“For your own good”: The insidiousness of spanking

“I’m doing this for your own good.”

“Believe it or not, this hurts me more than it hurts you.”

“Someday you’ll thank me for this.”

It strikes me that Michael Pearl and others like him – even James Dobson – create a situation in which parents feel that if they love their children, they must hit them, whether they want to or not. For Pearl, Dobson, and others like them, it’s the parents who don’t hit their children who are unloving.

Michael Pearl says that if you do not hit your children, they will turn out to be miserable, unhappy, unfulfilled adults. And he has lots of stories to prove it, stories of children who grow up to be drug users, prostitutes, and worse all because they were never hit as children. In fact, Pearl blames a plethora of societal ills – from drug use to prison overcrowding to credit card debt – on parents who failed to hit their children. If you want to set your children up for a good and fulfilling life, Pearl explains, you must hit them.

Pearl also teaches that children who do wrong want to be hit, and long for it. Being hit, he says, removes them of their guilt. If you don’t hit your guilty child, you leave her miserable. Only a hitting her will restore her cheerful spirit and happy temper. If you love your guilty child and want her happy, you must hit her.

How insidious this thinking is. It requires parents to exercise violence on their children in the name of love. This is what bothers me most about Michael Pearl’s teachings. He takes parents who honestly, truly love their kids and want what’s best for them and then convinces them that if they love their children, they must hit them, require their complete and absolute submission, and break their wills. This isn’t about bad parents lashing out in anger, it’s about good parents systematically hitting their children because they love them.

As a child, this is can be very confusing. Your mother has you bend over a bed and begins hitting you…because she loves you. How do you make sense of that? My mother’s favorite line was “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” It actually got to the point where if I did something wrong and needed to be hit as a consequence, I felt bad for causing my mother pain by forcing her to hit me. I honestly admired how self sacrificing my mom was, that she could force herself to hit me even though she didn’t want to, thinking of my future good over her present comfort. I felt bad that I, naughty child that I was, made this necessary. I’m sure a psychologist would have a field day with this.

Today, I no longer approve of hitting children. We don’t hit adults, so why hit children? Hitting people is not something we should perpetuate, but rather something we should avoid. There are a plethora of other child rearing tactics out there, child rearing tactics with more humanity, understanding, and success, and whole countries have banned spanking without suffering adverse consequences. The doom and gloom that Michael Pearl predicts if children are not hit is nothing but hype and scare tactics. As a parent, there is nothing I want to do less than hit my child, and I am today extremely glad that, unlike my mother, I don’t have to force myself to do so.

Note: I use the term “hit” here rather than “spank” because at its core, spanking IS hitting. I am aware that those who believe in hitting children make a distinction between the two, and I do realize that there is a difference between randomly lashing out at your child in anger and using hitting as a set consequence performed calmly and controlledly after an offense. But the problem is, regardless of how you do it, “spanking” always involves “hitting children.” It can’t not. Dressing up the action of hitting a child by terming it “spanking” justifies and whitewashes an action – hitting a child – that we would condemn in any other circumstances. I therefore believe that the act should be called what it is – hitting children.

About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Nathaniel

    If you wish to create healthy, autonomous individuals who are able to make their own lives, spanking is useless at best and horribly counterproductive at worst.If you want obedient robots with grins plastered permanently on, then physical intimidation is quite efficacious. And if it doesn't produce the desired effect, you just aren't doing it hard enough.

  • CLDG

    (Flamewar in 3, 2… hope I'm joking!)You know, there are many things I'm not proud of about how I do the job I currently have (SAHM). I am a crappy housekeeper and punt on dinner plans too much of the time and my former working life organizational skills have gone to pot. However, I will sing from the mountaintops that one of the best things I have ever, EVER done as a parent was decide that physical punishment was off the table. When she was a newborn I thought it was inevitable that I would have to spank her, but I didn't want to do it and couldn't imagine it. I was raised on righteous Dobson teachings, followed by many others. I started searching and agonizing and found out that everything my parents had been taught, everything I had been taught about "Godly" "Christian" discipline was, frankly, an utter deception. (Thank you, internet, for the ability to find other role models like Gentle Christian Mothers.) The Bible does not – DOES NOT – require spanking. Spanking is cultural with supposed Biblical support ginned up. I needed that knowledge to go to battle with my family, who thought I was crazy and wrong to not spank – even my mother gave me the, "Well, you say that now, but just wait until the terrible two's." Done and done. I now can see clearly how my relationship with my parents, and my relationship with my own body, were damaged by spanking. (I could rant about that for a long time. No, spanking didn't destroy my life, but it caused a lot more problems than it solved.) I don't expect my relationship with my daughter to be perfect, but we won't have that between us. Her body is her body. It's not mine to hurt.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    In Spain spanking is banned and really things are just fine. It's true that as it hasn't been illegal that long, some parents are still hitting their children but every years it's less widespread.When my brother and I were small, we were little monsters and our parents spank us frequently. In fact so frequently that we felt we were being hit all the time (I don't know if this is just messy memories or actual facts) and the truth is that it didn't make us any more obedient… Anyway, I never felt I was being abussed and I don't think by normal standards I was, but my dad has apologised to me about it so it must have been a heavy weight in his conscience all those years.It has had an impact on my life… I'm still scared of my mum and it has created me low self-steem issues but I don't think it's the same for everybody. For what it's worth, I'm 24 and I still don't have cildren so I don't know how hard it's to bring up a child but I don't want to be like them.PS: I'm going to start signing my comments. I'm a bit embarrassed about my bad English and typing so I hadn't done it before.

  • Nathaniel

    Your English is fine. Better than many native speakers online. No need for embarrassment.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/01641970264436339191 dulce de leche

    Excellent, as always. Thank you for speaking up for the least of these. <3

  • mcfed up with the greens

    I think you should try teaching public school and then re-evaluate your stance.. just sayin

    • nym

      STOP with the “just sayin’!!! It makes you sound stupid, ineffectual, frightened, weak, and passive-aggressive. GAH!!!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00987022971262088932 Pam

    In thinking about the spanking thing, I've come to the conclusion that spanking was kind of the lazy way out for my parents. I'm pretty sure my parents spanked because they didn't know what else to do or what other methods would work – and their church just reinforced that good parents spank. So that's all they did.Seems like it would take a lot more time and effort on the part of the parents to figure out an age-appropriate and situationally-appropriate consequence for a child's bad behavior. Also, I think my parents spanked my sister and I far longer than they should have because our lives were so restricted. We were still getting spankings well into our teens, mostly because our parents had so isolated us that there was literally nothing else they could do or take away. Other families restrict privileges; we didn't watch TV, we didn't call friends, we didn't go anywhere except church, didn't wear makeup, etc – so when we misbehaved, their only option was to spank. This makes me sad to think about now, and it seems it should have been a wake-up call for my parents, too, that things were *way* out of whack in our home! If the only thing you can do to your pre-teen/teenage kid is *beat* her because you've constrained her life to the point that she has no privileges, there's a problem.

  • Nathaniel

    Pam, am I right in guessing that you and your sister are your parents only children?Just wouldn't be surprised if you didn't have any brothers to spank into their teens. Oddly enough, spanking can have a tendency to stop when the children figure out that they are big enough to fight back against their parents. Something that happens much earlier with boys.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15172112981244682382 shadowspring

    "When I was about twenty years old, I met an old pastor's wife who told me that when she was young and had her first child, she didn't believe in striking children, although spanking kids with a switch pulled from a tree was standard punishment at the time. "But one day when her son was four or five, he did something that she felt warranted a spanking–the first in his life. And she told him he would have to go outside and find a switch for her to hit him with. The boy was gone a long time. And when he came back in, he was crying. He said to her, 'Mama, I couldn't find a switch, but here's a rock you can throw at me.' All of the sudden a mother understood how the situation felt from the child's point of view: that if my mother wants to hurt me, it makes no difference what she does it with; she might as well do it with a stone. The mother took the boy onto her lap and they both cried. Then she laid the rock on a shelf in the kitchen to remind herself forever: never violence. Because violence begins in the nursery — one can raise children into violence." ~ From a peace prize acceptance speech given by Astrid Lindgren, author of Pippi Longstocking.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00987022971262088932 Pam

    Nathaniel, yes, my sister and I were my parents' only two children. Somewhat surprisingly, even though my Mom dabbled in QF theology, my Dad was apparently never "led" to have his vasectomy reversed ;)But, yes, you are right that the spanking situation would have been different if we had been boys or if we'd had brothers. In fact, my parents are both quite vocal about how glad they are that they didn't have boys (I'm not sure what to make of that…). I never figured out that I could fight back. I was really stubborn, though, and would tell them things like "you can spank me, but I won't cry" (and I held to that for several years). Thank goodness my parents weren't Pearlites; things would have been much worse, I think. At the time, I thought I was lucky because my parents would only administer a set number of swats, always less than 5. The children I knew from church would often get 10 or more.Shadowspring, that quote is amazing.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/15824217102632813598 Tanit-Isis

    Over the course of conversations with my father-in-law over the last few years, we realized to our surprise that the majority of the (non-God-sanctioned) beatings he gave my husband were, in fact, from his point of view controlled acts of discipline. (And probably fairly mild compared to what he grew up with…)The thing is, that doesn't change anything about my husband's experience of being beaten. What he remembers is pain and his father's rage.I have spanked my daughter. It was never my first choice, and I never did it in a situation where I felt like I had other options (all the better parenting techniques seem to require time). Usually, it was in a situation where she was having a tantrum and hitting me, and I had no ability to isolate her or send her to her room, which would be my preferred response. While I don't like the message "if you hit me, I'll hit you back," very much, in those circumstances it seemed better than the alternative, which was "you can hit me and nothing will happen."I still wish I'd had a better idea.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Shadowspring – That settles it, Sally is getting Pippi Longstocking as soon as she can read. :-)

  • http://bigthink.com/blogs/daylight-atheism Adam Lee

    This discussion about how the Pearls' teachings require parents to inflict pain in the name of love reminds me of the famous quote from Steven Weinberg:"With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil – that takes religion."

  • Anonymous

    I've also heard that some people get into S&M; because they were spanked as children. Not sure how true that is, but the implications of this theory for the Pearls' teaching makes the whole mess even sicker…

  • http://dream-wind.livejournal.com/ dream-wind

    I've seen situations where parents hitting their kids produces the opposite result – the child, in pain, acts out even more, possibly seeing how far they can push Mummy and Daddy. I'm not a parent, in fact I'm unrepentantly child-free, but I've never seen how spanking is supposed to be effective parenting.Oh, and Libby-Anne, I've seen Pippi Longstocking condemned on QF blogs – I know Carmon Freidrich doesn't like her, and I'm pretty sure Stacy Macdonald thinks they're inappropriate books too (Pippi's too independent and sassy). As far as I'm concerned, this is recommendation to me :).

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Anonymous of 9:29 – I've seen that as well. Basically, statistics show that if you are spanked as a child your chance of being into masochistic sex essentially doubles (I couldn't find the exact statistic again, sorry). Supposedly it's because of equating the physical pain of being hit with being loved (because it's the supposedly loving parent doing the hitting). Dream-wind – "As far as I'm concerned, this is recommendation to me." Amen to that! My parents always had a bit of a problem with American Girl books because the girls in the stories were so often disobedient, sassy, or simply overly independent. Which means Sally will definitely be reading those as well!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/03763879283931347382 secret agent woman

    "I'm sure a psychologist would have a field day with this." Indeed. We psychologists, as a rule, are opposed to corporal punishment. It makes children more aggressive, it is ineffective compared to more humane forms of discipline, and it sends the message that people can get their way through physical force. And, as you point out, it is crazy-making because you equate love with being hurt. In my opinion, hitting children is abuse. Period. Lack of time is no excuse. I have two sons, 15 and 18. Their father and I are committed to nonviolent parenting and we never once used physical punishment. They are both well-behaved, compassionate, successful kids. Sure, people can do well in life in spite of being abused, but why not give kids the best possible chance to grow up without the trauma of being hit by people who claim to love them?

  • Meggie

    Can I ask all the above writers; how often were you hit for doing something wrong that you knew was wrong compared to being hit for something that you didn't know was wrong?It seems from reading this and other blogs that many parents following the Pearls hit their children whenever they weren't perfect.I always like to make a distinction in our house between mistakes and rule breaking. My kids are learning and they do things that are wrong because it is a new situation and they don't know any better. We teach them what the appropriate behaviour would have been rather than punishing them. Breaking a long established family rule would be completely different and some sort of punishment, though never hitting, would result.Does this happen in 'Pearl' families or are you simply hit for everything?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10562805251128821984 Libby Anne

    Meggie – I think you'll find a lot of variation. Personally, my siblings and I were generally hit for any act of disobedience, and since obedience was always expected to be "immediate, complete, and without complaint," disobeying wasn't hard. At the same time, my parents used hitting in concert with other punishments, such as being sent to your room, deprived of privileges, or forced to write sentences, so a bad attitude didn't always mean an automatic hitting(though it did mean some form of punishment). Now what Pearl promises is that if you hit your children when they are very young, by the time they are four, six, or eight there will be no need for hitting them at all. Basically, if you hit your small toddler for any act of disobedience (including before they're old enough to know how to disobey), they will be so well trained that they will come when you call, sit when you say sit, and jump when you say jump. Once they're that trained, you don't have to hit them because they just obey. Now in practice, I'm afraid I haven't ever seen this actually work out. Even my siblings who were raised on the Pearls from infancy were never mindless robots.

  • Anonymous

    I was spanked until I was 3. Sometime during my third year (and I have a clear memory of this), I was spanked and sent to my room. Enraged, after about 5 minutes I came out of my room, walked right up to my mother, and hit her as hard as I could.I was normally a pretty meek kid, so my mother was stunned. When she asked me why I did that, I told her that I was angry. When she was upset with me, I got spanked. Well now, I was upset with her, so I was "spanking" her. Also, I didn't understand why she was always telling ME to not hit and use my words but then I got spanked.I was an uncommonly verbally precocious child, so while my expression of my feelings was above my years, I think the confusion I felt was typical. It just so happened that I could EXPRESS my confusion in a way many children cannot before I was old enough to accept the behavior or to rationalize it.

  • Nathaniel

    That is freaking awesome. A three year old able to school her parent and all that Pearl guff.From the mouth of babes…

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/00987022971262088932 Pam

    My sister and I were hit for disobedience and for "disrespect." The disobedience thing was pretty clear; the "disrespect" thing seemed, uh, very subjective. Usually I was hit for doing things that I knew were wrong, or for not following directions – that sort of thing. My parents weren't Pearlites, though (thank God). They were more into Dobson, if memory serves.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10404641467758576387 Cake

    Thank you for that article – awesome and thoughtful as ever. On hitting children: In most European countries, corporal punishment of children is illegal. See http://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Datei:Corporal_punishment_in_Europe.svg&filetimestamp;=20111021075536(hitting children is illegal in the green countries)It would be easy to compare stats from country to country to see whether countries where hitting children is illegal have bigger problems with youth misdemeanour.

  • Anonymous

    My parents never spanked much, despite being quite indoctrinated by Dobson. Well, they did not spank much after my mother went through a period of depression in which she spanked me way too much and realized it was abusive (I was 2-4 at the time). After that they would only give us kids a few swats at a time, and only once a month or so max per kid. I don't remember my younger siblings being hit much even in the terrible twos. I actually went through a period of reading NGJ website and (*major blush*) thinking they were right about a lot of things and that my parents were not strict enough. I had an odd disconnect with this, since at the same time I trained all kinds of animals and talked to people about how to train animals and was very against fear-based training of all types. Not to say that whips are bad, per se, but that one uses them as an extension of one's arm to guide and direct, not to cause fear. Why did I think huge animals (even elephants) were perfectly possible to train well without force but kids needed it? Ugh…Anyway, as far as public schools and juvenile delinquents, I just read an article a few weeks ago about Scottish playgrounds being made into forest type areas with real trees and boulders and things and it was astonishing the statistics of how radically fast the kids basically STOPPED bullying, pushing, shoving, tripping, accidents, etc. simply be being in a natural environment part of each day. Even cliques got less intense. I can't find the article at the moment, maybe tomorrow when I'm less sleepy… We humans are animals and we have created our own comfy little prisons for ourselves. Maybe we are acting so bad so much of the time because our bodies and brains cannot handle the extremely unnatural circumstances they are in… (look up forest bathing, for examples of health benefits of nature and how deprived we are).Anyway, as I started questioning the necessity of spanking I started paying attention to what friends with kids spanked for and so far, after several years of this, I have not actually seen or heard of one instance where I think spanking was the most effective or smartest thing to do. In most cases I don't even think punishment was needed at all. It is distressing.

  • CLDG

    Most of my spankings were probably for fighting with my (16 m. younger) sister. We fought constantly – there was always running psychological warfare that sometimes turned physical. I'm sure it drove my mother batty and she was doing what she believed was the right thing to do. But the thing is, spanking didn't reduce it a bit. It just meant we got spanked a lot. From my adult perspective, I am convinced it made things worse by becoming a weapon we could use against each other and kept our relationship off balance. I also have memories of spankings after *forgetting* some instruction, like being told to put away toys and getting caught up in playing. And I remember the terrible feeling of seeing my angry dad and remembering. One of my brothers got spanked literally multiple times a day from toddlerhood on. I remember my dad saying in wonderment, "I spank him and I spank him and it doesn't even phase him." Brother basically was willing to take a spanking in exchange for what he wanted. Still no questioning of the basic premise on the part of my parents. That brother developed a huge anger problem in teens/young adulthood (you know, when they were heavily into Gothard which supposedly prevented all teenage rebellion). Unfortunately, he's now firmly in the camp of, "I was spanked and it didn't hurt me!" and he spanks his kid(s) (don't know if they've started on the baby yet). Now that I'm out of that mindset, it's almost incomprehesible. Sometimes it's really hard to be in the same house when my nieces and nephews are in trouble.

  • Paula G V aka Yukimi

    When we got older, I remember thinking once or twice I prefered being spanked than another type of punishment because it was over qucik (obviously it wasn't having an effect anymore) even if painful and humilliating and I don't know if this is what made my mum decide to stop doing it but we weren't spanked or hit afterwards except on the very odd ocassion in which my mum completely lost it and then it was an attack not an attempt at discipline like throwing me in the floor and kicking me (this only happened once and my mother has never been the image of emotional or mental stability, specially after the divorce. Nowadays my mom still thinks she has never done wrong by us and I can't even mention lesser things without her getting angry.).As CLDG says if the child prefers to be punished if he gets to do what he wants, it's pretty counter productive and if spanking is the only punishment, people get to thata thought pretty faster.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10329947206142706470 Peter and Nancy

    To the commenter who said one should spend time in a public school, then one might reconsider spanking . . .I have to disagree. The behaviors seen in many classrooms are not caused by lack of spanking, but lack of *teaching* in the home. Too many kids are not taught or modeled good behavior — and spend way too much time in front of a screen. Too many kids are not played with, read to, and shown love & affection. You can hold your child accountable for bad behavior without spanking, and *teach* them how they should behave. All of that can be done without hitting a child. The root of the word "discipline" means "teach" — and spanking is not teaching. Nancy

  • Anonymous

    @Anonymous- "I've also heard that some people get into S&M; because they were spanked as children. Not sure how true that is, but the implications of this theory for the Pearls' teaching makes the whole mess even sicker…"I must disagree: Consensual acts between two grown adults in a community with the mandate "Safe, Sane, and Consensual" is not sick. I'm not a big practitioner of BDSM, but considering how many couples of many different childhoods experiment casually with love spankings or bondage, can't really see it as unhealthy. Of course, I could be saying that as a person who has been spanked a lot of a child and would like to see my sexual interest in S&M; as not a result of an emotionally crippling childhood. Actually, I never related the two together since for me S&M; consisted of pleasure-driven acts between two consenting adults and spanking was…the EXACT opposite.Spanking to me, is violence by an grown, and much bigger, adult, against a small, almost defenseless child. All the sweet words, all the "It hurts me more than you" crap never changed exactly was spanking turned out to me: an abuse from someone in an position of authority. In fact, all those words of love and care made it WORSE: this big person, much bigger than a child, is hurting the child, committing pain…and THEN SAYING IT'S OUT OF LOVE. THAT is a LIE.And while I turned out great in the eyes of my parents, spanking (as well as verbal abuse) left me emotionally stunted and afraid of disappointing my parents and loved ones, to be the point that I can't handle making them mad and unhappy. That's…not healthy for an adult. Not at all. One of the many ill side effects of spanking. And…oooohhh…those Pearls sicken me. I can't imagine people treating a pet the same way they MANDATE and FEAR loving parents into treating a human CHILD. THAT is sickening and a crime. They are leading parents to abuse their children…for love. Wow.

  • Meggie

    Thankyou Nancy. Totally agree. I teach at three schools; two Yr K-6 schools and one Yr 7-12 school. At all three schools we spend alot of time teaching things that should have been taught at home. Swear at home and your children swear at school, hit your children at home and they will hit other children at school, etc. We have to teach the kids basic social behaviours.

  • africaturtle

    I really liked your "note" at the end of this article :)

  • Anonymous

    apart from safe consensual s&m;, I do understand the connection between told as a child that I was Being spanked out of love and craving abusive relationships as an adult, that is a very real connection. growing up in a pearl/got hard home and now happily married with two kids, I can definately agree with so many of the comments here, especially about the 3 year old hitting their mother. children are so wonderfully intelligent, and will amaze you with their understanding If a parent simply takes time. but how can they when these pearl type families have a dozen kids? )

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