A reader is furious:
Yesterday I read your readers’ tale of abuse and wept at my desk. I endured the same torture. I had the bruises and the welts to prove it. It has caused me great mental havoc over the years. And then to read the stories trying to justify the readers’ own abuse? I wept again.
To those readers, guess what: Corporal punishment is not ok – it’s never been ok – and your parents were wrong, just like past generations have been horribly wrong about a lot of things. So stop fucking hitting your kids. And stop justifying abuse of defenseless human beings. Battery, as a crime, has been on the books for a very, very long time. See Cal. Penal Code 242: “A battery is any willful and unlawful use of force or violence upon the person of another.” If a non-parent hit a kid the same way your parents hit you, not only would they be charged with battery but you would have a civil case against them. Parenting should not impart special immunity from the law.
So yes, your parents should have gone to jail or, the most likely result, paid a fine. And they should have had the discipline to think of better ways to teach their kids. Hitting is lazy and stupid. And yes I’m parent, and I have NEVER EVER hit my kids. And guess what: they are incredibly well behaved and lovely human beings and will not bringing the emotional scars of abuse into adulthood. Imagine that!
Several readers, on the other hand, illustrate the cycle of abuse:
I grew up in the 1960-70s. My two younger brothers and I were physically and emotionally abused as a children by a parent in ways similar to some of your readers descriptions – belts, fly swatters, wire hangers, wooden spoons. My mother was an angry, depressed, sometimes alcoholic and suicidal woman. Her moods were unpredictable and subject to sudden change. She was not only abusive to us, she was sometimes abusive to my father, who literally was a victim of domestic violence and displayed all the traditional features of that role you might see in women.
Yes, sometimes, during the better times, she could be a very good mother, who cared for our physical needs like cooking healthy food and decent clothing, and giving us opportunities to learn piano, baseball, or swimming. Ao no, she was not all bad all the time. It’s the only reason I have any love or compassion for her now, as she enters her 80s.
I knew from my earliest memories the stories of my mother struggling with her own abusive childhood and it’s terrible results. She grew up with a father who was a very heavy-handed, dominant figure in their rural, Southern household in the 1930s-50s. On one hand, he was a traditional, middle-class “good provider” in his community, but in their home he abused her, her four brothers and sisters, and their very sweet and timid mother. His rationale was always that they didn’t do their expected chores or follow his commands to the letter, or embarrassed him or questioned his authority.
To this day, the “mind fuck” for me is to hear how her father was such a terrible man for doing the EXACT same things to her and her family that she did to ours. It’s as if she still sees herself as a victim who fought back, and that anything she did in our childhoods was something we or our father simply “deserved”. She never, ever has apologized or acknowledged she hurt any one of us to this day, which at one point in my younger life would have been helpful in healing our relationship.
I get so frustrated and sad when I hear or read other people’s descriptions of their childhood abuse in which they have “swallowed the Kool Aid” on the rationalization for that abuse. Just the other night I sat across the dinner table from a young man who was justifying what Adrian Peterson did to that little boy because he himself had been a “really bad kid, and if they hadn’t beat the shit out of me I would be in jail right now”. When I countered with the idea that a parent should never leave marks on a child and my own history of rarely physically punishing even the most difficult one of my kids, responded “Well, what kind of person is he today?” as if my kid had to be in prison because I never beat him with a belt.
I know these people from the inside. I know they did what they had to do: that they survived by internalizing their parent’s view of them as bad, deserving of pain, deserving of punishment for every little thing that made them angry, reasonable or not. When one of your writers described how terrible it would have been for her parents to have been held accountable by legal or social services means, it’s not because it would have been terrible; it’s because the writer has never moved passed that helpless, childlike stage of development she was in when she was abused.
I strongly suspect that had she truly healed, she and several other of your readers who wrote you would no longer defend the very people who harmed them the most. It’s why abuse is so cyclical in nature, being handed down from generation to generation, and it’s sad. But it’s also the biggest reason we need to intervene from outside the dysfunction of families and make hitting children a big, fat no-no.
Another reader broke the cycle:
This thread has been terrible to read. I am the mother of a five-year-old girl. I have never laid a hand on her and I believe I never will. In my family there is line of understanding that corporal punishment does something terrible to the relationship between parent and child. My mother got the belt, the switch, the paddle and good old-fashioned spanking from her parents. She loved them, but they had problems and she swore that she would raise her children differently.
So when she had me – no belt, no switch, no paddle, but spankings – oh yes, spankings are fine, they are an appropriate punishment. So was screaming “You pig, you pig!” because she was so angry. When I was 12 she hit me hard across the face and my father had to intervene to prevent further escalation. My mother loves me and I her, but we have had serious problems relating to each other because of this.
I have never hit my daughter, but I have lost my temper and yelled at her. I told her she was a stupid and callous little cow. Then I sent her to her room. Then I cried. Then I apologised to her and said that although she had been wrong, I was also wrong. Just because I was angry I didn’t have the right to belittle her. I hope that by being aware I will minimise the damage that I do to her.
My mother came to realise that she was inflicting her damage onto me and has long since apologised, I know she approves of the way I am raising my daughter. Even though Philip Larkin tells us that we fuck our children up, I hope that, in my family, it is less and less.
Another is still struggling:
I’m a recovering depressive. As I’ve received the care that I’ve needed for years, it’s kind of like an alcoholic coming off of a long period of dependency. I’m realizing to my horror that not only has my professional and personal life been stunted, but I’ve been guilty of abuse towards my son. Some might poo-pooh the half-dozen times that I’ve slapped him in the face, because in every case he was being insolent or nasty. But he’s a sensitive kid, and frankly I’ll never know how much permanent damage I caused.
I was never physically abused by my parents, but I’m still pretty emotionally handicapped due to their emotional abuse. As a caring parent, I want to do better than has been done to me. But in one aspect I clearly haven’t, and it will always be my shame. Physically hurting someone weaker than yourself is low, weak, and mean. If there’s anything good that can come out of the NFL abuse stories and your readers’ stories, hopefully a few more people like myself will wake to their own misconduct.
Another reader’s story:
I grew up in a violent family. My dad hit my mom, and she hit me, and I hit my younger brother. Shit rolls downhill.
My mother hit us with her hands, and later with the handle of a wooden spoon. Mostly I was punished for defiance – for questioning her directives, or arguing. I still remember her slapping me hard in the face when I was 13 because I had objected to something and me hitting her back and running like hell. Thank God my aunt was there to talk to her, or I think she may have really hurt me. I don’t know what my aunt said to her, but after that, the hitting stopped. From then on she started treating me like an adult, so I went from not being able to make any kind of independent decision to doing pretty much what I wanted. As a teenager, I had tremendous freedom and that didn’t go so well.
As an adult, I simply shut down when there is any kind of conflict. I can’t negotiate with people very well. I can’t manage objections, because I’m so frozen. My parents sent me into the world with two tools for managing interpersonal conflict: freezing or lashing out. It’s taken me 40 years and countless hours of therapy to learn some tools, but it’s not instinctive. I have to really work on the normal give and take at work and at home.
The reason we discipline kids isn’t to stop a specific behavior; it is to teach them how to manage themselves, teach them how to ask for what they want or need and accept “no” for an answer. Eventually that child, on his or her own, will have to do something they don’t want to do, or stop themselves from doing what they want to do. If the way you got your kids to behave is with a physical or verbal threat, then you risk raising an adult who will not have the discipline to manage their own life successfully.
Another is also trying to manage:
I am another adult living with the lifelong fallout of an abusive childhood. But it’s not all bad. You cannot go through these types of experiences without being transformed and I have earned some incredible life skills – skills that those of you who haven’t been beaten with a metal pole or dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and beaten on the floor of your room or beaten with a horse whip or beaten with whatever the hell was nearby… well you may not be able to do:
I can see into the future. Usually only about 5-10 seconds but one of the biggest “gifts” I received from the constant and unpredictable childhood abuse was hyper vigilance. While this is often associated with PTSD it’s also common in abused children and is expressed as extreme sensory sensitivity focused on detecting environmental threats. I’m the guy at the party standing in a place where I can see everyone else, as well as all entrances and exits. I may be talking to you, and even listening to what you’re saying, but I’m also tracking every other conversation in the room. When something is about to go down I’m either already gone or have stepped in to redirect – often before the participants realize they are about to cross a line.
I am also tough. I can take a beating. I have fallen off a cliff, been hit by a speeding truck, had viral meningitis, scarlet fever, seven concussions. You can hit me, cut me, burn me and beat me, but you can’t ever touch me. People say that I am intense – they have no idea, unless they touch me on the shoulder when I don’t see them coming. Then, for just a split second, they catch a glimpse. But that almost never happens.
My abuse started when I was five and lasted for about five years. Then I grew big enough that I wasn’t such an easy target and it stopped. Unfortunately the damage was already done – hard wired into my brain and unchangeable. I am, quite literally, broken. But I don’t feel like a victim and I don’t want, or need, anyone’s pity or help. My mother was also abused as a child and was not able to overcome the behavior that was modeled to her. I will never forgive her but I understand.
Now I am a father. I remember one night, shortly after my son turned five, standing in his room watching him sleep. And a wave of anger, dangerous and intense, washed over me as my knees went weak and I backed out of the room. Because I realized in that moment that my mother had stood in much the same way over a child that looked just like mine, sweet and innocent and beautiful. And then, screaming, she had grabbed me by the hair, yanked me from the bed and beat me with her fists on the floor of my room. I just couldn’t understand how that was possible. I still don’t.
And yet we debate it as if there were pros and cons. As if beating our children is not only justified and necessary, but a societal good, so long as we beat within reason. But how to measure what is reasonable? What locations are acceptable? What implements correct? How much swelling is permissible? What amount of blood is appropriate? Should we vary based on weight, gender, offense? Ask these questions about another adult and see what happens.
So when I read the two reader’s impassioned defense of their own abuse, and by extension their endorsement of this abuse for other kids who need to be “toughened up” and “learn some discipline” I cried for the first time in years. Not for myself, but for all those innocent children out there for whom there is still time. Still hope. Still a chance for happiness. Because even though I have found value in my hard earned skill set, and used it effectively to better my life, I would trade it all for a shot at feeling happy.
Thanks from a longtime reader and subscriber.
Follow the ongoing thread here.