The Problem with “I Was Spanked and I’m Fine”

Before we begin, I’d like to remark that we find ourselves in the most information-saturated society in the history of the known world. I can’t believe we still need to have this conversation.

However, an abundance of studies show that the more frequently children are spanked, the more likely they are to

  • defy their parents;

  • experience anti-social behavior;

  • have increased aggression;

  • mental health problems;

  • cognitive difficulties

Are you surprised? I’m not.

Furthermore, even the AAP (whom I heartily disagree with on several counts) has come out against corporal punishment of any kind against children, due to the new research that shows normal brain development is impacted by physical discipline.

Statistically speaking, physical correction and spanking are still very common practices in American parenting.

Over 80% of Americans believe that it’s “sometimes appropriate” to spank their children between ages 3 and 9. Previous research on the negative effects of spanking has been dismissed by experts in child development, so to clear up any confusion, they made a point to define spanking in this new study as “an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities.”

This new research is the most complete analysis of spanking to date, and it unequivocally condemns not “just spanking”, but any sort of physical punishment.

I’m filing that under “stuff we already knew but now there’s RESEARCH to prove it”.

It’s worth noting that children are the only group of people in our society not protected from assault and physical harm by others. Even animals and some livestock have laws in place to protect them from physical abuse.

While spousal abuse is (rightly) condemned, corporal punishment of children remains legal in all 50 states, and parents’ right to spank is generally upheld in courts, even in extreme cases.

However, America is something of an anomaly in the global culture.

In Sweden, for example, physical discipline of children has been illegal since the 1970’s, and as a result, Sweden has an entire society full of parents who find it normal to raise kids with kindness and compassion. Again - personally, I’m not surprised.

My own childhood could best be summed up as ‘it’s complicated’. I remember taking a child development class in 9th or 10th grade, and found myself continually torn between shock and laughter as I learned for the first time that many commonplace features of my reality were clearly indicated as “verbal abuse” and “emotional abuse”.

Since then, I’ve been untangling my past in an effort to not let my own wounds bleed all over those I love. Having my first child at age 18, it was difficult, but I think I’ve done better than anyone could have expected.

“We! Do! Not! Hit!” - she said, while hitting him…

Once, when my oldest son was 4, we were visiting with some new friends. My son started to have a tug-of-war with another little boy over a toy car, and her son hit mine. Without missing a beat, the other mom went over to her son and grabbed the toy out of his hand.

However, what really stunned both of us is when she yelled at him, “We! Do! Not! Hit! People!” She punctuated every word with a slap on her son’s bottom. We excused ourselves shortly afterward and drove home in silence as we both processed what had happened in front of us in our own ways.

At the time, I did occasionally use physical discipline with my child. I simply didn’t have other, more compassionate “tools in my toolbox” yet.

That experience made me realize that I was not being congruent in how I was treating him, nor how I expected him to treat others. I knew I needed to find a better way.

It’s been a conscious effort to truly break the cycle with my own children, and it took many years to learn new parenting skills.

The purpose of spanking is to get kids to comply, to do what they’re told, and to be obedient. However, if a child learns mainly from punishment--instead of from reason, compassion, and patience, their focus is going to be not getting caught. Kids who expect to get punished may behave better when they know their parents are watching, but the threat of physical discipline means little when they’re not under scrutiny.

The true aim of parenting is to teach your child how to effectively interact with other humans, and that’s never been convenient or easy.

Spanking might make things more simple in the short term, but in the long run, kids who are taught to fear violence in retaliation for their actions or inactions are not learning much about how to behave properly--only about what to avoid.

The relationship between parent and child is meant to be like that of scholar and apprentice, not warden and perpetrator.

Are you feeling defensive right now? I fully realize that it feels overwhelming as a parent to accept the fact that physical punishment is harmful. The implications of what it means for our own childhood, as well as our children’s, are heavy.

Over the years, I have worked hard to heal from the damage that my (lovely, involved, well-meaning) parents perpetuated. I have learned how to have mutually cooperative relationships with my children that are free of physical threats and arbitrary punishments, and also don’t rely on me becoming a martyr.

I believe that we are all doing the best we can, and it can also be challenging to accept that maybe what our parents did wasn’t actually good for us.

It’s possible to recognize that the way we were parented was damaging to us, without throwing our parents under the bus. Having compassion for the full scope of their journey as parents, as well as our own, can give us the strength and confidence we need to make different choices regarding how we treat our children.

"I don't spank my kids out of anger," you say?

On the surface that may seem better, because you're not being triggered and lashing out uncontrollably. However, from the perspective of the child, it's very confusing--because if you can control yourself, why on earth are you choosing to inflict pain and fear when you can just as easily choose not to?

This "controlled" spanking is calculated violence - and to a child, they can't tell the difference between you "spanking" and you throwing a rock at them. It hurts, and you’re doing it on purpose.

"I make sure they know I still love them"

So, this is actually perpetuating a form of abuse called 'trauma bonding'. You are choosing to inflict physical pain, fear, or worry in your child...something to ensure they will pay attention and want to avoid that stimulus in future - and then you also apply love and affection in that moment to make sure they know that THIS is What Love Feels Like.

Be warned: This is the same psychological pattern that keeps battered women from turning in their abusers.

It's the purposeful mixing-up and cross-wiring in the psyche of love with pain, fear, and discomfort.

Abusive behavior, whether explosive or calculated, has no place in a loving relationship.

This is true regardless of whether we’re talking about parent and child, or two consenting adults.

This excellent article called Ten Reasons Not to Hit Your Kids, gives a wealth of knowledge about what to do instead.

There’s no Lord of the Flies situation at my house, but there’s no spanking or punishment either. The way we do things has evolved into what we call relationship-based parenting.

It’s less of a “method”, and more of a shift in our view of the parent-child relationship. We’ve made the conscious choice to not perpetuate the cycle of violence in our children’s minds or bodies--and we also knew that we weren’t willing to get walked on by our kids, either.

Just as it’s unkind to teach kids that they should expect to be controlled with violence, it’s also unkind to let them maintain the illusion that they can treat anyone violently without consequence.

Unschooling is a component of our journey, but the commitment to recognizing and ending the cycle of abuse has been paramount. I wish you luck in your journey.