“For your own good”: The insidiousness of spanking

This is part of a series in which I am re-posting a number of posts I’ve written in the past on issues involving parenting and Michael and Debi Pearl. I think these posts may be of interest to new readers, and if you’re a reader who has been around with me since the beginning, they may be worth a re-read. This post was originally published here.   

“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 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? 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 feel the need to force myself to do so.

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.

  • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

    We don’t hit adults, so why hit children?

    Children can’t hit back effectively. Once they can, they’re “too old to spank.” I’m curious: Were your parents scared shitless of Child Protective Services like mine? We were always being told that if CPS got involved, we’d never see our parents again. A couple people at church did have legal intervention. This was a sign of the general government oppression of Christians.

    • Libby Anne

      Heck yes! We did everything short of holding drills! I should write a blog post…

      • http://aceofsevens.wordpress.com Ace of Sevens

        I just blogged about this issue myself. I would have gone into the specifics that got my parents’s friends busted, but I was a kid and don’t remember them that well. My parents seemed afraid that I or especially my sister might actually call CPS ourselves, though we never did as they scared us effectively. Maybe we should have.

    • http://loreleitracy.etsy.com LoreleiHI

      I used this *once*.

      My father was mad (I don’t remember why), had my arm in his hand, and said that he was going to break it. He loved to terrorize.

      I looked at him and said, “You can’t. If you break my arm, we’ll have to go to the hospital. The doctors will ask why it happened, and liars go to hell. I’ll have to tell the truth.”

      He threw me out of the house for a few hours, but no broken bones.

      • kisekileia

        Wow. You were an awesome, gutsy kid!

  • http://whoireallyaminside.blog.com/ Jenn

    I heard all of those sayings as I was growing up as well as, “If you don’t stop crying I’m going to give you something to cry about.”

    I don’t have children of my own, but I decided some time ago that I would never use spanking as punishment.

    • Dianne

      I heard all of those sayings as I was growing up as well as, “If you don’t stop crying I’m going to give you something to cry about.”

      I always hated that line. As long as I remember, I immediately lost all respect for any adult that used it.

      • http://florilegia.wordpress.com Ibis3, denizen of a spiteful ghetto

        I got that one too. I grew up in a secular family though.

  • Contrarian

    We don’t hit adults, so why hit children?

    Of course, one could also turn this on its head and ask, why not hit adults? Why is seizing years* of an adult’s life somehow more humane than hitting him?

    If spanking is wrong, it’s wrong because it’s not effective parenting, not because there’s something intrinsically wrong with hitting. After all, what’s the difference between “it’s just wrong” and “because God said so”? Not much.

    * Googling reveals that median prison sentence in US is two years. If median offender is 25 years old, then sentence amounts to seizing about 4% of his remaining life.

    • http://thishadtobesaid.blogspot.com/ Cluisanna

      Of course there is something intrisically wrong with hitting, and that is: it hurts people. Sure, there are situations where the benefits of hurting someone outweigh the pain (for instance medical procedures), but generally it is simply wrong to inflict pain on other people – yes, even children and criminals.

      • Contrarian

        Prison time hurts people, too, by depriving them of many opportunities. The point of punishment (not reform!) is to hurt people so that they won’t do whatever you don’t want them to do. What I don’t understand is why one way of hurting people is intrinsically worse than any other way of hurting people.

    • Dianne

      Why is seizing years* of an adult’s life somehow more humane than hitting him?

      So you’re proposing flogging as an alternative to prison time? That works if it’s all about punishment, but not if you want any chance of reform. Not that the current prison system has any real element of reform to it, but physical abuse as punishment simply has no possibility of ever having a component of reform whereas in principle time in prison could be used to retrain people who turn to crime because they can’t think of any other way to live and improve the psychiatric state of those who commit crimes because of mental illness, etc.

      • Contrarian

        A most excellent point. I think the best of all (realistic) worlds would have a prison system devoted to the reform of habitual criminals and mentally ill people and then cheap, quick physical punishment for minor crimes.

      • Dalillama

        Did you miss the part where physical punishment is not, in fact a useful mode of deterrent or reform? It doesn’t magically start being effective when used for minor crimes instead of major ones.

    • Binjabreel

      Good god.

      Spanking is wrong because it’s WRONG.

      In a semi-related vein, spanking is stupid because it’s ineffective.

      See the difference?

      • Contrarian

        Whoah, back up. Since when has it been a valid moral argument to assert that X is wrong simply because it’s WRONG? Do you also think homosexuality is wrong because it’s WRONG? That interracial marriage is wrong because it’s WRONG?

        If you want to be a moral intuitionist, fine by me. I’ll stay a utilitarian, thank you very much: spanking is wrong because on average it causes detectable long-term net harm, not because it is WRONG.

        You may call me an ass, but if you keep making such shoddy non-arguments, I’ll take to calling you stupid.

      • Libby Anne

        I’ll take to calling you stupid.

        And then I will lose my patience with you. Please read my comments policy, under the tab “Guidelines” above. Discussion is fine, name calling is not.

      • Contrarian

        You’re right.

        Sorry, Binjareel.

      • Binjabreel

        I was trying to point out that it’s a fallacy to say something is morally wrong because it is ineffective.

        Spanking is wrong because it reinforces the implication that physical strength and retribution = being correct, because it legitimizes violence against people weaker than you, because, like I summed up before, it is wrong.

        Things that are effective are often morally wrong. If our goal is to keep a rapist from raping again, then shooting him is the most effective way, right? But we don’t do that, because we recognize that taking someone’s life is ALSO morally wrong. We strike a balance between the two by taking a small fraction of their life and (ostensibly, let’s not get bogged down in the miserable state of our prisons here) dedicating that fraction of their lives to rehabillitating them. That’s called living in a complex and nuanced society.

    • Judy L.

      It’s a question of free will and consent. When we lock up people who’ve broken the law it’s to punish them and to keep us safe. (Of course, there are far too many people incarcerated for things that should not be illegal or criminal.)

      People, even small people, have a right to bodily autonomy, and a claim against others to not be hurt by them. As human beings, we have claimed these rights to be instrinsic, and it’s the best philosophy we’ve come up with, far better than the other belief systems that humans have held historically, where your social status or supposed chosen-by-god status meant that your life was worth more than another’s.

      Confinement and exclusion is actually the most natural punishment for people. We’re social creatures and we need contact with others to be happy and healthy. When we give ‘time outs’ as punishment and then welcome the child back into the group, we demonstrate that the consequence of anti-social behaviour is social ostracism, which is a natural consequence (we are primates afterall).

      “After all, what’s the difference between “it’s just wrong” and “because God said so”? Not much.”

      Wow. Are you really that dim or just a nasty little troll? “Because God said so” is an appeal to an imaginary being (I assume. As an ignostic, I actually have no fucking idea what you mean when you say ‘God’). “It’s just wrong” is based on our intuitions and experience, and the articulation of our human experience as a system of ethics and morality that is based on intersubjectivity, on relationships between real people.

      The only reason to cause pain and bodily harm to someone is if they consent to it, it’s what distinguishes touching from assualt, and children are not capable of giving that kind of consent. As parents and caregivers we are responsible for taking care of the physical and emotional needs of children, and that involves touching them, even without their consent, but they still maintain the right not be touched by us in a way that hurts them.

      Incarcation is more humane than physical violence as punishment, but it’s OUR humanity that’s at issue. We debase and degrade ourselves when we beat and torture others; violence gets the bloodlust up, it desensitizes us to other people’s pain and suffering, and creates a society based on fear and terror.

      • Contrarian

        I believe that utilitarianism is superior to the arbitrary assignment of rights. The ultimate moral good is the minimization of suffering and the maximization of happiness. I therefore reject your immoral presuppositions about bodily rights and the necessity of consent (which presumably children give).

        I also don’t see how you demonstrate that incarceration is more humane than physical punishment. You seem to argue the opposite: incarceration, separation from society, is a superior punishment because humans are inherently social primates, so it causes maximal disincentive per unit punishment; but it is still less harmful than physical punishment?

        Wow. Are you really that dim or just a nasty little troll? “Because God said so” is an appeal to an imaginary being (I assume. As an ignostic, I actually have no fucking idea what you mean when you say ‘God’). “It’s just wrong” is based on our intuitions and experience, and the articulation of our human experience as a system of ethics and morality that is based on intersubjectivity, on relationships between real people.

        Hmm, this is an interesting argument. I like it. So do you believe that morality is best intuited before it is defined? I don’t think that’s an effective, natural approach; many things which we in our modern culture believe intuitively wrong would have been intuitively embraced in premodern cultures. The most obvious example is ancient Greek pederasty.

        Anyway, the comparison I was going for was “X is just wrong” is an arbitrary declaration, while “God says X is wrong” is an arbitrary declaration cloaked in an appeal to authority.

      • Binjabreel

        I hate to break this to you, Contrarian, but humans do have an intuitive sense of morality. It hinges on a single thing: humans, no matter their culture or upbringing, almost universally identify as “morally wrong” any action that uses an autonomous, sentient agent as a means to an end. Period.

        The rub comes in when they define “sentient agent”, which is why dehumanization is always tactic #1 when you’re trying to convince one group of humans to be inhumane to another group.

      • Judy L.

        Contrarian says:

        “You seem to argue the opposite: incarceration, separation from society, is a superior punishment because humans are inherently social primates, so it causes maximal disincentive per unit punishment; but it is still less harmful than physical punishment?”

        Exactly which of your utilitarian bodily orifices are you pulling that out of? I said nothing about maximal disincentive or the superiority of incarceration as a form of punishment. I said that incarceration is for OUR protection and separation is to punish the offender for anti-social behaviour, and that those things are natural consequences in the real world. I support the idea of appropriate and proportionate responses to other people’s anti-social behaviour, and physical violence is almost never appropriate (in an ideal world I would argue that the violence of capital punishment is sometimes an appropriate and proportionate response to certain crimes).

        “I also don’t see how you demonstrate that incarceration is more humane than physical punishment.”

        I suspect that’s because you weren’t paying attention to anything I actually wrote. When we talk about humane actions, we’re talking about the humanity of the actor. When we euthanize a suffering animal, we’re behaving humanely, i.e., kindly and mercifully and doing what our better natures tells us is the right thing to do, but we’re certainly not recognizing the humanity of the animal. Ethics are complicated, unless you’re a utilitarian. From a utilitarian viewpoint, you shouldn’t be allowed to post comments on this blog because you’re a troll and the majority of us here would be happier if you just went away.

        “So do you believe that morality is best intuited before it is defined?”

        No, I know for a fact that ethics are based on rationalizing and articulating intuitions after the fact. People don’t behave the way they do because a moral code has been defined for them; people react and behave the way they do because of instinct and knowledge and drives and desires and habit and fear. Our ability to be reflective about morality and ethics is the result of our cognitive and linguistic abilities. Sometimes working through an ethical questions can change our attitudes and thus our behaviour, but that’s intentional learning, rather than acquisition.

    • N. Nescio

      Make white-collar crimes like insider trading punishable by public flogging, and see how quickly it stops.

  • Judy L.

    Violence and emotional blackmail. It teaches children only to mistrust their parents and themselves. I grew up with a physically and emotionally abusive father, and from my earliest memories I never trusted him to take care of me, to protect me, and I knew that he could care less about the things that mattered to me, and that the things he cared about were more important to him than I was.

    Violence is not love. Only a parent can feel the love they have love for their children, children only experience that love through how their parents treat them. It needs to be recognized that the only Love that counts is demonstrative Love, Love as a transitive verb. I understand that parents who follow the Pearl’s guide to training small animals really believe that they are loving their children by hitting them, but I would ask the fathers in these families whether they would accept love from others in that form? Of course, I know that it’s just religious fanaticism, cherry-picked from the inconsistent and contradictory nonsense on how to live in a book written thousands of years ago.

    You can’t differentiate, just by looking, whether a parent is hitting their child out of a sense of love and duty or anger or pure sadism. It looks the same, it feels physically the same, and the results are the same, only with the added problem of screwing with a vulnerable child’s sense of right and wrong and love and hate and trust.

    • teh_faust

      “and I knew that he could care less about the things that mattered to me, and that the things he cared about were more important to him than I was.”

      I can relate. Sorry you had to go through this.

      What gets me the most, though, is the self-righetousness with which such behaviour is justfified and excused, under the guise of education and such.
      What I find indeed insidious how all those excuses are used to cover up the base motives and agressive impulses as “parenting strategy”, the attempt of abusers to pass as well-intentioned moral authorities when that wasn’t at all what drove them to do it.
      But of course, it’s difficult to guess a person’s motives in hindsight. Whether out of a sense of moral duty or selfish entitlement combinded with aggression, the result is much the same.

    • Dalillama

      As I understand it they do accept “love” in that form from their ordained superior, i.e. god. The whole punishment=love thing is one of the classic theodicies, as a reason why there is so much suffering in the world despite god allegedly loving everyone. Anything bad that happens is just god showing you “tough love.” When you start from that as an axiom along with the axiom that the family should respect the patriarch like the patriarch respects god, beating children as an expression of love follows logically. It’s just that the axioms are insane and anti-human, so the logic produces insane and anti-human outcomes.

  • timberwoof

    I knew a young man whose mother had spanked him a lot. He learned very quickly to let a spanking send him into a pleasurable trance. (Someone will surely say something about endorphins. That’s fine.) He was a classic masochist; his measure of friendship was how thoroughly one could spank him.

    Mommas, don’t let your sons grow up to be spankboys. Parents, don’t make your children grow up to be masochists. (However, if they want to do that once they’re adults, that’s another matter.)

  • triskelethecat

    I was spanked as a child, palm to butt or with a belt. I hated it, and swore I’d never spank my children.

    I broke that promise a few times. However, it was not the spanking that shocked my friends but the fact that I apologized to my child for losing my temper and spanking her. They thought I’d surely end up with spoiled brats.

    Fast forward 20 years – I have 2 adult, fully adjusted, independently-living (OK, one still in college so not fully independent) children who love and respect me.

    Funny enough, I based a lot of my parenting off of several books. I loved “The Magic Years”, which helped me understand my children and their mental processes.

    • minuteye

      It’s funny (not in a ‘ha ha’ way) how many people don’t apologize to children when they do something they regret. Like if they ever admit to being fallible, their kid won’t respect them and will immediately become an uncontrollable monster?

  • Matthew Gill

    This is all pretty instructive.. I’m probably a good decade away from being a father (who knows). I’ve been guilty of spanking my little cousin when babysitting her, although seeing as I was raised partially by a “spare the rod, spoil the child father” I knew you could definitely go too far. I made sure I never spanked hard or because I was just aggravated by her. My father wasn’t as severe as Pearl-disciples (I’m sure partial custody is the only thing that saved me here), but he was probably a step away. I remember the last time I was spanked (at twelve, maybe) with a belt for accidentally knocking a roll of toilet paper into a bathtub..

    I’m getting sidetracked here. I believe it’s possible to spank without hurting children, but even that may not be necessary as it seems to be from reading your posts. I can definitely see the value of reasoning and discussing things with a toddler. I’m curious about children who are too young to talk effectively, though.

    I can look this stuff up, and I most certainly will if the time ever comes, but I’m curious about your experience about that “in between stage” where a child is old enough to walk and get into trouble, but too young to say more than a handful of words.

    • Libby Anne

      It really depends on the specific situation. I try to figure out what’s going on inside the child’s brain. Why is he or she crying or throwing a tantrum? Why is he or she upset? If the child is upset because he or she wants to get into something of mine that is breakable or whatnot, I tell the child why I’m saying no (even if the child may not understand yet) and then remove the thing I don’t want messed with from sight. You have to remember that the smallest toddlers are the easiest to distract – out of sight, out of mind. Oftentimes just taking the child out of the situation is enough. Similarly, sometimes the child is upset because he or she is hungry or tired or sick, so I try to be attentive to that so as to best deal with the situation. Once I got out of the Pearls’ mindset (when my daughter was about ten months old) I actually never had a situation when my daughter was small when I felt the need to hit her. Now there have been times since she’s gotten older when I’ve wanted to smack her, but that has always been more about me losing patience and feeling like smacking her would be easier than treating her as an actual person rather than the situation actually being out of control or unsalvageable.

  • Judy L.

    Just a note: a child’s receptive language competence (what they understand) is always way ahead of their productive competence (what they are able to say, and certainly what they’re able to express). So, in that ‘in between’ stage, you can be assured that they understand more that you think they do. My mom told me that when I was little, in that ‘in between stage’, she used to take my hand under hers and smack her own hand to admonish me, and apparently it was very effective in getting me to stop doing whatever it was that was endangering me or harming someone else (my mum likes to tell the story of when I was about 18 months old and she found me crying, covered in cat scratches, and she was furious at the cat until my sister informed her that I had been putting raisins in the cat’s ears and bopping him on the head with a carrot stick).

  • 24fps

    Chiming in with Judy – small children understand much earlier than they can express via language. Try asking a small child to show you something or do something, you’ll see that they understand perfectly.

    People who advocate some spanking will often use the example of a child about to run into traffic. If the child starts to do something like that, then it’s for their safety that you have to enforce that obedience. But I disagree that even then it is a necessity. My daughters responded to verbal cues and tone of voice before their first birthdays. Words like “hot”, “ouch”, and “uh-oh” we’re something they picked up on very quickly. Simple requests like “find your shoes” or “time for bed” were very well understood by a year and a half, as were a lot of other more complex, abstract ideas.

    People often underestimate kids. Talking down to them, using baby talk, oversimplified speech you would never use with an adult slows them down on communication as well.

    • Anat

      If a child is about to run into traffic you hold the child in place. Spanking is irrelevant for this situation.

  • Judy L.

    A question for Libby Anne: What do the Pearls suggest to train disabled children or kids with special needs? (Or do the Pearls even recognize that they are such children?) My nephew is autistic and physically under-sensitive and since he was a baby he has loved being patted very hard on the back and bum and has boundless energy along with delayed development of impulse control; if my sister followed the Pearl’s guide to training slaves, my nephew would have to be beaten unconscious in order to get him to ‘submit’. The behaviour of children with autism or other neurological disorders like OCD isn’t driven by defiance or even willfulness, so attempting to ‘break them’ through beatings would be completely ineffective and very likely cause an increase in problematic behaviour.

    • minuteye

      That’s a really interesting question, so I hope someone has some insight on it. I am on the autism spectrum, and as a kid my parents (not spankers, thank goodness) had a lot of difficulty dealing with me. If you don’t know what’s going on with the kid, sensory overload, picky eating or even stimming (repetitive movements for self-soothing) look a lot like defiance or anger.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

        Huh. How much of that “picky eating” was due to sensory issues with the food? Or just sensory overload, and you end up unable to eat because holy crap STIMULI!

      • minuteye

        Well, the “sensory overload!!!” thing meant that food had to be really bland (the threshold for ‘too salty to eat’ being really low). An extreme dislike of novelty meant that introducing new foods to my diet was really difficult (an issue for a lot of kids, but particularly strong). And I also had some sensory issues related to texture (soggy or smushy things are gross, no idea why), so minute differences in food preparation could end up with me rejecting it. I hope that answers your question.

      • http://itsmyworldcanthasnotyours.blogspot.com WMDKitty

        @minuteye — Yup, thank you.

  • Kelly

    Justifications for spanking make me want to drive three hours to my parents house and punch my dad in the face. Probably smack my mom, too. Because the only thing hitting taught me, is that it makes me want to hit other people.

    I don’t remember an instance of spanking after which I was remorseful for whatever I was hit for. I may have been sorry before I was spanked, apologized, even. But once my parents hit me, and did nothing more than send me to my room to think about what I’d done, I stopped caring. For me, being hit was their way of saying that the rule wasn’t justified. It was a power play, and the only problem with what I’d done was getting caught.

    And the irony for being hit because I hit my brother? Well, point that out only got me more spanking.

  • LutheranEmily

    Maybe we don’t need to spank, but I think sometimes there needs to be an unnatural consequence to help relieve guilt.

    Once, my 8 year old did something really bad.. though I cannot remember what it was. He knew it was bad and he felt guilty.

    I did not punish him and this bothered him terribly. He cried, literally begging for a punishment.

    Oddball.

    • Heather Scholl

      If you can’t remember it…it probably wasn’t “that” bad. Bad is relative, anyway….and overrated.

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  • Heather Scholl

    It amazes me how much emphasis we all put on obedience and “badness”. I have a 9 year old. This may totally shock some folks: but I swear, so far….she hasn’t done anything truly “bad”. She has made some interesting errors in judgement where after a calm reasoned talk with mom (after I yelled at her initially) she reasoned through the circumstance and figured out a smarter option than what she chose. This is how we have done things since age 5, anyway. Kids are way more intellectual than we give them credit for. They learn from mistakes and you really don’t need to beat them into submission to make this happen. Before age 5: I let the decision she made be the punishment (unless she was in danger …like running into the street or something) ….she breaks the Mommy’s little figurine…it goes bye-bye in the trash…and Mommy feels sad. These are life’s learning lessons. Mommy has nothing so special in my house that is not worth this lesson. She is not “bad” for playing with something she was told not to. She just needed to learn what it meant to lose it. If kids are only meant to obey…..how on earth do they ever learn? I guess they learn “to obey” but do they learn anything else?


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