“I was spanked as a child and I turned out fine”

A Facebook Friend (who is also a blog reader, hi!!) recently posted this meme on her timeline:


As a result of spanking or in spite of it?

Hitting children is not new and the world has kept on turning, I’ll concede the point. But I always get a chuckle when people claim that despite something “they turned out all right” . From politicians to policy-makers, business and community leaders, from the smallest to the largest units, people “who turned out fine” are having the babies, making the decisions and overall having a direct impact on the world we live in.

The numbers are in and can we really pretend that “we turned out all right”? Whether you lean left or right, it’s hard to argue that everything is all right with the world today. As a society, we’ve been unwilling to care enough about the consequences of our purchase decisions to pay for their actual cost. From environmental degradation to sweat shops, if our wallets are happy, we’re content to let “others” live with the consequences of our actions. We have a hiccup of remorse when tragedies like the Rana Plaza put us in front of our lifestyle choices but not enough to change anything. That would require sacrifice. And sacrifice is hard, especially when it involves others. We like the kind of sacrifice that get us ahead somehow. Like saving money, or going to school. Paying $200 for a pair of ethically sourced shoes? What’s in it for me?

Any minute increase in the price of gas  or electricity sends us writing to our MPs. Heaven forbids we should pay the actual cost of our endless thirst for energy. We want the SUV and the soaring two-storey windows in a sub-polar climate, how are we supposed to have this without energy subsidies? We subsidize the rich and the poor equally in the name of an infantile understanding of fairness. We hate to pay taxes, yet expect Cadillac entitlements on a K-car budget. Let the others pay the taxes. We shake our heads in contempt at governments’ willful blindness on debt, deficits and quantitative easing, yet we run our personal spreadsheets according to similar principles. We vocally take financial institutions to task for raking-in record-breaking profits while doing the same thing with our personal money. Let them share the banks’ obscene profits but not those of our favorite sports and entertainment personalities. We elect tax-cutting governments, then turn around and require social services. We suffer from a collective inability to be consistent with our political and economical beliefs. It’s all about me: my money, my entitlements, my job, my lifestyle, my stuff. We lean left when the State giveth and right when the State taketh away. We are unable to see that our day-to-day decision-making reflects that of the world leaders and financial planners we so adamently denounce for their self-serving ways.

We were spanked as children and turned out all right, yet incidences of mental illness and addictive behaviours are soaring, not only amongst ourselves but in our children as well. School yard bullies and victims grow into workplace bullies and victims. We profess zero-tolerance as harassment and belittling reduce our neighbours and colleagues to rubble. We reach deep into our reserves of righteous indignation when a child dies at her own hands but we look the other way when the hazing happens in our own backyard. How many parents of bullies were spanked as children and turned out all right? How many bullies have grown out of attachment voids passed down generations? Meanwhile, social and medical academic litterature has been linking addictive behaviours to unmet attachment needs since the ’70s and we keep spewing nonsense about “turning out fine.”

We are not fine. Our marriages are not fine. We are unable to put others’ wellbeing before our own, even when research consistently shows that children are wounded even by the most amiable of family breakdowns. Whenever someone declares that they were spanked as children “and turned out fine” I always want to start a game of 20 questions: oh yeah? How’s your relationship with your teenagers? How many relationships have you left? How’s your relationship with your boss? Your colleagues? Authority? Your faith? Are you still with your spouse? Is it possible that the voids in your life might have been left by unmet attachment needs? Would you entertain the idea that being hit by your parents might have had an influence on your inability to persevere through challenges or — the opposite — to leave abusive relationships?

We suffer from that psychological condition known as “respect for others” which causes us to share heartwarming viral stories about disabled people beating all the odds while we terminate our disabled pregnancies in ever increasing numbers. With the growth of prenatal diagnosis and the expectation that “the government” will take care of our medical needs, the primary care of physically and mentally disabled people has become a matter of choice. We call ourselves tolerant, fighters, believers. But when our turn comes to rise above, accept difference and take a chance at love when love is scary, we refuse. Today, 9 out of 10 pregnancies of children affected by Down Syndrome are terminated. Our psychological condition known as “respect for others” doesn’t extend to our own children, which we are not quite ready to love unconditionally. We tolerate difference only in the most limited sense of the term: to allow the existence of something that we do not necessarily like or agree with. We celebrate difference on the outside but on the inside we believe that the disabled life is not worth living. 

In a recent ad for a radio segment on Alzheimer’s disease, the announcer declared: “Alzheimer’s: first it robs you of your memories, then of your physical abilities, and eventually of your dignity…” Does it really? Is the indignity of the aged and the ill such an accepted fact that we no longer pretend to respect them? Our psychological condition known as ‘respect for other’ is an exclusive club where the “other” worth respecting is young, healthy and suitably well-off. The poor and the downtrodden need not apply: we’re so full of “respect”, we no longer have room for compassion. 

So stop with the memes already and go hug your kids. Your parents’ smacks are not genetic, you don’t have to pass them down a generation. Let’s see if love can build a better world than spanks have.  


Why I don’t spank or “The day my daughter slew me.”

This post was first published on Vie de Cirque in 2014. I am reposting it in light of the recent policy statement by the American Academy of Pediatrics recommending that parents avoid corporal punishment to manage challenging behaviour.

Yesterday, I was advised to spank my children for getting out of bed after bedtime. I was venting about our bedtime routine, gone wild with the longer summer days and the end of napping for the twins. Our twins are 2-and-a-half and our daughter is 5. All three have a hard time stopping long enough to let sleep overcome them. After sharing with friends everything we had tried, one of them suggested spanking them if they got out of bed. I was taken aback, a little speechless, and blurted out: “They would have no idea why I’m hitting them.” I would have liked to be able to say: “I never spank my children.”

I used to spank but I don’t anymore. When my four older children were young, I believed that spanking was part of any parent’s discipline toolbox. I believed, as I had been told by other parents, that nothing cleared the air like a good swat on the bum. That spanking was the only way to ensure compliance in certain situations. That some defiant behaviours such as willful disobedience and lying should be nipped in the bud quickly and unequivocally through spanking. The books I read were reasonable. Nobody suggested spanking infants or school-aged children. Every author or speaker insisted that parents should never spank in anger. That the bum-swat should be applied swiftly and unemotionally to children who are too young to understand the gravity of their actions. All the while, spanking made my children angry or miserable, not compliant. And rather than be unemotional about it, I was racked by guilt and the impression that there had to be a better way to raise respectful and considerate children. The reality was that I always spanked in anger: when I wasn’t angry, I could always find more constructive and respectful ways to get what I needed from my children.

When my 5th child was born, I decided to stop spanking. I decided that if hitting my child was the only way to gain the upper hand, I deserved to lose that hand. I would drop an argument before resorting to spanking. You see, the problem with spanking or yelling or any anger fuelled response is that it works. It works to blow-off steam; it works to obtain compliance from our children; it works to leave a lasting impression. The problem with spanking is not whether it works or not, but why it works so well. A toddler who resorts to hitting and biting understands how expedient physical punishment can be. And when I spanked my children, however rarely, I felt at the mental capacity of a toddler. There had to be a better way, for my children and for myself as I sought to become a better parent.

Why does spanking work? Is it merely the fear of pain that snaps our children back on the straight and narrow? Is the pain inflicted on your bum by a parent the same as the pain that is inflicted by a fall on the playground? Does spanking work on defiance just like a fat lip works on couch acrobatics? Or is there something about the pain inflicted by a parent that makes it more efficient? Any parent of a playground acrobat knows that pain is not always a deterrent. My two-year-old son was chasing a soccer ball in the driveway when the ball rolled under our van. Without thinking twice about his height in relation to the van’s clearance, he ducked under the van but hit the bumper then the pavement face first. He stood up, shook himself up, and carried on the pursuit with a bad case of road rash. Without a single tear. Yet, the same day, when he was particularly defiant at bedtime, I flicked his diaper area with one finger to hurry him along and the screams of pain were completely disproportionate to the “pain” I had inflicted. If pain was the only deterrent involved in spanking, toddlers who bite, hit and shove would be widely respected at home and on the playground. There is a singularity to parents hitting children that makes the pain more searing. We often justify spanking by saying that we do not really hurt our children. We know, even if we do not like to admit it, that spanking is not about the physical pain we inflict but about its emotional impact on our children. Spanking works. Not because it hurts but because the hurt comes from our hand.

When we hit our children, no matter how good the reason seems to be, we use the love and trust that bind us to our children against them. We play-up their natural fear of losing our love and affection and use it against them. Because let’s be honest here, what makes spanking so expedient is not the fear of physical pain but the fear of loss. And the loss feared is the most profound. Hitting our children, when it works in achieving compliance, is hitting at their core, not their bums. This breaks my heart when I think about it. In hindsight, I am glad that spanking never worked for us. I take comfort in the fact that it made my children angry rather than compliant. I am thankful that they were secure enough in my love to call my bluff.

Spanking works, but it works for the wrong reasons. It is also a behavior that is self-reinforcing because it yields immediate results while giving vent to our frustration. The positive feedback loop afforded by spanking when we are at our wits’ end quickly becomes hardwired. Even 10 years after I made the decision to stop spanking, I can still be heard threatening my children with a bum-whacking whenever I reach the end of my rope. I never follow through and they know that. But I hate that my mind still goes there more often than I like to admit. And my children, when looking after their younger siblings, can often be heard threatening them with a spanking if they don’t straighten up. The urge to hit in frustration is a powerful one. Once our brain has tasted the relief, it is hard to give it up.

I still hit the wall. Often. It happens when my children are simply so defiant and disobedient that hitting seems to be the only way to get respect. It happens at bedtime when the children take 2 hours to fall asleep and I need a break. It happens when they run away from me in a busy parking lot. It happens when I am desperately trying to leave and my efforts are met with stubborn resistance. It happens when my children are disrespectful and mean to me and each other. It happened recently when the twins and my 5-year-old were playing in the bathtub. That was the day my daughter slew me.

The children were in the bathtub, all 3 of them. I turned my back for 5 seconds to pick up my crying infant and in that split second, they dumped the entire content of a large jug of expensive body wash in the bathtub. I didn’t realize it immediately until they started crying because the soap was hurting them. Yes, soap, in large quantity, will burn your skin. I was so mad! This was not the first time. Earlier, we had vacuumed the entire content of a sunscreen bottle carefully massaged into our carpet. For my children, if it can be dumped or smeared, it has no reason to stay in a container. This is an ongoing issue with my 3 youngest, one of whom is old enough to know better. My daughter was crying that the soap was hurting her private parts. I was mad at her for letting the twins dump a $15 soap bottle in the bath without even calling me. In exasperation, I said: “I am so mad at you, I really feel like giving you a good spanking!” And she blurted out, in tears:

“No! Don’t hit my bum! My bum already hurts! I don’t need a spanking when my bum hurts like this, I NEED A HUG!!”

I felt like I had been struck by lightning. Even today, I can’t think about this episode without feeling a big lump in my throat. When our children push us to the limit, they are more likely in need of more care and affection than a sound ass-whippin’. My children resist bedtime when I am too busy to take them to the park after dinner. My 8-year-old middle child is rude when I’ve been putting off our game of Uno once too many. My 5-year-old is defiant when she needs more thoughtful attention, not more spanking. As for my toddlers, their thirst for discovery, their curiosity and their unbridled energy are qualities needing careful supervision until they can be channeled into useful accomplishments.

Parenting will bring you to your knees. If it doesn’t, you are doing it wrong. But ultimately, the flaws of stubborn determination, independence and curiosity will blossom into their most successful qualities. Don’t spank it out of them.