I was spanked as a kid.
It was rare. Sometimes with a belt.
My 50-year-old self can say with confidence that I was not traumatized by it.
Still, I remember clearly that in the moment, I hated my father fiercely.
The first time I recall being spanked was in response to something I did.
As the baby in a family of four kids, I wasn’t getting attention. So, I announced that I was running away. I packed my mother’s small satin-lined cosmetics suitcase, marched out of the house and planted my butt on the bottom step of the stairs that led to the alley behind our duplex. My parents called for me but I didn’t answer. I refused to come home. Perhaps they were worried.
Eventually, my father stomped down the stairs, angrily scooped me up and started spanking me in full view of our nextdoor neighbors whose kitchen screen door was just a few yards away from our own. The humiliation was so great that I remember struggling to close that door as my screams grew louder. And then it was over. I probably went to my room and cried myself to sleep.
I know I got spanked on other occasions, but I really don’t recall exactly what provoked it. My best guess is that it was more likely something I said instead of something I did. Never one to hold my tongue, curse words were just another weapon in the arsenal of a moody, sassy kid.
As an adult, I have winced when I’ve witnessed parents threatening or smacking their misbehaving kids in public. The supermarket line is legendary for its ability to snap any stressed parent’s last nerve, disabling our ability to tolerate a hungry, whining, bored, impatient, sensory-overloaded child. As much as I want to give mean moms the evil eye, whip out my cell phone and threaten to report them to authorities, a wiser person once suggested that these parents need empathy, not judgment or punishment. They need someone to acknowledge how hard life is, how exhausting parenting is, and ask them if there’s anything I can do to help. That would surely change the subject.
Indeed, the art of distraction works wonders for misbehaving children and adults.
If we want to improve children’s lives, we must improve the lives of their people who gave them life in the first place, and/or who have the greatest role in making that life good or bad. The term gaining popularity now is “two-generation solutions.” You can’t address the conditions of childhood without dealing with the conditions of parenthood.
When the news broke that NFL player Adrian Peterson was penalized for whipping his son with a tree branch, I wondered aloud if this incident would have the same ripple effect as the Ray Rice fiancée-punching episode. Denouncing intimate partner violence is becoming a somewhat more mainstream mantra, while challenging another kind of domestic violence - spanking – is still very iffy.
Corporal punishment is one thing that most Americans agree on. (Gallup polls show 65% say its ok.) Support for this parental prerogative crosses the lines of race, class, religion and party affiliation.
I’ve debated this issue several times over the years, especially with African American friends, some who have claimed that corporal punishment is used to teach black children how to stay inside the lines in a dangerously racist world, a world in which the consequences of misbehavior can be deadly.
African American parents don’t want white authorities treading on the privacy of their families. I don’t blame them. Big Brother is not an equal opportunity oppressor.
Plus, who gets to define abuse and neglect? The government has official definitions, but sometimes the government itself is guilty of both, especially in the African American community.
Still, corporal punishment in the home does nothing to prevent countless black kids from being suspended, expelled, harassed, arrested, imprisoned or worse. Instead, it reproduces and sanctions a violent world.
Spanking might “work” to “modify” naughty behavior in the moment, but it has negative consequences for a sacred relationship and a little person’s development:
When a parent hits a child, that child learns to fear the person who is supposed to make the world safe for them.
When a parent hits a child, that child learns that his bodily integrity is not respected.
When a parent hits a child, that child learns that hitting is an appropriate way to express anger or assert authority.
When a parent hits a child, that child learns that her parent is flawed, out of control and potentially dangerous.
When a parent hits a child, that child learns that love is conditional and painful.
Many of us who have been spanked are fortunate enough to be able to laugh it off now that we are all grown up. Some of us have forgiven our parents their trespasses. And some of us are consciously choosing to parent differently. We are exercising our own behavior modification muscles by trying out alternatives that elicit the best in our kids.
This is an uncomfortable conversation for myriad reasons. Still, I’m glad people are talking about spanking. I’m glad journalists are writing about it. I hope the dialogue doesn’t die down. Silence is part of the problem. Spanking silences children. Talking is part of the solution, in families and in society. Talking beats spanking any day of the week.