Lots of parents I know and respect spank their children. But I never have and never will.
I was spanked as a kid. From the ages of 5 to about 16, I was also subjected to a variety of additional punishments. My stepmother made me kneel on rocks holding heavy items, hit me with her high heel shoes, forced socks or underwear, clean and sometimes dirty, into my mouth if I laughed or talked too loudly. I didn’t realize how much this impacted me until I had my own kids. I could not imagine doing these things to them. When I look at my children and I think back on all of this, I get a flush of anger, but also embarrassment. It was humiliating, all of it.
My kids have not been “easy.” Ben screamed nearly constantly from the moment he was born until he was almost four years old. He was always mad, always defiant. He spit on my face. He punched me. He peed on the floor on purpose. There was only one moment during all of this when I thought I might spank him. When he was three, he went into his bedroom and ripped every item from the wall, tipped his bookshelf over, destroyed several of his toys, and pulled the mattress off of the bed. In that exhausted, desperate moment, I took it very personally. I looked into that angry red toddler face of his and I thought about all of the things he had that I didn’t at his age, from his own room, to all of the toys and books, to a stable household. I picked him up and he thrashed in my arms, and I placed him, roughly, on his mattress, which was now haphazardly placed on the floor. I looked down at him and I took a deep breath and I walked out of the room and shut the door. Later, when he had stopped yelling, and I had stopped breathing so hard, I went into his room and took everything he had destroyed away from him, which worked very well. If I hadn’t walked away, I would definitely have spanked him. But I was committed to not hitting my kids.
And then there is Elliott. This morning, I went to check on whether or not he had put his school clothes on, and he was sitting on the couch with no pants on, casually flicking his penis. I asked him to put his clothes on, and he screamed at me, and when I tried to help him, he screamed at me. And then he screamed at me that he wants to be nice but that he does not want to try harder. I feel the anger rise and I let it go and we get through it.
With many years of patience and time outs (which I know are also controversial) and positive reinforcement and redirection and all of those things you read about in books, Benjamin is one of the most delightful and caring people I know. And given Elliott’s challenges with autism, he is making huge strides. Applied behavior analysis has helped tremendously. His empathy and self-awareness grow every year. He tells me he loves me and crawls into my arms and asks me if I am okay. He gets frustrated when he can’t control his impulses and he tries to do better, which is all I can ask.
When I was 16, my stepmother hit me for the last time. I don’t remember what I had done wrong, but I cowered in a corner of the upstairs hallway and she hit me again and again with her shoes. It didn’t hurt very much anymore because I was older. It didn’t stop being humiliating, though. As I curled into myself, I grew angrier and angrier. I was very tall, about 5′ 9″, and my stepmother was 5′ 0″. I watched her face as she hit me and I hated her in that moment. I stood up, and, surprised, she stopped. I was trembling with rage. I felt the largeness of my body in comparison to hers, and, feeling a new sense of power, I looked down on her. Fear flashed across her face for just a second. “What are you going to do?” she asked. “Hit me? You don’t hit your mother.” My feelings were complicated. I felt a twinge of guilt for making her afraid. I didn’t know what I wanted. It might have felt good to hit her, but I don’t think that was it. I just wanted her to stop. For good. I was done. “Don’t ever hit me again,” I said. I stared into her eyes, hard. I believe I would have hit her if she hit me again, but she didn’t. So I just walked away. I didn’t feel good about this, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I realize that spanking is not the same thing as some of the more abusive things my stepmother did to me. But to me, it is the same to a lesser extent. It still makes children feel afraid, humiliated, and powerless. It makes them feel their smallness acutely, and they already are made to feel so small. We romanticize being “old school,” but old school isn’t always better. Reading parenting books, striving to do better, and being thoughtful about the ways in which our actions impact our children is something to be proud of. I am strict with my children. I am consistent. I set firm boundaries. I do not allow them to misbehave. And both of them have challenged me a great deal. If I have been able to discipline these two crazy boys without ever hurting them physically, I believe anyone can. I never want them to feel about me the way that I feel about my stepmother, not even a little bit. And I know that they never will.