A boy stands facing a wall, hands on his buttocks, while a wooden spoon is held up behind him as if to spank.

My Kids Don’t Remember Being Spanked, But I Can’t Forget

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A boy stands facing a wall, hands on his buttocks, while a wooden spoon is held up behind him as if to spank.
This family tradition did not get passed on to my kids. Image: Michael LeSauvage

I grew up in a house that spanked. Such punishment was usually reserved for the strongest of offenses–deliberate disregard for household property, or, more often, when my brother or I used force on each other. I don’t distinctly recall who dished out the punishment, but I do remember that, while my father occasionally threatened “the belt” (though it was never delivered), it was my mother who transformed the wooden spoons into instruments of terror. One favorite family story is how she went to change my bedding one day and found all of the wooden spoons lined up neatly under my mattress; we never figured out what I had done wrong, but I had clearly been worried about being punished for something.

In my experience, most discussions of spanking are about the effect on the child. GeekDad’s only post on the subject was back in 2012. That article centered on the release of a new study that showed that parents who communicated with their children about spanking and why they were being punished elevated the risk of depression in their children compared to those who spanked with no explanation. The conclusion was that it was better to spank with indifference than to try to explain it. Children could accept violence, but, if the violence was commingled with reason and compassion, it led to depression.

But let’s leave that aside here. Maybe you’re spanking and you’re doing it right (whatever that means). Clearly, many of my generation were spanked, and we’re not all terribly maladjusted folk. I don’t begrudge my upbringing; my anecdote about the wooden spoons shows how it can become an amusing memory in retrospect, for some of us anyway. Whatever your position on the effect on the child, I’d like you to take some time to think about the long-term effect on you, the parent.

I don’t remember when I first spanked my daughter, but I definitely remember the justifications I told myself. I set red lines that evolved over time; first up were elements essential to teach her to be safe, such as staying away from the stove. Later I added destruction of books to the list. After her brother was born, I would spank to reflect the physical violence back on the perpetrator, to teach them it wasn’t right. Some of you may be nodding in agreement, but I’m no longer on that page.

A woman spanks a child while two peers look at what is happening.
Image: Wikimedia Commons: Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R79742 / CC-BY-SA

First off, I’m an idiot. Let’s solve those problems in order: it’s up to me to keep the stove safe; tearing paper is fun; and how could I have thought that violence begetting violence was teaching the right lesson? But I threw that in for you anti-spank folk. There is already plenty of evidence out there that spanking is at least a neutral influence, and more likely damaging to the child. Let’s move on to the issue at hand: what effect did the spanking have on me as a parent?

At first, not much. When my kids were very young, I was able to tell myself the above justifications and walk away a little flustered, but I told myself I was doing it for the right reasons–and my wife agreed with me and gave me verbal support. It was a typical case of “I’m doing this for your own good.” However, as my kids got older, something began to change: anger started to creep in on the spanking, and the number of reasons for a spanking started expanding.

I didn’t notice it at first, and I can’t tell you all the possible infractions that I added to my list, but my spanking frequency definitely grew and I have distinct memories of spanking while angry. Afterwards, I would revisit my justifications, but they were starting to ring hollow, and it was beginning to affect me deep down, leaving me upset and agitated for hours after the event. At the same time, I was seeing that I could get results with other tactics, especially “time outs,” and I found that I was having to execute ever greater mental gymnastics to excuse my behavior.

Two panels from a comic showing a man kicking an elephant and a woman spanking a child with a hairbrush.
It is no longer comical, but spanking appeared in many comics I read growing up, including Donald Duck. The above has no relation to Disney and is by Richard Felton Outcault (Buster Brown chez lui) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The effects of spanking on the parent are not often discussed in the media. Interested to see if my experience was common, I contacted Dr. Holden, a researcher at Southern Methodist University, to see what research has been done. He confirmed that it is a good topic, but one that is “not studied.” One of his papers[1] did show that women’s attitudes change (in both directions) when they become mothers. A more recent one[2] showed that mothers often spank for trivial matters. Despite being a dad, I think you can at least loosely apply both of these to my situation, but neither address how I was feeling.

Which brings us back to the moment I knew something had to change. I don’t remember what precipitated it, but one day my children were misbehaving (bickering?) and I summoned them to me with a bellow. When my son walked into the room, his eyes were wide with fear. He was shuffling his feet, his hands on his buttocks as he faced me, trying to keep maximum distance between me and a possible spanking.

At that moment I saw myself through his eyes, and I wasn’t the loving protector I had envisioned myself to be. I wasn’t “teaching” him, and this wasn’t “for his own good.” Instead, I saw myself as I appeared to him–an angry, powerful, and terrifying man–and I did not like what I saw. I hadn’t had an intention to spank at that moment, and that made it all the worse: even for minor events, I now naturally instilled dread in my children.

My wife and I had a long discussion that night, and we haven’t spanked since.

Wooden spoons on my childhood bed, just as I hid them to avoid a spanking.
Wooden spoons on my childhood bed, just as I hid them to avoid a spanking. Image: Michael LeSauvage.

My kids? They’re great and well-behaved. My guess is that they would likely have been doing fine, spanking or not spanking, though that may still be based on biases from my own upbringing. It took another two years before my son (the youngest) stopped showing fear of being spanked, and, incredibly, they both tell me that they don’t have any memories of spankings. We’ve since had a number of good discussions about spanking and violence, and it never ceases to amaze me that they still seem to accept that it would be fine for me to spank them if I wanted to. It’s a trust I don’t feel I’ve earned, and one I never again want to violate.

This was a hard post to write. I’m ashamed of the choices I made. I wish I could take every bit of violence back, and I think about it often. Let me serve as your ghost of spanking future: don’t worry about how society will judge you; worry about how you will judge yourself.

[1] Child Effects as a Source of Change in Maternal Attitudes Toward Corporal Punishment. Holden, George W.; Thompson, Elizabeth E.; Zambarano, Robert J.; Marshall, Lisa A. Journal of Social and Personal relationships, Vol 14 no. 4, Aug 1997, 481-490.

[2] Eavesdropping on the family: A pilot investigation of corporal punishment in the home. Holden, George W.; Williamson, Paul A.; Holland, Grant W. O. Journal of Family Psychology, Vol 28(3), Jun 2014, 401-406.

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29 thoughts on “My Kids Don’t Remember Being Spanked, But I Can’t Forget

  1. I couldn’t agree more. We parents need to find a better way to process anger than committing violence on our kids.

    We know it’s not especially effective so what is it that keeps us spanking instead of using constructive discipline?

    I suspect it’s the same, visceral satisfaction that keeps football more popular than Quiz Bowl or the chess championship.

    A very honest and self-reflection look at things.

  2. Thanks for sharing. Very powerful story, and as the parent of a 15 month old, this is a conversation we’re just starting to have.

    And don’t be ashamed. I think it’s important as parents to share our failures so we can all learn from each other. Nobody does it 100% right.

  3. I’ve followed Geekdad for years, and I’m sad to say it stops today. Corporal punishment is not violence. For you to say that for thousands of years nearly every parent was violent, including my own, is laughable and insulting. Because you couldn’t control your temper while spanking, don’t believe that every person who chooses corporal punishment is doing so with anger in their hearts.

    I never spanked my children, as I thought they could be reasoned with. I was wrong with one of them. I wish I had tried spanking, as nothing else worked, including therapy. I know spanking worked on me when words, logic, and groundings from my parents wouldn’t. And I cannot remember my mother, the corporal punishment dealer, ever acting out of anger. If anything, she waited until the emotion of the moment passed. The waiting for the per-determined number of “whacks” was always the hardest part.

    Some people need old fashioned pain to fear authority, because the fear of other punishments is non-existent. For society to completely shun the punishment of last resort, physical pain, and think that all respond to time away from society is foolish. Sometimes fear of pain is all that keeps the less savory members of society from acting upon us. And sometimes it’s all we can do to keep our children in line.

    You learned that you’re not the right person to be dealing spankings and so avoided them, in much the same way that someone who has a drinking problem avoids bars, and so you must be commended. But in the same way that an alcoholic shouldn’t consider people who consume alcohol to be evil drunks, you, with your anger issues, shouldn’t consider all who spank to be violent people who revel in the fear of their children.

    1. You have obviously put some thought into this issue. However, I must disagree with you. I am an engineer with a strong science background and therefore put a lot of faith in the research done on the affect and effect that spanking has on children. However, more than that, like the author of this article, I cannot imagine a worse condemnation than the look of fear in the eyes of my children. There was a time when a man could beat his wife, when some men could own other people, when prisoners were wiped. We don’t do these things any more and the world is changing it’s position on spanking as well. Not in our lifetimes and probably not in out children’s lifetimes, but some day hitting a child will be thought of how we now see hitting your wife and spanking children will no longer be an acceptable form of discipline.

    2. Okay.

      So, after following a blog for years, you’re quitting because of a post you don’t like.

      And claim to be qualified to talk about other people’s anger issues.

      Got it.

    3. For thousands of years, we saw violence as normal, as we grow as a species, we evolve and move on. Spanking is one of those things that belongs in the past.

      You have 0 grounds for your argument, you’re regretful that you didn’t spank your children. This is a phrase that has been said to me by my spanking mother “I should’ve spanked you more, maybe you would’ve turned out right” yeah, no.

      My problems are not only because of my parents’ acceptance and desire of their children fearing them, I grew up fearing my parents, which translated to me never telling them my problems, I faced more than a decade of bullying and when I was “rightly punished” by your own logic, since my mother didn’t know about my problems, punishing me was logical, right? I had no reason to “misbehave” like that.

      Spanking is always out of anger, you don’t think of being violent if you’re not angry, that’s some good mental gymnastics
      there.

      I much wish my mother didn’t think of physical punishment as an option. I couldn’t be reasoned with, of course I didn’t, first, I was a child, second, I had problems that justified the behavior, therefore, spanking didn’t help, it helped diminish my self esteem even further. Some people don’t get affected psychologically, buy a lot of us do. It doesn’t matter if I did something really bad, violence only made the situation worse, it made me sadder, cry louder, and distance myself from my mom. Yes, even when I knew I did something bad.

      If I may, I’m inclined to believe your child has a severe mental disorder, and that you consider them to be “weak” because of it, parent of the year.

  4. Thank you for sharing this. Raising children is often frustrating and, as research shows, most parents hit children. Many regret it. Children speak out about their feelings about spanking and discipline that works better than spanking in the book This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You: In Words and Pictures Children Share How Spanking Hurts and What to Do Instead.

  5. I’m with Jason on this one. While I believe that every parent and every child are different I believe heartily in corporal punishment. For the effect it had on me, the effect it has had on my children and for the Biblical justification of it.

    Flame me and condemn me all you like, I also believe that a child should know that their parents are the providers of love, security AND discipline. They should love their parents and understand that at times they are worthy of being feared. Yep I said that. Not fear in general or unexpected or arbitrary but with an understanding that when they want to be willfully disobedient then that comes with consequences.

    My two boys don’t have any problem understand that they are loved fiercely and protectively by mom and dad. They also understand they are treading on what could be painful ground when they don’t act as they have been taught.

    1. The Bible does NOT justify hitting children. There is a difference between discipline and hitting. The word discipline comes from the same root as disciple and does not imply hitting but rather teaching. By hitting children you are teaching them that violence is an appropriate response when someone will not do what they want and they are bigger and stronger and can impose their will. All you bible thumpers rely on that one passage in Psalms but some how forget everything else that the bible has to say. Jesus never hit a child.

      1. Mark, I’m not taking sides as I have no children, but a good debater deals with straight facts and attempts to avoid offending potential readers/listeners. Unfortunately, you’re not only offensive by using the term “Bible Thumpers”, one of which I am not, but you’re also mistaken about the number, and location of versus in the Bible that deal with spanking children. There are a number of versus, none of which are found in Psalm: Proverbs 13:24; Proverbs 19:18 Proverbs 22:15; Proverbs 23:13-14; Proverbs 29:15.

        As for Jesus never hitting a child, that depends on if you’re a Creationist. There is no record of Jesus having children, and so, of course no record exists of him disciplining his children. But, if you believe Jesus is one of the Godhead, (The Father, The Son, The Holy Ghost), we are all his children, and so did strike his children, by using a whip of cords, as he expelled the money changers from the temple.

        1. I looked up your bible references and only one of them approaches endorcing spanking. All the rest talk about is discipline. While I do not advocate spanking I do believe that it is a parents duty to discipline their children. However, apparently unlike you, I recognize that discipline and hitting are not synonymous. That said, I’m not at all certain we should be taking parenting advice from a 2000 or more year old book that also endorsees slavery, stoning and many other practices that as a people we abandoned long ago. I apologize is you were offended by the term bible thumper. I guess I should have said Christian fundamentalist, which is not that different from Muslim fundamentalists, such as ISIS.

  6. I was spanked and I sexualized it. (Starting as toddler, FWIW. Kids can have sexual feelings sometimes.) I lived in dread of being touched and humiliated in this way by my parents, who I at first assumed knew how I felt and chose to spank me anyway! Later I decided I must be the one who was perverted and wrong, so I never mentioned it. I got a horrible mental jolt of humiliation, fear, and unwanted arousal every time someone said “spank.” My first rule of safety was never to give anyone the excuse to hit me, especially my butt. But my dad and teachers used to make jokes about spanking as if it were funny, part of life, and no big deal.

    Factually, some kids (I was one of them) are harmed by spanking. But some kids are not: I assume most adults who claimed they turned out fine and didn’t mind being spanked are telling the truth. The problem is that you can’t tell the difference between the two categories of kids. Those of us who were harmed by spanking didn’t have a way to make that known to our parents. If we tried, we risked being ridiculed, dismissed, or punished again for insubordination. It creates a culture of shame and silence surrounding a genuine problem–nobody *wants* kids to be harmed by spanking, yet the science is clear that that’s what sometimes happens. How would you ever know?

    If I could go back in time, I’m not sure I’d necessarily stop my dad from spanking me, but I wish I could have had the words and courage to say, “When you spank me and threaten me, I feel shocked, violated, and ashamed in a way that I’m not ok with. I need to know that you respect my body and won’t do that any more. Instead, let’s all use our words.” That would have been the scariest conversation of my childhood, but if they’d heard me out and genuinely understood, it would have been worth it.

    I think the best thing for any parent to do, regardless of whether they spank, is to make sure kids feel safe telling them when they have a problem and know that that problem will be taken seriously. Especially if the parent is the one causing it, because otherwise you’d have no way of knowing. If you can do that, it almost doesn’t matter what else you do or how unexpectedly wrong it goes: you can acknowledge what happened, accept that it needs to change, and work together to make things better for everyone involved. That’s a good leadership skill set to model to kids, IMO.

  7. Spanking really messed up my relationship with my parents. They kept a whip hanging on a nail in the pantry, and it was used often. We’d be told to take our clothes off and then we knew we’d be getting it. I remember feeling humiliated and extremely vulnerable standing in front of them completely naked with them holding the whip. I’d get 20-30 hard lashes on my buttocks and about 10 on my penis. The pain and welts lasted for a few days. I can’t imagine doing that to a child.

    1. Even most spanking advocates would say that that’s not okay, I think.

      But it’s still a question of degree.

      Don’t hit kids.

      Charlie, I’m so sorry for your experience. That’s horrible.

  8. I’m with you Dad!!! I to spanked my son and he’s turning 6. I haven’t spanked him for 3 months and I’m not turning back. I’ve noticed that he’s less angry, less aggressive and less defiant. I believe we both made the right decision. What ages were your kids when you stopped? I’m just curious bc they don’t remember it.

    1. I remember the decision but not the exact date. I think they were 3 and 5 (they’re now 8 and 10). So it’s a little surprising the five-year-old doesn’t remember, but I am thankful she doesn’t. You might find yourself in the same boat, hopefully. It’s been quite some time since I wrote this now, and I am continually surprised at the chord it struck with people. I wish you luck and patience with your new approach. Thanks for the comment.

  9. I was spanked quite often as a child. I’m now in my 40s and still feel distance and discomfort whenever I spend more than an hour or two with my parents. As a teenager it bothered me considerably for anyone to stand over me, and I hated being touched by my parents, especially my Dad who was the big spanker. I still don’t like hugging them. How sad!

  10. Great piece. Thanks for your honesty. I was a spanked kid..wooden soon too!
    Often. Too often. I remember my dad coming home after work one day and asking my mom how her day went. “Not bad. I only had to spank the kids once” As the spanking started as a toddler my memories of the events are blurry but my psyche remembers that I was “bad”. AM bad? It goes deep.
    Good for you for opening up an honest discussion before too much damage was done to all of your relationships.

  11. Spanked as a child, I was. I don’t think it changed how I feel about my parents, I still remember when I was spanked out of anger though, and I also knew when spanked because I had done something wrong, I remember the times I was talked to and forgiven. I remember and still know how dearly I was loved. I sort of laugh at books where kids tell you the adult how to punish. Pick your own punishment, haha, as a child I would have been picked the least painful anytime. Kids are smart. Find your balance.

  12. This is an amazing piece. I know I’m late to the game, but I appreciate your words. We haven’t spanked hard, but our three-year-old has been swatted over his diaper. He rages out a lot, and even though we don’t swat him hard enough to even cause pain, you can see the embarrassment he feels. It makes us feel like monsters, but stopped the behavior for a while. What I’ve realized though, is that it didn’t make him listen.. it doesn’t make him modify his behavior in the long run and he’s hasn’t learned from it, it just makes him stop because he’s throwing up walls. I don’t think we’ll ever swat him again.

    I pray he has no memories of it. He’s a good boy who has INSANE tantrums, but there is undoubtedly a better solution out there.

  13. I honestly don’t get why this is still even a conversation. You would think it would go something likw:

    -Can we raise children without spanking then? (Y/N)
    -If we can’t, what about all the people saying they are raising/were raised just fine without their parents hitting them?
    -If we can, then why are we not doing that? Why would we choose to keep hitting our kids if there were any other options?

    Continuing to spank your kids is, at the very least, an act of deliberate ignorance, and at it’s work, an act of sadistic cruelty. “Because I’m allowed to” is the excuse of a tyrant.

  14. nothing beats my spankings , here goes a few just for an example: my father never hit me maybe once that i don’t remember but my mother was really harsh. though i love her and adore her i still think she might of over done it, and now to some stories: first, mom never hit less than 6 slaps at a time even as a really young child. second, her smacks were so strong that me and all my siblings no matter how old started crying always already at the first slap(trust me she really knew how to hit us) three, until age 9 mom only spanked on buttocks with or with out pantees and after 9 she would also hit on face and now to the stories: when i was 7 my older brother harry had just turned 9 and mom started hitting him on face. one night at dinner harry was playing with his dishes at dinner trying to balance the plate etc. it almost fell , mom yelled at him and warned him for some strong slaps and to my “good” luck i just finished my plate and went to give it to mom at the kitchen counter and as i came the oily plate slipped and shattered mom not looking thought its harry and smacked me some till she realized its me since then even just being 7 not 9 iwould get slapped in face the last time i was hit i was a few weeks before turning 16 and momhit me 5000 stinging slaps on each of my faces it took almost 3 hours but thats not the aorst how about when i was 12 i licked my younger sister who told mom and in front of her she smacked me from 3:09 p.m. until 8:27 p.m. thats over 5 hours straight my sister said she counted 18,347 slaps but mom claims it was 20,000 slaps that was really harsh the hurt and pain is still felt in my slapped up face and spanked up red hot buttocks . how about the time i cheated in a family and neighbor game and in front of thm all she yanked down my pantees and my buttocks had another turn of spankings which lasted till 11:15 at night from around 7:30 i could not sit for four weeks . thats how my mom was now asa parent ialso hit but not so cruel only min. 5 slaps max. 20 ask them they love me

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