agree and disagree on these matters. I concede that any form of hitting a child can and should be called “abuse”. I can’t say that I believe that the spanking was caused by a lack of self-control. I do think she wanted to impress on me her absolute authority over me by breaking my will, as you said. However, in her case, I’m fairly certain it was not a feeling of a lack of control, but rather reminding me of the control she felt she already had. I believe she was under the impression that I would only be capable of understanding the severity of flouting her authority if I was physically punished. I’m not saying that makes it better… but rather that her motives I think were different. I’m sure this varies from parent to parent.

      As for my labeling my mother as a child abuser: I just can’t say I’m personally comfortable with that. I agree that spanking is abusive behavior and, as such, my mother was technically an abuser. However, there are many, many other forms of abusive behavior that parents fall into, such as excessive scolding, cruel words, teasing, little blow-ups, put-downs, moments of neglect, etc. A good parent does not make these mistakes often, but I can’t help but suspect that almost EVERY parent has made one of these mistakes at least once in the 18 years of raising a child. Should I call all parents “child abusers”? I simply am not comfortable with that. That doesn’t mean that any of these behaviors are okay or should be dismissed! But I feel I need to draw a line at some point where I feel that bad behavior moves from minor parenting mistakes to abuse. I do not feel that my mother crossed that line. I am sure that other children in various situations would disagree. I think that spanking more excessively, with less control, or without enough explanation of the crime could have easily nudged me into the territory of feeling that I was a victim of child abuse. However, although I cannot condone spanking, i still do not feel comfortable labeling my mother as a “child abuser” for spanking me, because I feel that makes the term less meaningful for people who were actually long-term harmed by their parents’ behavior, which I was not. THAT SAID my parents’ behaviors were harmful in other ways, but most of the abuse I suffered as a consequence was when I was an adult rather than a child. As such, I see my parents as abusive, but to an adult rather than a child (which is still not okay).

      In no way do I wish to indicate that YOUR situation (which I do not know) would not qualify as child abuse. I think, for survivors, it is often best to allow us to define for ourselves our own experiences. If a survivor tells me “I was abused” I am not going to dispute that based on how I define my own experiences. Just because I do not define my own spanking experience as “child abuse” does not mean that someone else’s experience wasn’t. However, I simply cannot feel comfortable defining my experience this way. I am certain that there is valid debate on this matter and I may change my mind about it in the future. But at this time, I prefer to label it as a “parenting mistake” rather than “child abuse”. I will still, however, continue to advocate for no-spanking parenting.

      Finally, I want to say that I’m terribly sorry that you went through your own ordeal and I hope that the essay I wrote was helpful to you. Every child should be able to feel safe with their parents, and that means no hitting. It does no good, as far as I can tell, and it has great potential for harm. I am wishing you all the best!

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