The Fruit of Spanking: Rage and Shame

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.   

As I remember it, my parents didn’t spank me all that often. When I was spanked it was usually just three licks with a wooden paddle. My mom only rarely bruised us, and my dad actually went easier on us than she did. Why is it, then, that when I look back at being spanked all I remember was the inner rage I felt? No one is listening to me, I thought. No one cares about how I see things. I felt completely stifled. I felt misunderstood and ignored. What spanking communicated to me was that my parents were in charge, and I had better obey. If I didn’t stay in line and follow the rules, I would be spanked.

But it was more than that. Even back talking merited a spanking. I think this is why I felt so stifled. If I was going to be spanked and tried to explain, or to offer additional information, I would be awarded more licks. Every “but” resulted in the spanking total being raised. Instead of three licks, I was going to have six. Or, if I protested again, eight. The message was that I had better shut up and just go along with whatever my parents said. The message was that my thoughts and feelings didn’t matter, only my parents’ rules. And hence the inner rage.

And then there was my last spanking. I don’t know how old I was exactly, but I think I was around eleven. I hadn’t been spanked in over a year, and felt that I was too old to be spanked. I don’t even remember what I did wrong. I do remember that it happened in public, and that I was not allowed to explain or question. This time my inner rage was matched by my sense of complete shame. I had never felt this humiliated in my entire life, and haven’t since. I wanted to sink through the floor and disappear. By refusing me the right to even discuss what had happened, I felt like I was being robbed of my personhood, smothered and stifled. I wanted to run and make it all go away. But of course, I couldn’t. And so I was taken away from the others to a private place (thank goodness) and unceremoniously spanked. I still feel that rage and shame today, as I write about it. It was one of the most humiliating experiences in my life.

My parents probably consider me an example of how spanking works. They weren’t excessive, they always hugged me afterward, they never used any object other than a paddle, and I became a model child. By all outward appearances, it worked. But I think my example goes to show that even when spanking appears to work, that doesn’t mean it really does. They simply couldn’t see the inner rage, and they had no idea how completely stifled and ignored and misunderstood they made me feel. They also either did not see the intense shame I felt the last time I was spanked, or if they did they didn’t care.

And now I have a little girl. She is only a toddler, but I decided long ago that I will try my hardest to listen to her and hear her side. I will not punish her for talking back, for if children are not to “talk back” how are they to communicate? It’s not that I will never punish her (though I definitely won’t spank); rather, I won’t punish her without hearing her out and discussing what happened, why, and how things can be improved in the future. I may even let her help decide which punishments are appropriate for which transgressions.

Above all, I will listen to her, to her feelings and her heart, and do my darnedest to make sure that I never make her feel the rage or shame I felt.

Condescending Self-Righteous Parents Make Parenting Sound Terrible
What Kind of Atheist Parent Are You?
Why We Should Teach Children to Say "No"
Gamergate Comes Home
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.

  • amhovgaard

    I like your plan! Hitting children is illegal here (Norway), and I was never spanked as a child – to be honest, I can’t remember ever really being punished at all. When I did something wrong, my “punishment” was having to “discuss(…) what happened, why, and how things (could) be improved in the future” – I had to explain why I did it, what I was thinking, what, in hindsight, I thought the consequences might have been – worst case scenarios etc. And my parents would explain their thoughts and feelings. We’re an extremely verbal family :) This was neither painful nor humiliating, but sufficiently boring and embarrassing to make me try very hard to avoid it by not doing stupid things. And by making me think things through like that, they taught me how to make better decisions in the future. They also encouraged me to use my brain by asking “Why?” when I didn’t want to do as I was told. If I could come up with a good enough reason/a better alternative, I could get them to change their minds. Or at least get a laugh and “Nice try!” if my idea was creative…

    • Gordon

      Hitting children should be illegal everywhere!

  • Mezzanine

    Whenever I read posts like this, I end up with a big division in my mind – with “spanking” on one side, and “smacking” on the other.

    My nephews get smacked (as did my sisters and I)… rarely.
    - It is used only in situations when the standard “time out” can’t be – usually because the problem is, for instance, him flatly refusing to go into time out.
    - The boys have been smacked between the ages of 2 and 5. Any younger or older, and it’s inappropriate.
    - “Smacking” in this case refers to
    a) a warning (“if you don’t do this, I will give you a smack”)
    b) one single smack on the bottom, with bare hand – right there, right then; any delayed smacking could just as easily be another form of delayed punishment instead
    c) a discussion, a few minutes later, about what the problem was, and what they should have been doing

    Under those conditions, I don’t have a problem with “smacking” (although I can understand why others might). I do, however, have MAJOR problems with “spanking” as I’ve heard it described here and elsewhere. The whole concept sounds horrific.

    • amhovgaard

      Well, that is just completely pointless (trust me, I’m a psychologist ;) ). It is probably not all that harmful, but that’s mainly because it doesn’t really do anything. If you think it has any positive effect on their behavior in the long term, you need to read up on “regression to the mean” – it is just an illusion. Any short term effect is simply because they’re distracted. Practically anything that constitutes a sudden break in what’s going on & gets their attention would have much the same effect and without any violence.

      • Mezzanine

        I’d be inclined to disagree.

        I still remember two of the smacks I got when I was four. One was for lying to my mother; the other was because I flatly refused to get in the bath. I never tried lying to her again – and I never, EVER flatly refused to do something again.

        It was quite effective, really.

    • Anna

      I see almost no difference between “spanking” and “smacking” the way you describe it. I will allow that the times that my Mom “smacked” me in anger were far less anxiety provoking and humiliating than having to get the switch and wait in the bedroom, HOWEVER that does not make it not harmful. I think Libby Anne’s whole point is that, no matter what kinds of “reasonable” rituals you try to build around it, hitting your kids is harmful period. It doesn’t matter whether it seems effective in the moment, the point is not whether it “works” to make your child do what you want (if it even does), the point is how your child experiences it. And an obvious point: if you can make your child stand still and let you hit them, you can make them go to time-out. If you are chasing your child around to hit them, you have major discipline issues that are only going to get worse with continued “smacking”. Finally: I call bullshit on “I got hit for it once and I never did it again so it totally works!” All of the research says that kids who are hit/smacked/spanked are more likely to have behavior problems and be violent with their peers than kids who are disciplined in other ways. My experience is that adults who hit children exaggerate it’s effectiveness in order to justify their behavior.

      • Anat

        All of the research says that kids who are hit/smacked/spanked are more likely to have behavior problems and be violent with their peers than kids who are disciplined in other ways.

        I suspect often causality is in reverse: Children who for some reason behave worse (because of their personality and how they perceive their environment and their own emotions) are more frustrating to their parents, so they end up spanked more.

      • Contrarian

        @anat, My understanding is that the research literature tests for the reverse causality problem. At least, since this is the obvious explanation for the correlation, one would hope competent psychologists would think of it and test for it!

        Another possibility is that poor parents are more likely to have children who misbehave, and poor parents are also more likely to spank (a cop-out). In that case, the solution is to educate parents on effective parenting techniques.

      • amhovgaard

        “I still remember two of the smacks I got when I was four. One was for lying to my mother; the other was because I flatly refused to get in the bath. I never tried lying to her again – and I never, EVER flatly refused to do something again.”

        Your problem (in addition to the fact that you are relying on your memory, which is notoriously unreliable esp. for things that _didn’t_ happen) is that you are only looking at one square of a 2×2 matrix: the “someone did something and after that something changed” square. That’s how people become superstitious or start believing in snake oil type remedies.

        Here’s another anecdote, to fill in one of the other squares: I don’t remember the last time I “stole” sugar cubes from the bowl while waiting for guests to arrive and for my parents to bring cake, tea, coffee etc., but I remember very clearly the first time I consciously stopped myself from doing it. Judging by where I was and who else was present (as I remember it), it must have been around the time I turned four. My mother had told me I mustn’t do it, and that if I waited I’d get sugar cubes with my tea. I kept telling myself to not take any sugar cubes, that Ma had said I mustn’t. After a while I literally had to sit on my hands to stop myself from taking just one nice, tasty sugar cube, but I did it! I remember feeling so proud when my mother came in with the cake and smiled at me, pleased that I had done as she told me. After that, I always managed to wait. I don’t remember ever being punished for eating sugar cubes out of the bowl (and knowing my parents, they’d be more likely to sprout wings and fly than punish a small child for a thing like that), or rewarded for not doing it (I always got sugar cubes with my tea anyway), so: nobody did anything, and something changed anyway.

    • Anat

      I still remember two of the smacks I got when I was four. One was for lying to my mother; the other was because I flatly refused to get in the bath. I never tried lying to her again – and I never, EVER flatly refused to do something again.

      My experience was different. I was spanked many times for assorted things. I repeated the offenses many times. Until either I outgrew the behaviors, understood why I wasn’t supposed to engage in them or became old enough that the behavior was no longer considered wrong for me, as the case happened to be. I don’t think there was any behavior I stopped simply because I was spanked for it. Spanking is an outlet for parental frustration and a way for parents to respond to social pressure to ‘do something’ about their child’s behavior. Sometimes the child responds, but that’s not very predictable.

      (For lying I was given the lecture ‘lying is as bad as stealing’ – it helps that in Hebrew one idiomatic expression for lying translates as ‘mind stealing’ and sent to bed without dinner.)

      • amhovgaard

        “I suspect often causality is in reverse: Children who for some reason behave worse (because of their personality and how they perceive their environment and their own emotions) are more frustrating to their parents, so they end up spanked more.” The most obvious problem with that is that, while parents may spank some of their children more (unruly children, non-neurotypical children or children with some kind of disability, boys more than girls…), most of the difference is between parents and between cultures. I guess it is possible that parents who hit their children are just born violent and can’t help having children who behave as badly as they do, but I doubt it. And I really don’t think that Norwegian children are somehow magically born well-mannered!

  • Anon

    Like you, Libby Anne, I was spanked rather infrequently (my dad preferred privilege revocation), maybe 6 times total. I was also 11 the last time.

    Mostly, though, I felt as though my dad didn’t trust me to engage on any higher level, as though even at eleven he thought I lacked reasoning skills or the comprehension to understand “this is why I’m saying this”. I felt disrespected.

    I don’t have kids, and I likely never will, but I’ve always resolved to remember what being a kid is like, and that they’re often capable of more than we think.

  • Ace of Sevens

    Hey! I can finally beat Libby Anne at one event in the oppression Olympics!

    I got spanked all the time when I was kid, several times a week and on a couple occasions, several times a day. I could be spanked for not doing my homework, not doing my chores, talking back, saying something I didn’t know any better than saying, going somewhere without permission, messing with their stuff, etc. Usually, it was a ruler or wooden spoon, but sometimes, it was a braided leather belt. My parents were mostly good about not spanking me in anger (though my dad less so), but my reaction was similar to Libby Anne’s: It set parenting up as a contest. They would try to break my will and I would try to maintain some independence. It established they wouldn’t listen to me. When I got to be eleven or so and too old to spank, they tried fining me instead, with similar results. If I didn’t think I had done anything wrong, each word of protest got me an additional swat or dollar fine.

    The end result of this parenting-as-a-battle-of-wills approach was that as I grew up and began developing a life outside the family, giving in to anything seemed like an act of cowardice or submission. In high school, I barely did any homework. I just couldn’t stand to let my parents win that battle. I nearly flunked out, just squeaked into graduation and ended up going to state college where I still couldn’t hack it. In fact, I think this will be my blog topic for tomorrow.

    • kevinalexander

      “In high school, I barely did any homework. I just couldn’t stand to let my parents win that battle. I nearly flunked out.”

      That brings back memories. I did flunk out first year high school. Catholic school where the good fathers used fists on us disobedient ones.

      Switched to pubic school and got straight A’s

  • D.L.

    I was hit in anger/as punishment, repeatedly though not daily, as a kid. It did nothing but make me loathe my parents: They were acting like stupid little children, bullying someone weaker, just because I was magically supposed to obey them without any reasonable justifications for why. This was especially bad as I on many occasions was the one who was right, and my parents just were being idiots with zero patience.
    While they probably did not intend to give me that impression as it no doubt was not the reason for why, I got the feeling that the reason they hit me less and less as I grew up, was because possible violent retaliation from me would be increasingly dangerous because of increased muscle mass and whatnot.

    And I would have hurt them badly. If they would have kept hitting me, at one point I would have snapped, and tried to literally maim them in perceived pre-emptive self defense. Possibly in their sleep. Because there’s only so much you can take, and only so much self loathing you can put up with (“it’s my fault for not being perfect” and “I’m taking their resources, they made me, clearly they surely have the right to do whatever they want to me” – even though I would have immediately contacted the police if I had thought any of my friends were being abused). I tried to kill myself before I even hit my teens, and was never caught (failed poisoning, cleaned the place up and covered it up lest I’d get even more negative repercussions, and spent the next half year in apathy).

    While I do not hate my parents, and understand they were quite fucked up as a result of their horrible horrible childhoods and horrendous amount of stress at that point in their lives, I am not capable of spending a significant amount of time with them. I either get anxious, or angry. The worst bit being that they’ve mellowed a lot over the decades, they are no longer the stressed to hell people they were when I was little, so the people who “raised” me really don’t exist anymore. Does not change the fact that I will never ever be able to for instance take care of them in their old age, too much brainless power play at me as a kid has completely annihalated any patience I would have with them acting “uppity” and not immediately cowering to my leadership (which are impulses I do not have with anyone else, neither friends or in any professional contexts). This would be an extremely unhealthy situation for both them and me. While I’m fortunately quite certain I wouldn’t do retarded shit like them if I ever were to have kids, I to their chagrin am extremely unlikely to have children, as I’ve taken the time others use after growing up to establish families, to heal from the negative aspects of my childhood.

  • Derek

    As a parent myself who came from an evangelical christian background I think we need to reconsider the entire concept of punishment and consequences.

    It is an insidious (and studies show wrong) idea that punishment and consequences teach good behavior, they do not. Instead of teaching our children how to make good choices punishment teaches them to submit and that might makes right.

    This article on positive discipline discusses the topic in more detail with a specific focus on timeouts as an example of modern punishment.

  • Rilian

    Having to help decide your own punishment is disgusting.

    There should never be punishment. Of any kind. Ever. The concept itself is disrespectful to one’s personhood.

    • LutheranEmily

      Wondering if you have childen..

  • Jeremy

    Like Libby, I was routinely spanked by my parents (mostly my mother) for talking back. (My parents were atheists who believed in the family values of the fundamentalist homeschooling community, so I was raised in that community.) Like Libby, I clearly remember the last time I was spanked by my mom; I was nearly thirteen years old. The difference is, I hit back. And then she hit back. By the time my dad broke up the fight, I had a small shiner. She never spanked me again after that, though she was pretty clear that it was my fault for hitting her.

    Ugh. Aren’t families fun?

  • LutheranEmily

    I am finding this blog very interesting.

    I am not involved in Vision Forum or Patriarchy or anything like that. I was raised by nominally Catholic parents who didn’t ever spank me…or even punish me really for that matter.

    They made absolutely no attempt in training my thought life, which I know sounds dreamy to you, but for me it sort of had the opposite effect. I do wish I had been more protected from some of the unwise childish decisions I made while growing up instead of “being heard” quite so much. I made a lot of really dumb decisions on my own without the wisdom of my elders, and I think this is largely because I was never made to.

    Anyhow, we spank. I largely agree with Mezzanine on this. I think this is because we started our parenting journey with a grace based mindset and life was a living hell. I know they say that the fruit of not punishing children comes later, but you still have to live with your children while you are going through their childhood and an undisciplined child can be torture sometimes.

    I had a 2 year old son who hit me, kick me, and told me he didn’t love me. I find it kind of laughable that spanking teaches hitting. I don’t really think we need to be taught to hit in anger. Hitting is just something that is in us. We have to be taught not to hit. If having my firstborn taught me anything, its that I didn’t know anything about being a parent until I had children. I said I would never spank…well, I might not have, but had that continued, I am not sure what my child would be like today at 8.

    Anyhow, I am glad to read your blog. I do sometimes have the tendency to think of my children as clean slates and want desperately for them to “come out” or this as christians…. but they may not, no matter what I do or do not do.

    Out of curiosity.. What do you think your reaction would be should your daughter choose to become a patriarchal believing christian? Would that stun you? Would you try to talk her out of it?

    • The_L1985

      “No spanking/punishment” doesn’t mean “no discipline.” Parents are supposed to explain “You shouldn’t do X, because Y could happen.” Kids aren’t supposed to get everything they want, and Libby has said numerous times that they shouldn’t. She supports the use of compromise (where possible) and explanation (when you can’t compromise) to assure good behavior.

  • Sarah

    LutheranEmily, why didn’t you try any other discipline than spanking? That’s about as logical as junking your car because you can find a park.

  • Musical Atheist

    Libby Anne, I’m posting this in this comments thread as it seems the most appropriate way to pass it on to you. In case it’s useful for your list of resources, here is an article detailing a recent study which links spanking and corporal punishment in the home with higher incidence of adult mental illness.