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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