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.