When Does Spanking Become Child Abuse?

Oct 1, 2014 @ 3:58pm

“Psychological Suspense That No Child Is Equipped To Manage”

A reader shares a harrowing series of stories and insights on corporal punishment, which at times borders on torture:

This email is too long, Andrew. But I don’t know another way to do it. Those last sentences in your post on “The Racial Divide On Spanking Kids” are packed with the stuff I’ve been struggling with all week. I’m sending this because I took so much time to write it. I’ve been close to tears often this week, and I suppose it’s a way of defending that tenderness.

“Discipline”: It was a belt or a switch in my house, except for the handful of times I was slapped. I hail from a poor, white, fundamentalist family in Texas. Sometimes we managed to get a hold of the bottom rung instead – lower-middle class, or is it upper-lower class? – but it wasn’t ever a very firm grip. I think that matters, our economic and social status – how it operated on my parents, their sense of self, their sense of control and agency, their standing, that fuzzy line between “poor” and “trash,” the dependable hierarchy at home of respect and obedience. But I can’t unpack all of that, and I don’t know what it would mean for anyone else if I did.

Whenever I got caught swearing – or if someone told my mother I’d been swearing – I had my mouth washed out with soap. In practice, even this is a stupid and violent thing to do. Really, the logistics of the sink and the soap and the faucet, the mouth and the hands, the gagging and spitting and crying – it’s jammed with aggression. I was six the first time.

Mind you, I never once swore at my parents. Not once. I swore at other kids or my siblings, and as I was the youngest by a decade – this was all mimicry. In truth, I was a freakishly good kid, but only because I wanted, more than anything, to keep out of the way and get through the day unnoticed. As all the evidence shows, this stuff doesn’t work: I’m a committed swearer to this day – but, well, there’s a time and a place. You learn that sort of thing over time, not over a sink.

Before I was tall enough to choose my own switch, my mother would get it herself. And the period of time that marked her absence, waiting for her to return with one, was filled with terror. It is a kind of psychological suspense that no child is equipped to manage. I certainly wasn’t. I remember that waiting period much more vividly than I remember the pain of being struck, repeatedly. (Does anyone “spank” a kid once a session? Isn’t it always part of a series?) I can hear myself crying and screaming, I can see myself touching the welts later, the stippled blood, but it has none of the embodied force of that terrible, terrible waiting.

When I was finally made to get my own switch, it was a kind of relief. Maybe because I felt I had some control? Alone and outside, it was nice to get lost in the concentration required to choose the right switch, the one that might hurt the least. (I’m choking up now, typing this. All week it’s been like that, following the national reactions.)

Anybody who thinks that hitting a kid with a switch is remotely related to “spanking” or “swatting” or “discipline” is full of shit. It’s a violent, strange, lacerating affair. Where the length of the switch lands can’t be controlled; anyone who’s used one – or been hit with one – knows this. Adults don’t get to shrug and claim they didn’t mean to lash a child’s scrotum or face or breasts. A child will automatically jerk and twist and try to shield herself when someone is striking her with a switch. (Whipping posts were useful because they prevented this very dance. One could aim better, land the strike with precision. Become a marksman.)

A child is also typically being grabbed and yanked with the parent’s free hand. It’s chaotic. Shit is going to go wrong. You don’t know where the next blow is going to land. That’s what makes it so terrifying for a kid. And a switch is like a whip – it is a whip: each lash has stages; it curls and snakes and bites. The sound of it, both a rip and whistle – awful.

As a kid, I was not only hit with a switch; I was “paddled” with a board (in school), hit with the belt, and slapped. But nothing had the psychological impact of the switch. Every blow was new and surprising and fresh. A switch is unpredictable. That is its nature. That is its power. Any offending adult who claims not to know that is a liar.

My father never hit me. I don’t know why. He beat the shit out of my brother and sisters. My mother didn’t intervene.  And then one day he stopped. Cold turkey. Later, perhaps motivated by guilt (her other children were his stepchildren), my mother would scream at him to punish me, but he wouldn’t. I can still see him shaking as she screamed, pushing the belt into his hands. I don’t know how I knew it – I was too young – but I did know: he was trying to control himself. He was shaking from the effort required to resist. And I remember perfectly those minutes of fear and confusion: Why does he look afraid? Why does she want him to hurt me? Is he going to? Why does she hate me?

Almost ritualistically, it ended with her grabbing the belt, crying and yelling both, and “spanking” me with all she had. My father always, always, left the room. I feel certain they would tell you, or anyone taking a survey, that they spanked us and disciplined us. Yes. That is was their responsibility, and their right.

I graduated high school in Texas in 1986. Students were still “paddled” in the principal’s office then. It was a long board with three holes drilled into it. It had a handle. We would bend over, knees straight, and put both hands on a chair. For the girls, a secretary was called in to observe. I worked half days my senior year and so was ineligible for detention. After three tardy slips and without the option of detention, I was paddled. I can faithfully report that it didn’t help me get to class on time. I was already a tired kid, overwhelmed and depressed, living in a chaotic house. I couldn’t always get it together or keep it together between work and school and home. Corporal punishment didn’t change that.

I will say that the boys in my high school got hit a lot harder. A lot. I remember leaving class with a bathroom pass once and seeing a boy I didn’t like – he frequently taunted me in front of other students about my small breasts – alone in the hallway, returning to class after a “paddling.” His walk was slow and stiff. He was in real and visible pain. He looked humiliated, and like he’d been crying. And I remember feeling confused because I had the urge to comfort him – him of all people.

Mostly I’ve been wrestling a lot with how all these terms have been conflated in the media and between people lately: “spanking” and “discipline” and “punishment” and, let’s be straight about it, flogging. The bravado and the gallows humor: classic (mal)adaptive coping strategies for all manner of survivors and people living or working in violent, fearful, unpredictable environments – soldiers, the hazed, the bullied, the ostracized or marginalized, ER nurses, cops. I sense it sometimes, how tough I can feel – or toughened. I took it. I made it through. Man, can I take things. There’s something haughty in the feeling. Triumphant. A badge-of-honor quality to it. But I know it’s an overcompensation. I know it’s a coded admission of my vulnerability and my anxiety about feeling helpless, of how my early dependence and vulnerability was exploited.

Maybe it’s transference, but I swear I could see the very same brew on Hannity’s face during this piece. He repeatedly invokes his father and the ways he was punished by his father. He sounds almost like a battered spouse (or, say, an abused child), claiming he deserved what he got, making excuses for his father. There’s even a pleading tone in his voice – do not take away this guy’s career, don’t put him in jail. But who is Hannity really talking about? Who should be spared and protected? Because for almost the entire clip he’s been talking about his father, and himself as his father’s child.

There’s something poignant and terrible about that merry reenactment with his belt. Slapping it against the desk. Even the certified guests seem to be dazed by the simultaneous demonstration and disavowal. But wait, now he’s snapping the belt. And snapping a belt like that at a child is nothing but a calculated form of emotional torture. I remember it well. I remember it physically, everything in my little body starting to rev and jack-knife. Snap. Snap. Snap. It’s nothing to do with discipline; it’s everything to do with domination, control, intimidation. (There’s this, too: Some people just like this shit. Same way some people like making and seeing their dog cower.) Either way, it’s pretty much condoned in our culture.

If you’re the sort of person who needs to idolize your parents your whole adult life; if you can’t navigate the necessary distance from which to admit their inevitable mistakes and weaknesses; if you can’t simultaneously love them and admit your own honest anger or pain, the dark ways you’ve been formed, too; if you need a rationalization for how you also “discipline” your children – well, then, I guess you talk a lot about how fine you are, or how you deserved it, or how harmless and necessary it is and the rights we have to it – all this “spanking” and “discipline” – maybe you brag about it a little, and you take off your belt on live TV and snap it for all the world to see, because, hey, everybody’s all right. The kids are all right. Right?

Oct 2, 2014 @ 12:07pm

When Does Spanking Become Child Abuse?

Two readers offer a startling contrast to this one’s story of trauma and terror:

I’m not often in agreement with Sean Hannity, but I must agree that Adrian Peterson should not lose his career or go to jail over the abuse of his kid. I don’t see a whole lot of people asking us folks who were actually hit. The courts. The judges. The politicians. The do-gooders, tolerant of everybody except those they deem unworthy of tolerance and understanding. Hardly anyone seems to think that the opinion of the victims should matter the most.

Is it a crime? Should it be a crime? I don’t know where to draw the line, and I’ve been there. At my ripe old-age of 62, I still vividly remember my father hitting my oldest brother – strapped spread eagle to his bed – until his back was covered with deep scarlet welts. I remember my legs shaking so much as it happened that I could hardly stand. I remember my mother smacking me over and over and over again with a fly swatter – her choice of punishment weapon. I remember my father putting a cigarette in my face, threatening to burn me with it.

And never ever ever would I have wanted my father to lose his career or to have to go to jail.

Do the people who propose this actually believe this would have made our life better? It would have done the opposite. Thank goodness that there was no Internet back then, and thank goodness that the media seemed to concentrate on real news and investigative reporting instead of the human interest stories they concentrate on now.

It surprises people that survivors of childhood violence love their parents. Why shouldn’t we? In the same way that I love my country but still feel free to criticize her, and would do anything to protect her, I can criticize my parents (and I freely do), but I fiercely defend their right to have lived their lives the way they saw fit and not to get thrown in jail for it or lose their financial means of support.

I survived – scarred, mutilated and torn – from a war waged everyday during my childhood. To take away my father’s livelihood or jail my parents would have been like dropping a nuclear warhead upon us. I doubt that I would have survived the chaos that ensued from that kind of retribution from society. This “Gotcha” mentality that exists today is just another example of destroying the village to save it.

“Scarred, mutilated and torn” is light-years from a swat on the butt. Another reader:

God damn it, Andrew. When I was a kid, my mother hit me. Repeatedly; always. My brother and I knew it was coming. She did it out of anger, and in an attempt to correct our incorrect behavior. Rarely did it achieve the latter goal, but given the nature of our disobedience – which was sometimes flagrant – she was right to be made, and we indeed deserved to be punished.

And as ineffective as the hitting was, want to know what would have been even less effective? The “time-out”; the “Go sit in that chair and think about what you did.” We would have outright laughed at that, my brother and I – punishment that isn’t really punishment. Well, the hitting forced us to actually respect my mother. Getting punishment that wasn’t really punishment would have diminished that respect.

So while I feel for your reader who seems to be describing her own PTSD at having been punishes, and while her punishment far exceeded what I had to endure, must we really go down the forever a victim road here? She writes of how corporal punishment is a way to try and intimidate, dominate, and control – and you know what? That’s true. Particularly disobedient children need to have their spirit broken. They need to understand authority – because if they don’t, they’re sure going to learn all about it later on.

A parent who spanks his or her child WITHIN REASON (and your reader’s case is that her corporal punishment wasn’t within reason – or was it that all corporal punishment is the moral equivalent of what she endured?) … that parent is saying: In life, there are rules, and you must respect them. And if you don’t respect them, there will be consequences – in this house, and out there in the broader society. 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.”

When we talk about the coddled generation, or “Generation Wuss,” as Bret Easton Ellis calls it, it’s no coincidence that this generation – the fragile flowers, unable to handle real adversity – is the first one to have been raised in an era where corporal punishment, even the mildest forms, was increasingly regarded as barbaric. And I’d ask: is this generation, then, any better off, any better behaved, are they more respectful of authority, are they more disciplined – or is the opposite in fact true?

“Disobedient children need to have their spirit broken”? Jesus. And regarding the reader’s flip comment about society unlikely to punish people by putting them in time out: is society instead supposed to beat them into submission? Hitting people, especially when those people are small and defenseless and dependent on your care, is such a lazy and cruel way to discourage bad behavior.

Oct 3, 2014 @ 3:12pm

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.

Another reader:

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.

Oct 6, 2014 @ 11:42pm

Ctd …

Before our discussion thread continues, here’s a followup from the reader who sparked it:

I could have never sent that email without having read the post from your reader about her rape – the courage to say what happened, what it felt like, what it set in motion … and the trust to send it. No, I wouldn’t have had the personal courage without her example.

And I’d have to guess that neither of us could’ve done it without what you and your Dish team have made. No matter what else is true, how often I disagree with you, I know The Dish is a place of real integrity, staffed by people of real integrity. And unlike the reader who responded that she learned to respect her mother while being “punished,” I learned no such thing. For me, power and force aren’t the cornerstones of personal (or familial) authority, and my genuine respect can’t be either demanded or commanded. (I perform that respect in my social and professional lives, of course, but that’s different.) You and your team, and what you do every day, how you do it: that I respect and trust.

Thank you for making a safe and honorable place for me – and so many others – to share the personal details buried beneath these important debates. It boggles the mind, how much work and care it must take to maintain The Dish’s culture. It’s why I subscribed on day one, and why I will continue to support you all however I can.

My thoughts on the matter here. Meanwhile, another reader points to some gray area:

The stories about spanking and whipping and beating children have been awful and difficult to read. As the father of two children, I spank both of them, so I feel compelled to write in.

This message is difficult to convey without the context of my life history. I come from a solid middle-class family.  I was spanked as a child.  My brother was spanked as a child.  It was never a beating.  I never felt like I was abused.  I was spanked with a paddle – actually a converted cutting board that hung on the kitchen wall.

I recall only one time I was spanked in anger, by my father, and I was probably nine or ten.  What I remember most about that incident is that he was so frustrated because he, as an only child, always had a difficult time understanding why my brother and I fought so loudly and frequently; we were indeed duking it out downstairs in the playroom.  And so he came downstairs, yanked me off my brother, popped my on the bottom one good time, got my brother up and popped him one good time – and then it happened.  The paddle broke.

I tell you this in all honesty: it was incredibly funny and my brother and I stifled laughter.  There was my father – proud, wonderful, loving, incredibly frustrated at that particular point in time, and completely deflated because his prop – the one he was using to make his point – literally fell apart in his hand.  He just looked at the paddle, saw the stifled laughs on our faces, threw the paddle to the ground and implored, “Why can’t you two just get along?” and sent us to our rooms where we could mercifully laugh in private.

Let me tell you, I have told that story many times (and with a good bit of embellishment) while my brother and I wiped tears of laughter from our faces.  We were always loved.  We were never beaten.  We were never abused.  But boy were we spanked.  And I’ll defend it as effective to my dying day.

And I spank.  I spank my five year old because he’s five and he needs a daggum spanking to get his attention sometimes.  Every once in awhile, so does my three year old.  I have never spanked them multiple times in an episode.  I have never left a mark.  I have never spanked them with the intention of striking fear into their little hearts. It doesn’t happen on a daily, or even weekly basis.  I’ve never used a belt or a switch or a paddle or anything other than my open palm.  But I have occasionally spanked hard enough that it hurt a little.

And I am a damn good parent.  I love my children immeasurably.  Unconditionally.  Unabashedly.  I live for my kids.  They are wonderful kids.  They get spankings.  And I’m not the only parent I know using spankings to discipline children (in an appropriate way, in my opinion).  So I think it’s vitally important to distinguish between spankings and abuse.  Certainly, spankings can be used in an abusive manner, but there is a difference.  The stories you have shared are horrific and I cannot imagine ever inflicting that kind of pain and suffering on any child.  They weren’t spanked.  They were abused.  Plain and simple. To lump spankers like me (and so many I know) with the parents described by your readers is completely unfair.  Can we have a conversation about whether there are more appropriate ways to punish kids than by spanking?  Sure!  And I’m happy  to have it – until you accuse me of abusing my kids simply because I admit I spank, and will continue to spank, my kids.

Another reader who defends spanking:

You wrote, “Hitting people, especially when those people are small and defenseless and dependent on your care, is such a lazy and cruel way to discourage bad behavior.” Really?

I am a mental health therapist who has worked for some 14 years primarily with children and families.  When I first started, I worked for a foster care agency providing mental health services to foster children and their biological families.  Many of the children I worked with entered care with severe conduct problems, including repeated incidents of running from home, stealing, sexually abusing others, using drugs and alcohol, prostitution (i.e.,  submission to sexual abuse for money or a place to stay because the child is on the run), etc.

While some of the children were victims of substantiated abuse and neglect, there were other children who had not only never been physically abused, they were never really even disciplined. And I noticed that some of these children were among the ones with more severe cases of conduct problems both in terms of severity and chronicity.

It turns out that there is research that shows that for children ages 2 to 7 especially, spanking is an effective disciplinary technique. And this is especially true for children who have strong personalities and are difficult to discipline because, among other things, they refuse to submit to whatever consequence they are given as a result of their misbehavior.  When normative spanking is defined as two swats on the butt with an open palm, administered to get the child to comply with, say, a time out, children rapidly learn to comply with time out such that the parent can actually successfully use disciplinary techniques besides spanking.

Every child is different.  Some are compliant, some are not.  Some will work for praise; others could care less.

So a lazy parent is not one who spanks to obtain control over their child (and by the way, control over your child is a prerequisite to effective parenting if you are to successfully guide your child through childhood to adulthood).  It is in my experience that a lazy parent is one who simply allows the child to do what they please in lieu of actually having to discipline, especially when discipline means the parent having to take steps they would prefer not to take, such as a spanking.

Indulgence is not a kindness.  It is a parent’s job to raise an adult, not a life-long child incapable of tolerating frustration or following rules.  If you think the results of spanking are bad, you should visit some of my former indulged clients in prison.

Those who are interested in knowing more about the impact of spanking on children may want to look at Robert E. Larzelere and Diana Baumrind’s article “Are Spanking Injunctions Scientifically Supported?“, 73 Law and Contemporary Problems 57-88 (Spring 2010).

Oct 8, 2014 @ 3:57pm

Ctd …

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.

Oct 16, 2014 @ 1:59pm

Ctd …

Our reader who wrote the remarkable email that sparked the thread follows up again:

I just wanted to thank everyone, so very much, for the conversation threads and for the editorial care. Reading the emails has been a difficult, emotionally tricky experience – and an unexpectedly healing one, too. I’m profoundly grateful for it all.

The conversation continues:

Wow, this is probably the most amazing thread on the Dish to date, and there’ve been some good ones. And the key is to see all sides of the debate, not just what may be “right”. Publishing emails from those who justify abuse is just as important, so we can see what the cycle of violence produces.

My beatings always came from the by-products of my disinterest in school.  I was pretty sharp as a kid, but I never liked the doldrums of doing homework.  I’d get report card after report card stating that assignments were not turned in, effort was lacking, etc, even though I usually did well on the tests.  The days those wretched reports came (8 times a year) were usually pretty awful.  I think your original reader nailed it: no child is equipped to handle such psychological terror.

For instance, I knew that the train from the city to the suburbs arrived in the station at 6:13pm. Calculating the drive to our house: 11 minutes.  A minute to put his things down, and then my mom would share the bad news with him: 3 minutes.  Then the footsteps on the stairs that didn’t take long. So all afternoon, after arriving from school and finding that goddamn carbon-copied paper sitting on the kitchen counter, I’d wonder if the train would be late, or if he’d stop to get gas, offering me a few more minutes of either relief or terror, not sure which.

If everything was on schedule, I was going to get slapped around 6:28pm.  I’d wait in my room, knowing that the door would soon open and I’d have to endure not only the physical hell, but the emotional hell.  After one time when he ruined my glasses because they were on my face for the first hit, he’d always tell me to take my glasses off with deceptive calm.  After the slapping was over and I’d calmed down enough to think again, there would follow a two-hour discussion of the merits of school and responsibility and such, me sitting there in shame with a prickling face.

Another reader shifts the focus to school itself:

I grew up in the South, but my mom was fairly progressive and my parents were divorced. So my experience with corporal punishment was in school. The teachers, who were often also the football coaches, took great pride in their paddles.

Massive, two-handed affairs with holes drilled to reduce wind resistance, painted in fearsome colors. Or a stack of yard sticks, since they would most certainly be broken if used. Switches weren’t used because, darn it, the kids needed to be clothed (I knew one guy who wore four pairs of underwear when he knew he was in trouble).

My personal experience in the ’60s and ’70s was that some kids had it a lot worse at home. The school paddling stung, but because it was done in front of the class, the embarrassment was also a part of the punishment. In general, I was a pretty good kid, so I only experienced it a few times and don’t really think of it as traumatizing. But the stories of some kids home lives was deeply disturbing to me. My best friend was so beat one day that he asked to be allowed to stand in class. He had to go the the nurse when blood started leaking through his pants.

Now I have my own child. I can’t tell you that I haven’t been tempted to hit him. Especially when he was younger, it seemed like he was deliberately obnoxious. But not so. We found that there were ways to negatively and positively incentivize him that didn’t require embarrassment or pain, like taking away a GameBoy or dessert.

Anyway, our boy now is well behaved, and I thank God I never hit him. If I had, I would have started an escalation that would have required more and more hitting to achieve “results”. Only as so many others have indicated, it rarely has the desired corrective affect; it just relieves the parents tension at the moment. But instead, my son is attentive, and responsive to correction. He now responds most to my disappointment; words aren’t even needed many times.

Another tackles a previous reader:

I just read again more justifications for hitting children as a form of discipline.  This line struck me:

Indulgence is not a kindness. It is a parent’s job to raise an adult, not a life-long child incapable of tolerating frustration or following rules. If you think the results of spanking are bad, you should visit some of my former indulged clients in prison.

First, I truly wonder if this person has really worked in the prison population.  My father did for years and it was very clear that the majority of the inmates were abused as children.  There were not many (if any) from “indulged” backgrounds.  Further, failure to perform physical violence on a child is not a form of indulgence.  Indulgence connotes that improper behavior is tolerated without consequence.  Such parenting is really neglect because the parent broadcasts to the child that no behavior (good or bad) can raise the parent’s attention.   This lack of attentiveness creates no boundaries for children and children clearly suffer without boundaries.

Boundaries include discipline but spanking does not have to be than form of discipline.  Spanking sends the wrong message.  What children learn is that hitting is an acceptable method of resolving problems.  For example, if my daughter hits my son, how is punishing her by hitting her in turn effective?  What the child learns is that the bigger and stronger party controls the aggressive behavior.

But many readers are still defending corporal punishment:

Some kids need to be spanked sometimes, period.  Not beaten, cut, smashed, bruised or battered, but swatted smartly on their backside.  Why?  Because nothing else works with some kids and some kids, particularly smart, willful kids, will figure out pretty quickly – as our grandson has done – that they can throw a temper tantrum in public and either get whatever they want or force their parents to leave. Our son and daughter-in-law refuse to swat our grandson’s little behind and stick him in his crib until he comes around.  As a result, he plays his parents like a fiddle.

You haven’t been down this road, so you are on the outside looking in.  You are hearing from folks whose parents, usually the father, went well beyond what any sane parent has in mind when disciplining a child.

If there is any tolerable reason to strike your kid, this reader has it:

I have been following the thread on spanking with interest. I find the idea of breaking a child’s spirit utterly abhorrent, especially through violence.

And yet, for my eldest son, I had to resort to some tactics I hated. From the time he could walk, he tried to run in front of cars. The moment we stepped outside, if there was a moving vehicle anywhere, he tried to get in front of it. Heavy traffic made him squeal with delight and he would do everything in his power to go and be in it.

The only way, and I mean the ONLY way – I tried everything – to get him to stop running in front of speeding vehicles was to spank him. He’d lunge for the street, I’d yank him back and whack him on the butt (hand only, his clothes on, not hard enough to bruise, but hard enough to get his attention.) He’d wail in protest. Rinse and repeat. For a year and a half. He finally, around his fourth birthday, figured out that he was not supposed to run in front of cars.

Did I break his spirit? I think you could say that the part of him that took joy in the glory of several tons of metal bearing down on him is probably gone forever. I look at it as doing what’s necessary for him to make it to adulthood, or at least to an age where he can puzzle out the harsh consequences of the laws of physics for himself.

Update from a reader with a strong counterpoint:

I’m calling bullshit again. This parent says that she spanked her son for a year and a half when he tried to dart into traffic, and it sounds like this happened pretty much every day. Well, obviously spanking DID NOT WORK. If it did, then after two or three spankings, he would have learned to not run into traffic. Instead, what likely happened was that traffic lost its attraction for him around age 4 (just as knocking over block towers probably became less interesting around age 2). Spanking her son had NO effect on his behavior.

I would have recommended she get one of those leash things and then test him every two or three months without (and with another adult to run interference if he dashed for the traffic again).

Another is on the same page:

There are products specifically designed for this!  Many children try to run off and there are restraining systems built for it, thus eliminating the need for spanking.  If that parent could stop them with their hand, they easily could have put a leash on him before going outside.

Yes, it’s a parent’s job to keep them from harm.  But not to inflict it.

Oct 17, 2014 @ 11:19am

Ctd …

The popular thread continues with a new angle – sexual shame:

I can only remember one time I was spanked. It’s an early memory of running away and cowering in the corner while my very sweet and kind father came towards me. I was so scared. The spanking wasn’t terrible but that image will stick with me forever. That and the humiliation. I still can’t reconcile it with my father’s otherwise extraordinarily loving personality. And I have no memory of why I was punished. Clearly the “lesson” didn’t stick. But that image always will.

As an absolute aside, has anyone noticed that hitting someone’s buttocks is an oddly sexual place to hit someone? Could it, even unintentionally, be a form of sexual abuse? Certainly that element adds to the humiliation of being spanked.

Another can relate to that humiliation:

My parents never paddled me with an implement, or whooped me with a switch, or a belt. My father spanked me, bare-bottom, bare-handed over his knee until I was about six. For some reason, the recent discussion about child abuse and corporal punishment treats spanking as a lesser act, like a kindly “slap on the butt”. I couldn’t disagree more.

My earliest emotional memories are the terror and shame I felt as my dad tore down my pants and spanked my bare bottom. The anger and rage he expressed terrified me. I didn’t understand. It didn’t teach me anything, except to fear my father, who surely had loving thoughts of his son. It took ten years before I could get to know my dad, and I wonder often how it might have been different. And he wasn’t otherwise a frightening figure. He was a bookish lawyer from a good family.

There’s a sexual element to corporal punishment that is difficult to confront. Society nearly admits as much when witnesses are required for female students to be spanked. Maybe small children haven’t formed sexual identities yet, but I am certain the sexual shame of bare beatings is felt, even if it can’t quite be articulated.

Update from a reader:

Without delving into the question of whether spanking across the buttocks constitutes sexual abuse, intentional or otherwise, there is a practical reason for striking someone there. The sciatic nerve runs over the gluteus muscles in the buttocks, meaning that a blow delivered to that spot can deliver a fair amount of pain without causing lasting damage.

Dec 28, 2014 @ 8:35pm

Ctd …

A reader writes:

I wonder how many of your readers who oppose spanking are parents – and what proportion of them have dealt with strong-willed children determined to do what they want, time-outs and rescinded deserts notwithstanding. Beyond this, the number of readers who think a quick jolt to the butt is the equivalent of child abuse astonishes me.

But I suppose it shouldn’t. In a society where sex with an uneasy partner who never actually says no is “rape” – that is, is the very same thing as violent assault and physically coerced sex – we have also broadened the definition of “child abuse” to mean both what Adrian Peterson did, and what the dad who whacked his kid on the butt to keep the boy from running into traffic did. Is grabbing a child’s arm and telling him to stop making a scene in public also child abuse? And who gets to decide these things – a dispassionate system of law, or parents who consider themselves oh-so-enlightened who deign to tell tell the great unwashed that a quick whack on a misbehaving child’s behind is essentially the same thing as burning him with a cigarette or scarring him with a switch?

Another puts it well:

I have been following this thread with fascination.  A few years ago my wife broke off all contact with her parents, because she had been spanked perhaps 5-10 times by her father until the age of 12.  Her mother and father are extremely kind and loving parents otherwise.  But my wife feels that those 5-10 spankings constitute abuse, and she will not speak to her parents, or let them see their only grandchild, until they accept that what they did was abuse. They steadfastly refuse.

Now many of your readers may consider this an over-reaction, and that is precisely how her parents feel. But I have been with my wife many years now, and I no longer doubt how deeply wounded she was by what she experienced as an abject humiliation and betrayal of trust.  And I see this more clearly as a result of reading the letters you have received on this topic.  So I would submit that the answer to the question “When does spanking become abuse” is easily answered: when the child being spanked experiences it that way.  And to those who would scoff at that definition, you should consider whether you are willing to bet any future relationship with your child or your child’s family on whether you are right.

Another reader’s story:

I grew up in the South and spanking was “normal” in our household; but my mother and father were never brutish or brutal with us; and never hit us in anger. However, my dad taught me the best lesson on one “spanking” occasion.

I had been told not to drain any oil from our oil tank (I used it to clean paint brushes). Well, I did. My dad noticed the paint brushes in a jar of oil beside the tank. It was clear I had done it. He asked me if I did, and I lied, saying “no.” He knelt down beside me and held my shoulders so he could look into my face; and he asked me several times if I had used the oil, and I always denied doing it. The proof was right there! I was about 10 years old, and even I knew my lie was bald faced and stupid. He finally said to me, “If you tell me the truth, I will not spank you. If you lie to me, I will. Now, did you use the oil from the tank.” Again, I denied that I had. I saw his face go very blank and his stare lengthened. He was thinking. Then he said, “I know you would not lie to me, so I believe you.” I was crushed and shamed beyond belief.

I have never forgotten this. A spanking would have been forgotten immediately. And I never lied to him again.

Treating a child like an adult, once they are able to reason, is a good bet. It’s also good when parents know when this point is. Spanking should never become the fall back mode of communication.


I was glad to see a reader bring up school-based corporal punishment, as my memories of Bein’ Whooped are almost entirely paddle-based and at the hands of an overly-aggressive junior high P.E. coach.

In my Tampa junior high, the Troubled Teen had two disciplinary choices affectionately known as “Three or Three”: You could take three days of suspension, which went on your permanent record and (worse) alerted your parents, or you could take three licks with the paddle, which did neither of those things. Writing this now, I find a queasy sort of sadism in the nod-and-wink transaction between school and student in this hush-hushed ass-whopping option: “We won’t tell if you won’t, son. So bend over and let me spank that ass,” seems tawdry and a bit sick from a 30-year remove. At the time, facing three days of parental scorn and no TV for a month, it seemed a bargain at twice the price.

That is, unless you get busted for selling black market Jolly Ranchers the week your principal is out of town and his replacement is the world’s most stereotypical gym teacher, with oak tree arms and a Maker’s Mark cask of a chest who had no sense of his own colossal strength.

I should have known something was amiss when my paddling that day required a fucking witness. No joke, the outer lobby secretary had to stand in the coach’s office and watch as I received my paddling, I guess to make sure I wasn’t accidentally beaten to death or crippled from the ass down when Gigantor tucked in. I found this odd and unsettling until the first lick, which did two things simultaneously: Made me forget about everything and everyone in the world save the searing pain across my upper thighs, and dropped me to my knees in a bleating heap of penitence I have never forgotten. I would have done anything, anything, at that moment to save myself the final two-thirds of that beating. And though the coach helped me back to my feet kindly and without bravado, he took his last two licks, each worse than the one before, each a healthy splash of gasoline on a blazing ass-fire.

I had to stand in the outer office for half an hour, clutching the secretary’s desk and blubbering quietly to myself as my knees quivered and my thighs burned, before I could master the art of walking back to class. I wish I could say that was the Spanking That Turned Me Around, the last of my checkered high school career, but alas, I was a recidivist to the end.

My 12-year-old daughter, whose Perfect Precious Snowflakeness I defended to loud shouts of derision in a previous post, has been spanked exactly twice in her life: Once for playing with matches and again for nearly sticking a knife in an electrical outlet. Both were the mistakes you get with a curious mind attached to nimble fingers, so the spanking was meant to shock more than hurt. The house remains standing and she hasn’t yet electrocuted herself, so Bravo, Parent says I!

Another notes regarding the school angle:

Nineteen states still have some form of corporal punishment in schools on the books:

cp map

About 200,000 students are disciplined in this way in schools every year, and these students are disproportionately male, black, and often disabled.  It seems obvious to me that if we don’t want parents using corporal punishment, we should at minimum be banning it in our public schools.

Another offers some advice:

To the reader who resorted to spanking to prevent his/her son from running in front of cars: while I understand the frustration and worry that must have occurred, I wonder why you never thought of putting your son in reins? It can be effective for little ones. I think there are creative ways to keep your children safe or modify behavior without resorting to spanking.

Another relays some wisdom from Montaigne:

Thought you might be interested in ​including​ this passage from Montaigne’s essay, “Of the affection of fathers for their children”​: ​

​​I condemn all violence in the education of a tender soul which is being trained for honor and liberty. There is a sort of servility about rigor and constraint; and I hold that what cannot be done by reason, and by wisdom and tact, is never done by force[…]. Leonor […] is over six years old now, and has never been guided or punished for her childish faults […] by anything but words, and very gentle ones. […] I have seen no other effect of whips except to make souls more cowardly or more maliciously obstinate.​”

And a final reader story touches on the theme of sexual humiliation addressed here:

Thank you for the thread on spanking. The ongoing discussion comes at a critical time for me, as my wife and I are wrangling over how to discipline our daughter, who recently turned three.

I was raised by a single mother after my parents divorced when I was five. Mom went from being the stay-at-home mother of two boys (less than a year apart) to a single parent with an M.D. ex-husband who chafed against the divorce settlement and made our lives very difficult financially.

I know, now, that my mother was depressed when I was a child. She had married my dad right out of college, less out of love than out of the desire not to return to her parents’ dysfunctional home. And now she found herself alone, raising two boys, with little money and no help. It’s a recipe for disaster, but to her credit, my mother managed to get us through it. But did she spank us? Yes, she did.

I’m not writing this to either condemn or excuse my mother’s use of corporal punishment (she had a wooden ruler, or maybe it was a piece of wooden moulding, which came to be known as “the slat”). She didn’t hit us often; “the slat” was more than anything else an omnipresent threat, there to keep us in line. My brother and I would find and hide it whenever mom left it, and us, unattended.

Perhaps ironically, Mom’s wooden enforcer was not involved when things reached critical mass, when I was probably 7-8 years old. I had done something wrong – serious, I’m sure – because Mom announced that she was going to pull down my pants and spank my bare ass. I went into panic-overdrive mode, not at the idea of being spanked, but at the humiliation of Mom attempting to pull down my pants to do it. I struggled, and I lost it, and I hauled off and punched my mother right in the mouth. It was one of those moments you can never forget or take back. We both burst into tears. I didn’t get spanked, ultimately, and I think at that moment we both realized that hitting doesn’t solve anything – it makes everyone feel worse.

I’m 50 now, and my first/only child is a beautiful, intelligent, feisty toddler of three years. It’s difficult to hold back from reacting physically when a toddler is kicking, slapping, and elbowing, typically over mundane issues like bedtime, wanting to watch more TV, or not wanting to go pee pee. I don’t believe that hitting a child is sending the right message, that a three year-old has sufficient self-control to be fully accountable for her actions, or that violence is an acceptable solution or response. My wife disagrees, but has never hit our daughter in front of me.

Last week I picked up my daughter from her preschool, and as I strapped her into her car seat she said to me “Mommy hit me, like this” and slapped herself, hard across the face. My heart broke.

It’s 2014. My wife and I are equal partners in life and in parenting. I can’t tell her how to discipline our daughter. She knows how I feel about it, and I know she feels like I’m too easy on our daughter. She’s only three, for christ’s sake. Wish us luck.