When Does Spanking Become Abuse? Ctd

A reader gasps at this account of child abuse from the in-tray:

Oh my God, Andrew.  That post on switches, told from the woman who “took it” … I was almost in tears reading it.   I have a four-year-old daughter, and I am completely opposed to hitting her. My wife likes – well, likes is too strong a word; she sometimes chooses – to spank our daughter, but it’s always with the clothes on, and always only one or two quick swats on the bottom with an open hand.  No red mark.  No scratches.  No bruises.

And no fear.  My daughter is startled, but then they hug and the incident ends with constant evocations of love – unconditional love.

But I still view it as hitting a four year old.  And your reader’s email – this incredible piece that you just printed – helped me see why. Thank you for posting it – and please thank the writer for being brave enough, strong enough, to share it.

You just did. Another reader is gobsmacked by this followup:

I don’t know if there exists a better argument against spanking than the two pro-child-abuse arguments your readers just submitted. Holy. Fuck.

Another quotes one of those readers:

“For based on the nature of your misbehavior, the broader society is unlikely to respond with, ‘Now you go sit in that chair and think about what you did.'” Actually, that’s exactly what society does. It’s called “jail.”

Several more readers, all of whom experienced some form of corporal punishment, continue the thread:

Thank you for your sharp rebuttal to the two readers who went to great lengths to defend child abuse.  I have been reading the Dish for quite some time and cannot recall ever having had such a visceral reaction of utter disgust to reader responses. While I understand that they love their abusers and choose to judge them as a whole person, that in no way justifies the behavior of the abuser any more than a wife beater is vindicated because the woman chooses to “stand by her man”.

As a child I was spanked.  Hard.

Fortunately it was neither as hard nor as vicious as your two readers describe, but at one point my dad did break the wooden paddle on my ass (and it was probably about something as silly as talking during church).  I can totally understand how the victim in the first case would not want the father to lose his career or be put in jail.  I would not have wanted my dad jailed either.

On the other hand, my dad’s actions prompted me to make a personal commitment to never lay a hand on my children as a form of punishment.  I am a firm believer that violence is not the way to solve problems and I take exception to the second reader’s implied point that the only way to learn to respect the rules is if you get beaten for breaking them.  My two boys are very respectful, compassionate, obedient, fine young men who have a tremendous respect for rules while never having a single welt to show for it.

My wife and I are both educators and see on a daily basis the scars of pain and suffering that physical, sexual, and emotional abuse leave on children.  The only certain lesson that physical abuse teaches your children is that the cycle of violence will continue.  If this leads to “Generation Wuss,” I will gladly take it over the alternative. With people like these readers going through all sorts of mental gymnastics to justify child abuse, it is no wonder our world is so screwed up.

Another has a much more nuanced take:

Regarding your two readers who don’t think spanking should be criminalized, I tend to agree with the one who said he wouldn’t want his parent jailed because of it.  I wouldn’t have wanted my parents jailed either.  But, I certainly would have appreciated having someone, anyone who could have stood up for me against (1) a mom who was clearly unhappy and angry and took out all of her emotions on me in the form of physical, emotional and verbal abuse, and (2) a dad who just stood by and did nothing because he probably was too scared to deal with the fury of my mom.  No child, no matter how disobedient, deserves the emotional trauma that comes with physical abuse.

For a long time, I (like your two readers) justified my parents behavior because accepting the alternative is too scary – i.e., adults who cannot control their own emotions and thus, beat their own children, generally make for crap parents.  Please note, I am not talking about those parents who use spank judiciously a few times a year.  I understand that there are shades of gray here and nothing is absolute.  I am talking about parents who express their rage and anger through the guise of punishment at least every 1-2 weeks, if not every other day.

I agree that it isn’t productive to live in a bubble of “victimhood.”  But, that is exactly what abusive parents are likely doing.  I realize that these parents have their own personal traumas that they haven’t acknowledged or addressed, and thus the cycle of abuse continues.  There are also plenty of parents (my mother included) who are abusive but still meet their child’s basic needs and provide solid, stable physical environments and financial support.

So it is tough to argue that these parents should be thrown in jail.  But there cannot continue to be zero consequences for parents who wield corporal punishment simply because they can and there is no one around to check their behavior.  Criminalization is certainly not appropriate in all cases and neither is removal of the child from the home, because foster care could end up being ten times worse.  But some sort of mandatory and meaningful counseling would go a long way in re-educating these parents on how to manage their own emotions, manage their discomfort with their child’s emotions, and accept that their child is not an object to be controlled and manipulated into submission and compliance.

Now that I have my own child, every day I have had to learn how to be a “grown-up” about my own emotions so that I can help her with what she is facing, and that is no easy task when the only prior management technique I was exposed to was a rolling pin, the back of a hand, lots of insults and put-downs, or the silent treatment.  I have had counseling and I am thankful for it even though I spent a good part of my life opposed to it in any shape or form.  Had my mother had counseling, life could have been so much different for me and I have had to mourn the childhood that never was.  It is a shame that any child has to feel that pain.


I wonder if the sharp divide in attitudes towards spanking has anything to do with how it has been applied in different households.  My own experience was pretty mild.  Whichever parent was on duty would take me into their room and explain to me what the offense was that I was being punished for.  Then I would get three to five swats on the backside, usually with the hand, occasionally with a spoon or belt.  As I cried, my parent would hold and console me, assure me that s/he loved me, and dry my tears.  After that, I was off to playing again.

Spankings stopped altogether when I reached an age where it would have been humiliating to receive one (maybe 8 or 9).  I don’t look back on those episodes as torturous or psychologically impairing in any way.  So when I hear people get down on “spanking,” I find it instinctively puzzling.

But then I read about Adrian Petersen and the account your reader sent in.  The descriptions sound absolutely horrifying, and I can imagine that after going through those experiences, the victim has no time or stomach for drawing fine lines between what I would consider spanking vs. physical abuse.  And despite the fact that I think my parents’ approach was a useful parenting technique (I employ it myself), I would rather live in a world of no corporal punishment where some used it wisely and others used it as a fig leaf to abuse their children.