“This hurts me more than it hurts you.”
I never once believed this to be true when I would use a spanking or a hand slap to discipline my young children. I believe that dealing with the reality and implications of being hit is way more difficult and painful than the feelings associated with hitting someone else, especially when it comes to parents using corporal punishment with their own children. The parents have a huge advantage: they know why they’re inflicting pain on their kids. They’ve worked it out, be it based on logic, faith, principle, or rationalization (“I was spanked as a child and I turned out ok”). But the same can’t be said for the children receiving the punishment, no matter how much love you pre-charge into your hand before you deliver the blow.
Hitting just isn’t widely perceived or accepted as a way to communicate love.
I never saw a look of understanding and appreciation cross my 2 yr old’s face as I first explained why I was going to hit her, went through with it, and then cuddled her as she cried. I saw shock, pain, confusion, anger, resentment, defiance, and sadness, but never understanding or appreciation for the love that was behind it. Not even when my child would face the discipline with acceptance. That showed amazing inner strength, but not understanding. I figured out pretty quickly that the explaining I would do before disciplining my child was more for my benefit than hers; it reminded me why I was about to use my hand to strike her.
That reminder was necessary because I was never naturally comfortable with hitting my children. I am not a violent person, and it takes a lot to rile me up, but even when someone really gets my goat I refuse to use physical force to “solve” the situation. For one, I am honestly scared of the damage I could inflict on someone if I was ever to lose control – or use control – and really let loose on them. I am a big guy, and I’m strong, calculating and have very fast reflexes. At least I think I am, and I fear that I could cripple someone for life, or worse; I guess I just have too much respect for the value of human life. And two, and more importantly: I don’t believe that winning a physical fight solves anything; it may feel good to demonstrate who is stronger and get to say you won, but it doesn’t actually build anyone up, or lead to any kind of reconciliation.
Why would it be any different in a parent-child relationship?
No matter how many times I spanked my children I never felt right about it. No, I had to mentally prepare myself for it, remember the reasons behind it, and then I had to squelch my feelings about it and try to replace the cringe trying to creep onto my face with love and gentleness. But it’s hard to temporarily crush a feeling without temporarily becoming emotionless. I think I was always clear-headed, calm, and in control when I would spank my kids, but how accurate could that possibly be when I was filled with inner conflict while trying to stamp out the wrong feelings and attempting to ignore those big, trusting, uncomprehending eyes? Maybe it’s easier for most parents. Somehow I seriously doubt that. And really, should it be?
As I recall, it was when our second-born started regarding me with utter defiance and spite when we would sit down for the explanation before the spanking that I realized a parenting choice had to be made. In those moments, the only return I received for the loving physical punishment I inflicted was hate from our 2 yr old, and a growing feeling of distance and distrust between us, which also spread to her 4 yr old big sister who struggled to understand why we were treating her little sister that way. On top of that, it was clear that the only way to really control her would probably involve “breaking” her in some deep way. As uncomfortable as I was with lifting my hand against my children, the idea of somehow breaking my child was so horrifying to me that we just had to find another way. You don’t un-break a horse once it’s been broken in to live a life of subservience to humans. Is it really that different for a human? Jessica was already in that place, ready to find some other approach to rear our children.
Like countless others, I also approached corporal punishment with the attitude: “I turned out ok, so how bad can it be?” I have two main thoughts related to this. One: “turning out ok” is a terrible reason to justify an action. You can rationalize pretty much anything with that little phrase. I cheated on my exams but I didn’t get caught and it turned out ok, so what’s the harm? Or imagine a rapist using that as their excuse for raping someone, claiming that their victim turned out ok, so how bad can it be? Two: Did I turn out ok because I was spanked as a kid, or in spite of it? There are really three different outcomes that I can imagine as a result of being spanked: it somehow makes you a better person, it doesn’t affect you one way or another, or it harmed you in some fashion. Who can say definitively how it affected them in the long run? It could be that I am a good person for completely different reasons, like having two parents, living in the same house through my formative years, having loving parents, good friends, faith, religious/moral teaching, a good mentor, etc.
I don’t know if I would be a significantly different person today if my parents never spanked me, but I am sure that we would have a very different relationship now. Here’s why: when you decide not to use corporal punishment with your children, this single decision will affect your entire relationship with them. When you remove the option to control them through physical demonstrations of superior strength, your entire approach to parenting changes. Your way of relating to your children changes. And along the way, you learn humility, and patience, and that your children are not wild beasts that need a cattle prod or other instrument to control them, but real people. Little people, young people, inexperienced, immature and fragile, yes, but also strong, and smart, and incredibly clever, vibrant and full of promise, adults-to-be, future equals to you, and in so many ways equals to you even now. They are but another human being like yourself, needing acceptance and love, looking for direction, and deserving the same respect as any other human being.
I’m not saying that parents that spank don’t love their children.
I am saying that the choice I made to stop using corporal punishment with my children has freed me up to love them more deeply and to see them as individual people with their own valid thoughts, feelings and dreams long before they officially become my equal on their 18th birthday. To this day, I don’t feel like I am my parent’s equal, and I’m 37 now. I have to remind myself that I don’t care whether or not they approve, that I am not defined by my failures which are just a demonstration of my inability to make wise choices, that I am a grown man with children of my own, damn it, and that I want a different relationship with those kids than I had and still have with my parents.
It isn’t because I was spanked that I have chosen to parent differently. It’s because spanking is a part of a whole system of relating that I have rejected, which I believe is based on fear and a desire to control. As much as there are times when I would love to control this one or other of my children, I am not interested in that kind of relationship with them. I am such a mess myself, how could I possibly know how better to live their lives than they do? I don’t spank my children because, as an expression of respect for them, I wish to show them that I want to journey and learn alongside them, acting as a guide when they need that, instead of pulling them along or physically forcing them in a specific direction.