When “I’m Sorry” Means “Please Don’t Hit Me”

Yesterday I finally brought a Christmas mug I was given a couple months ago home from the office. Sally was playing with it in the car, and when I opened the car door it fell out onto the pavement and broke.

“Oh, I’m sorry, mommy!”

Sally was heartfelt and genuine, and that took me aback, because I realized something in that moment. I realized something that hit me in the gut.

When I was a child, “I’m sorry” meant “please don’t hit me.”

Reeling from this realization, I queried Sally about her motivations for saying “I’m sorry,” curious to hear her thoughts.

“I know that maked you sad,” she said, pointing to the broken mug matter-of-factly. “So I sayed ‘I’m sorry’ to try to help you to feel better. I will be more careful with your mug next time.”

Sally’s response made me cry. For those of you who, like me, grew up in authoritarian families and are afraid that you will repeat your parents’ mistakes and ruin any children you might have, know that that is not fated. It can be different. Sally proves that to me every single day.

And now, I can’t get the voices of my past out of my head.

“Mom, I’m sorry! Please don’t spank me! I said I’m sorry! I won’t do it again, I promise! I’m sorry, mom, I’m sorry!”

“I’m sorry” was a desperate plea, a cry for mercy. It was nothing like Sally’s genuine, heartfelt apology for breaking my mug. And how could it be? When the threat of being hit hangs over your head, how can anything be truly genuine? I even carefully regulated my tears when I was spanked as a child, making sure to cry enough that my mother would know I wasn’t rebelliously refusing to cry but not so much that she would think I was crying angrily and out of rebellion. Everything was calculated carefully, with the desire to avoid being hit.

Growing up in a home where physical punishment was administered was like walking around with a noose around my neck, never knowing when it might be pulled tight just to remind me who was boss. I lived my life under the threat of physical violence. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Raising children doesn’t have to mean living a life peppered with threats of violence, or even any threats at all. Raising children can be a cooperative venture based on compassion and a desire for understanding and a willingness to listen.

I’m not pretending that raising children in a positive and healthy way is never challenging or difficult, but believe me when I say that it is more than worth it—for me as much as for Sally.

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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.

  • L

    God would allow your parents to not spank you if you were sorry? He wouldn’t mine… Lack of what my parents perceived as a genuine apology would just get you more spankings. And when my mom wasn’t ready to jump down my throat at any ‘infraction’, my whimpering ‘I’m sorry,I’m sorry’ got me in trouble, because mom said I was acting like an abused child. She yelled it rather ‘shut up, you are not an abused child!’

    I wish my mom had never heard of the bible. I wish she’d never heard of micheal pearl and her parents had never heard of bill gothard. I can’t understand why a woman raised like she was by fear driven gothardites would only want to be MORE legalistic and demanding with her children.
    …. Your blog has been helpful to me in recognizing all the ways those Fundementalist mindsets are still in my head affecting how I think about myself. Thanks.

    • The_L

      I don’t see that in her backstory. Even when I knew deep down that I was going to be spanked, I would still cry out, “I’m sorry!’ over and over in the vain hope that I wouldn’t be. I’d swear to never do it again. I’d beg for them to do anything else–take away my TV privileges for a week, get rid of snack time, anything–as long as they weren’t hitting me.

    • OurSally

      Saying sorry never helped me either, in fact any reaction at all just made it worse. Mostly I hadn’t broken anything, it was just the look on my face or breaking a rule he just invented so I could have broken it. Because it was never about me, he just wanted to hit a child and I was the nearest. Took me a long time to realise that. I always thought there was something wrong with me. There wasn’t, though!

  • Rilian

    My parents didn’t even hit me that much, compared to what I’ve heard from my friends and stuff, and I can still relate to this. it doesn’t take that much, I guess.

    • Caitlin

      Completely agree. Spankings were relatively rare in my house, but they were always a possibility. I remember saying “I’m sorry” as begging for mercy, not apologizing. It makes me sick to my stomach to think about it. With our children, we have emphasized restitution when appropriate to make sorry meaningful. We also talk about saying sorry being for the benefit of the person who is hurt, ven if you don’t really mean it inside whenyou say it.

  • Kristen

    This post made me cry. I know exactly how you felt as a child. Punishment, especially violence, doesn’t create a more compassionate person, just a more compliant person.

    My son’s empathy is developing and it is a joy to see. He’s about Sally’s age, but I think a little less emotionally mature. At night when I put him to bed, we cuddle for awhile and talk about the day. He’s started spontaneously, sweetly apologizing for things he did during the day. Right after he does something careless or wrong, he is less about emotion and more receptive–he tries to take in what just happened and why it wasn’t good, and sometimes he gets angry if he has to stop doing something he was having fun with. We try to focus on talking through what happened (Do you see how spinning around in the kitchen made the pasta jar fall over and make a mess?) and problem solve for how he can do better next time (How can you help fix this? Great idea, you can help Daddy clean up! Where is a better place to spin around?). There’s usually more shock and explanation than regret.

    Then, at night, he’s all of a sudden started bringing up things during the day that he did, particularly when he knows it accidentally hurt somebody or when he knew better and did it anyway, and apologizing with genuine empathy and regret. I don’t think he’s troubled–if he seemed to be anxious or like he needed absolution or forgiveness, I would be worried that we’re being too harsh with correcting him. He’s not nervous or wary, and he’ll intersperse talking about how happy he felt when he saw the baby rabbit this morning with then saying that he’s sorry he yelled at me when it was time to put the toys away. I always tell him thank you for apologizing, and that he makes me happy when he shows me that he cares about other people by apologizing when he does things that aren’t kind. I think it’s just he’s finally starting to process his emotions more and identify his feelings with how other people feel, and I love seeing his sweet, compassionate side.

    Thanks for sharing this, Libby Anne.

    • The_L

      I’m so used to yelling and spanking being the automatic responses to wrongdoing that I still cringe when I’m called to see the dean, even though I’ve done nothing to be chastised for.

      It really helps to see people explain better methods of discipline. I look forward to using this with my own kids.

  • Ella

    For me, it wasn’t so much actually being hit, but the threat of it. I can’t remember being spanked, but I’m pretty sure I was when I was very young. The threat was always there and my dad’s extremely short patience was as bas as if he had.

    I’m sorry became the generic response for many things. “don’t hit me”, “please stop yelling”, “I’m scared”…

    I’ve inherited my dad’s temper and I always struggle to keep it in check a lot of the time. Remembering how he made me feel helps me not want to inflict that on anyone else.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • SirWill

    It really doesn’t take much. It’s so very easy for ‘I’m sorry’ to mean ‘Please don’t hurt me’ instead of ‘Oh damn it, I did something I can’t fix, and I know it was important.’

    Most of my childhood it was the former, though more at the hands of my brother than my parents. Thinking back, it fits here a lot. If I damaged something belonging to my mom inadvertently, I wasn’t afraid of being hit or even punished, just sad that I had done so and wanted some way of fixing the problem. If the same thing happened with one of my brother’s things, it was ‘I didn’t mean to, please don’t hurt me, and if you do I’ll make sure mom finds out.’ Which just made it worse, but still.

    People are social animals. We don’t need to be hit to learn to do the right thing. We just need to be taught how to figure out what to do. Michael Pearl and his ilk are very, very wrong, but unfortunately, they have a lot of influence with all the wrong people.

    Obedience for its own sake is not good. Obedience out of fear is worse. Heck, obedience isn’t good at all, come to think of it. You do what you need to to collect a paycheck, stay out of prisons and get along in society, but nobody should obey another without mutual benefit. A lot of people just don’t get that.

    Example: An employee obeys a boss, because if he does, he gets paid. But a boss doesn’t have the right to tell an employee to do something dangerous (unless said work is a needed thing, and in that case it’s the employer’s job to mitigate that danger as much as possible) and definitely has no right to order them to do something illegal.

    When it comes to kids, a child has to obey their parents to survive long enough to become adults, but the parent doesn’t have the right to terrify, abuse, or maltreat their kids. And piss off to anyone who says otherwise.

    Thanks Libby. It’s always heartwarming to see that the mistakes of the previous generation can be fixed for the next. If more parents were like you with Sally, the world would be a much better place. You’re doing great by teaching her HOW to think, as opposed to the poor parents who teach WHAT to think.

  • kisarita

    My folks would ground me and put me in my room until I apologized.

    They occasionally modeled by apologizing to us kids for this or that.

  • http://www.ohmatron.wordpress.com Custador

    I got spanked, often for no reason whatsoever, and often because my younger brother learned how to manipulate my step father into beating me, simply because he (my kid brother) thought it was entertaining. It hurts me every single time I think about it; it wasn’t teaching me anything unless you really think that sudden, unexpected, totally undesereved violence has educational value. Personally I think it constitutes physical and emotional abuse.

  • machintelligence

    Wow! I have been reading your blog since the FTB days and still this is a revelation. I had no idea how toxic a home these ideas of child rearing could cause. Spanking a child for defiance or assumed defiance is one thing (although it is still wrong and a terrible idea), but physical punishment meted out for being an ordinary clumsy kid is child abuse plain and simple. The closest thing that I remember as a child was the epithet “doppus” which my father called one of us in disgust when we spilled something or knocked over a water glass. (I believe it meant stupid or klutz, and “dope” may be a cognate.) He was quite surprised when on one occasion, he spilled the water and three little voices chimed in “doppus!” I don’t remember if he used the term after that, but I suspect not.

  • kagekiri

    Whenever I picture the harm of physical discipline, my mind always goes to my mother telling my brother to stop crying about his spanking…then spanking him while repeating the command as if that’d help encourage him to stop crying about the pain/fear. He was….like 5 or 6? Even I haven’t really forgiven her for that, or for literally locking my brother out of the house to punish him when he was at a similar age. And she wonders why he hates her the most openly out of all us kids…

    Or my mom often being fed up with trying to figure out who was at fault in a fight and just spanking both me and my brother (no surprise I became so obsessed with not being a hypocrite and justice being served).

    Or those fun times when we tried to argue about spanking (during spankings), and got the “I do this out of love” speech while my parents were obviously very angry. SUPER CONVINCING.

    Or my dad not liking how I was looking at him (I remember being hurt at the time that he was just snapping at me instead of backing me against my often irrational mother), and threatening that he wouldn’t hesitate to beat or even kill me if I kept looking at him like that (apparently, he thought I was going to hit him or try to kill him because of my sad face….which made me sadder and thus I had to try to not show any hurt, because apparently it made me look murderous….). I was in my early teens at that point, still scrawny as heck. Thankfully, he only got that way that once, but it made it all the more shocking and soul-crushing at the time.

    Thanks fundamentalist Christianity, for making sure they felt and still feel physical punishment is Godly and necessary, and that not beating us would have made us evil (me and my brother ended up atheist). Thanks for shielding them from introspection, for making them extra-ready to claim their authority over their kids through violence and physical threats. Thanks for making sure “honoring your parents” was something they could shove down our throats in combination with already honor-focused Chinese culture, to make us even more dysfunctionally introverted and passive-aggressive.

    …K, I should probably take a break from memory lane. It’s been a bad enough day already.

    • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

      “my mother telling my brother to stop crying about his spanking…then spanking him ”

      My SIL does this. I don’t get it. Why would you try to stop a child from crying by doing the thing that made them start crying in the first place?

      • The_L

        Your child is crying for too long. Clearly it’s not pain, fear, or humiliation that’s making them cry; they’re just dragging it out extra-long to make you feel bad, so you’ll apologize for doing your Christian duty of spanking them. Therefore, they’re being naughty and need to be spanked again.

        *shudders* I hate that mindset so much.

    • Elise

      Tom Jones, a wonderful 18th-century novel that criticizes “that” sort of childhood education by a certain Reverend Thwackum (telling!) taught me this saying: “Te castigo sid quod amem” which means “I beat you because I love you” I used to repeat that phrase over and over and over while my mum was being a monster… it helped me to focus on something–anything–other than her.

    • The_L

      That all sounds so familiar. Especially the whole “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about” thing.

  • Kellen

    When I was four, my parents started “spanking” me with one or two whacks on the hand, which they lost the stomach for by the time I was six or seven. Even then, I would have to do something *really* bad, like sticking my tongue out at mom’s back because she was making me leave the playground. (That’s the only one I remember.) I’m thankful that I was never abused, and that I know enough to know that spanking does not teach a child empathy or values.

    Libby, mind if I ask what you found “did” work in teaching Sally to be so empathetic?

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/lovejoyfeminism Libby Anne

      I should try to write more about this in the future. My working theory is simply that if you show children empathy yourself, they will show you empathy in return. You teach your children to be empathetic by modeling it—by being empathetic.

      • Rosie

        I think you might be on to something there. I’ve been thinking about my own childhood, about how neither of my parents was very good at modeling empathy. At the very least, failure to model empathy can make it difficult for children to learn how to process their own emotions. I seem to swing between two extremes: not feeling them at all, or being overwhelmed by them. Luckily there are classes and techniques that adults can learn to make up for the deficit later. I’m working on it.

  • LadyCricket

    Soon enough there are going to be some people commenting along the lines of “My parents spanked me. and I turned out perfectly fine!”

    Now, my modern and moderate upbringing doesn’t come close to the things people usually talk about on this site, but I’ve had a little brainwave about these people who were spanked and turned out fine. What if their spanking experience was like mine?

    I was indeed spanked as a child… Maybe less than 5 times. The only incident I have any real memory of was right after I covered an entire room in hand lotion, lol. Just one or two swats each time. I don’t remember having to obediently bend over to be spanked, and my parents never pulled bullshit like “Stop crying or I’ll give you a reason to cry!” or “I’m doing this because I love you”. It wasn’t their first choice for discipline, possibly not in the top ten. No paddles or switches were used. It certainly wasn’t a systemic, day-to-day thing. I don’t think it ever happened (to me or my siblings)after I was 7… I guess their parenting techniques evolved. And today I would rate my relationship with my parents as extremely positive, with spanking not even being in the top 100 things I associate with them.

    Wimpiest “spanking” story ever, right? Well, getting back to my point, what if people who comment on posts like this saying “I was spanked and I turned out fine, so clearly you’re just a wimp” were “spanked” the way I was “spanked”? Rarely hit, never hit hard, and never had the emotional bullshit pulled on them?

    I once read a comment on LJF by one guy who was about %99 straight and %1 gay. It ironically made it easier for him to believe that homosexuality was a choice and you just needed to CHOOSE not to be gay, because he had a very small and very defeatable attraction to men. It took him a while to figure out that that’s not the kind of struggle most homosexual people have. …soooooo maybe a similar phenomenon is going on with people who were spanked and turned out fine?

    • Rosie

      That, and quite possibly a bit of Stockholm Syndrome.

      Also, IIRC, Dr. Dobson and his ilk recommend spankings quite young, as soon as the child begins to show any tendency to a will of his or her own, to “nip it in the bud”. I recently read a summary of Erikson’s work on child development, and the dangers of each “crisis” if not negotiated successfully, and realized that in so far as Dobson’s advice actually works, it does so because it keeps the will from developing in its proper stage, thereby developmentally crippling the child. However, the brain is a marvelous thing, and it will protect the “soul”, or personality, by locking it up and replacing it with a compliant facade if necessary. And it may be that you’re hearing from these replacement personalities also. I’d have said at one time that I turned out all right, too. But the older I get, the more I study psychology and the more I work on my own personal growth, the more I realize that is really not true. I turned out compliant and obedient and…crippled.

    • http://amethystmarie.com/ Amethyst

      There’s also the question of what “fine” is, the answer to which will vary from person to person. If my child reached adulthood and felt comfortable saying, “Oh, it’s okay, he hit me because he loved me,” or “Oh, it’s no big deal, she hit me because I deserved it,” I wouldn’t feel like my kid had turned out “fine.” That goes for any euphemism for hitting, including spanking.

    • ako

      Yeah, I can believe that. My parents would give me a mild swat on the backside maybe half a dozen times during my life (they sound a lot like your parents in terms of how they handled spankings), and it was not traumatic or damaging or abusive or anything like that. When I hear the word spanking, that’s the first thing I picture, and it takes something actively reminding me to get that spanking can be a lot worse.

      (I still wouldn’t encourage people to use even rare and mild spankings. It was more upsetting than the typical punishment from my parents, not any more likely to get me to control my behavior, and less likely to lead to me thinking about what I did. And really, even if it is useful and moderate, I think it’s worth giving up in order to reduce the amount of social cover for more damaging forms of hitting.)

      • The_L

        Oh, I got spanked at least once a week. Mostly for my ADHD getting in the way, sometimes for wetting myself (I took longer than most kids to develop bladder control), sometimes for deliberately doing something wrong or trying to find a loophole. (“You said I couldn’t jump on the bed; you never said I couldn’t jump off of the bed!”)

        I was also spanked until the age of 16. Here’s a spanking story from when I was 7:

        Dad had told us not to go in the pool yet, because it was dirty and he needed to treat it. Months passed, and the pool looked clean. But Dad hadn’t said it was OK to go in yet, and I really, really wanted to go for a swim. I decided to test it by setting our puppy on the top step, where only his feet would get wet. I figured that if nothing bad happened, then it would be OK for us to go in the pool, and since only the puppy’s feet would get wet, they’d dry off really quickly and my parents wouldn’t know. My brother was closer to the dog, and I wasn’t the best communicator, so I ended up saying “put the dog in the pool.” He put the dog in the middle of the shallow end, where I had to pull it out because it was obviously struggling to get out of the pool.

        Just then, Dad comes outside. Both of us are wet, the dog is soaked, and we’re sitting next to the pool with guilty looks on our faces. “WHO PUT THE DOG IN THE POOL?” No answer.

        We were both spanked, and then Dad took turns grilling each of us about the dog. If we didn’t confess, we were spanked again, sent to our rooms, and the other child was dragged out. It took over an hour for the whole truth to come out, and it was the most miserable day of my childhood. I still remember it like it was yesterday: crying into that ugly pink floral bedspread Mom had gotten me, wishing Daddy would just stop because he’d spanked us enough already; hearing my brother squeal as he got spanked again and knowing it was my turn; the sheer rage on my father’s face; Mother trying to talk us into being reasonable and just telling the truth; grumbling to my stuffed animals about how it was so unfair, because we’d only ever gotten spanked once per offense before and now Daddy was spanking us lots of times, and Daddy spanked a lot harder than Mommy so it hurt really bad.

    • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

      It also depends on your definition of “fine.” I don’t consider someone who thinks that it’s acceptable to hit a defenceless child – a child who depends on who for their feelings of security and comfort – to be “fine.”

      In other words, as far as I am concerned, I think that “There’s nothing wrong with spanking, I was spanked and I’m fine!” is a self-contradictory statement.

  • saraquill

    Beating a child for not crying or crying too much sounds so very wrong.

    • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

      It is wrong. So wrong. Children depend on their parents to provide comfort, to teach them that the world isn’t a scary place. To *become* the object of fear is such a betrayal of what I would consider the responsibility of parenthood…

      One of the moms in my playgroup spanks her child for hitting the other kids. Surprise surprise, he’s the only kid who is still frequently hitting (they’re all right around 2 years old). She’s taught him that if he wants to control the behaviour of others, whacking them is an effective means of accomplishing his goals – so he’ll hit the other kids for playing with a toy he wants, not playing the way he wants them to play, sitting in the spot he wants to sit… And every time, she picks him up and spanks him while yelling at him “No hitting!”

      We’ve tried to explain to her that she’s sending him the wrong message, but it’s “how she was raised” and “she turned out just fine” and “he’s just so stubborn.”

      The cluelessness is staggering.

  • Ma Nonny

    *shudder* … Just got flashbacks of “Shut up, or I’ll give you something to cry about!”

  • dontmakemeover

    @15: My parents spanked me a couple of times the way you described, definitely stopping before I was even in school, and the reason I don’t think of it as spanking is because I now have friends who were actually abused. It just doesn’t compare. But if you never heard those stories, you might not realize. Education!

    For me, “I’m sorry” was often, “I just realized why what I’ve done might upset you and I will proceed to feel bad about it for the rest of my life, probably.” I was raised in a strong guilt-culture background. I went to Catholic school for my first 8 years of education and am one of the oldest in a big Irish Catholic family who are very close and involved in each other’s business. Let me tell you, the stereotype is true. They are among the masters of guilt. And I remember the things I’ve done forever.
    Sometimes I will just be going to lie down in bed for the night and my brain will go “Remember in the 6th grade when you called that girl a bad name so other girls who were bullying you would like you for a brief second?” And then I feel totally horrible all over again, but even worse, because it has festered for so long.
    I’ve actually been asked before if I have Asperger’s, based on how I relate to people. But I don’t think so. I think I literally was shouted and guilted into this twitchy person who is terrified of hurting people because I may not see the implications before I act. It makes it really hard for me to stand up for myself or be in relationships with people. My mother still doesn’t realize she’s doing it.

    • dontmakemeover

      Oops, forgot the numbers change with replies. My first part was to @LadyCricket.

    • Rovin’ Rockhound

      Wow, you sound so much like me. Raised Catholic (Latin American) in a huge family that was very much involved in everyone’s business. I strongly suspect I would be diagnosed with Asperger’s if I were a kid in the US right now, but I have grown out or developed coping mechanisms for most of those issues and officially don’t qualify for the diagnosis as an adult. I do have ADHD – diagnosed in my late 20s – and the H presents mostly as crippling anxiety. I am sure much of it, though, was made worse by the culture I grew up in. The guilt, the inability to forget my past mistakes (really small stupid things no one else remembers!), the fear of interpersonal relationships… much of it might come from the lack of privacy and trust that exists in a big, gossipy family like mine (and yours?). “I’m sorry” starts to mean nothing when your mistakes are not forgiven and forgotten but are instead shared with the world.

    • Christine

      You would both be surprised at what could get you diagnosed. I’m high functioning (now) to the point where people are completely shocked that I’m officially spectrum. I was diagnosed as an adult, even though I have coping mechanisms, because my brain still works in the same way it did. I’m of the theory that the concept of ‘high functioning’ is a bad one, not for the conventional reasons to dislike it, but because it’s too simplified. Despite autism being a behaviour-based diagnosis, behaviour can be due to how much the autism affects your though processes OR to how good your coping skills are. My husband agrees with my assessment that I may have a very strong degree of Asperger’s (it still existed when I was diagnosed, so I still call myself that), and I just have a very high amount of coping strategies.

      I wasn’t raised to have that sort of guilt, but I managed to pick it up on my own. Looking back, I think that part of it was that, given my awareness of non-social things, everyone assumed I was more aware of what I should have done/how other people felt/etc, and responded based on an assumption that I knew I was doing something wrong. This could have led to me over-estimating the severity of the mistakes I made. Additionally, I find it necessary to analyse social situations after the fact, especially ones where I did something that cause people to be upset, to see if I could have done something better (this is my only way to learn social skills), and that might be why I also have the issue of something from years in the past popping up and making me feel bad.

      • http://equalsuf.wordpress.com Jayn

        “Looking back, I think that part of it was that, given my awareness of non-social things, everyone assumed I was more aware of what I should have done/how other people felt/etc, and responded based on an assumption that I knew I was doing something wrong.”

        Going into Aspie-rant mode now, but that’s definitely a real issue. If a kid seems to be doing well academically they’re labelled ‘smart’ and it’s assumed that because they’re smart they’re also able to understand non-academic things as well. But being able to understand social situations is way different from memorizing a textbook…and the worst part? No one ever explains shit because you’re smart and they expect you to know better. But I didn’t. The most guidance I got from my peers was the phrase “That’s why no one likes you”, which left me to figure out what the hell ‘that’ meant and if I could figure out that something I was doing wasn’t right on my own, I wouldn’t be doing it in the first place. I didn’t understand other people and they never bothered to explain themselves to me, because it was obvious to them.

        Rant over.

        On a side note, I recall reading a while ago that people on the spectrum do tend to hold onto bad experiences more, which sucks given that we seem to have more of them to begin with. I certainly tend to dwell on things way too much.

      • Christine

        Heck, it’s not just people in general. The guy who was doing my tests (he just had a Master’s, but he could give me the tests – I can’t remember my title), wanted to do a test to see if I had attention problems – I seem to sometimes, but I also could remember what was going on much better than would be expected if I had an attention deficit problem. The psychologist nixed it – apparently I’m smart enough that the test wouldn’t work on me.

        I think that the problem wasn’t just that I was smart – it’s that I was smart enough to be close to normal in a lot of ways (at least, that’s going to be the problem now). I intend to keep a close eye on my daughter so I can get her diagnosed if need be, because if I know she has these issues then I can explain more appropriately.

    • K

      This is just like me, I am the same with guilt over things. I was spanked as a kid, until the age of about 6 (when my parents got divorced-Dad did spankings, Mom didnt discipline at all), but not often. I dont really remember it, other than that I found a note years later by 5 year old me that said “Daddy is naughty. He gave me a spanking. I dont like him.”

      I still feel embarassed and guilty over little things I did when I was a kid, and sometimes do lie in bed and then suddenly my brain goes “Hey, remember that time when you were 4 and repeated that word you saw written on a wall in front of your grandparents, even if you didnt know it was a rude word”

      I have Aspergers, I was diagnosed at age 21.

  • Carys Birch

    Boy does this story resonate with me. I don’t remember ever offering a true apology to a family member until college. Before that, “I’m sorry” always meant “commute my sentence!” I was spanked regularly with a stick until I was 14 or 15. I think my middle brother was spanked a little less than I was (physical size may have had something to do with that, I was a puny teenage girl, while my brother was a six footer. Quite a lot easier to think of me as a child, I imagine.) My youngest brother had it the worst though, he’s a very strong personality and compliance did not come easy for him.

    What kills is the way this warped my relationship with my brothers. My apologies to them were also designed to avoid spankings (either to avoid them telling on me or because I’d been threatened with a spanking if I didn’t apologize). I hate that I was never really able to sincerely regret the little unkindness that there must have been between us, and actually make amends for them because my fear of punishment wiped out thoughts of anyone’s wellbeing and happiness other than my own! Spanking and fear of spanking made me unable to relate to my own siblings because it forced me to always think of myself first… How counterproductive!

    Ultimately I grew up into an annoying apologizer. My first instinct in the face if any conflict or even discomfort is to apologize for anything and everything regardless of if it even has anything to do with me. This has some consequences. Not only does it annoy people (even me), it’s gotten me problems when I essentially admitted fault at the scene of a car accident that wasn’t my fault. I also lost a promotion once because my constant apologizing made me appear to lack confidence….

    Another spot on post, Libby Anne. I’m so glad your kids will get to grow up free of this kind of damage.

  • Hilary

    Not much for me to say other then I wish you had never been hurt, and I am glad that you are raising your children with such kindness, for both your sakes. No child should ever be beaten or abused, for any reason.

    For the record, I was spanked a few times, never beaten, and never in a general atmosphere of abuse or guilt. It didn’t last long, and balanced against the vast majority of my parents positive parenting I don’t think it effected me much. But I will never say “I was spanked and turned out fine” to silence other people’s experiences. 1-2% of the times my parents got frustrated enough to spank me vs 99-98% of the times they weren’t violent just doesn’t compare.


  • Andrew P

    I was raised in an evangelical household, and didn’t think I was abused. My dad would sit down and tell me what I did wrong, why it was wrong, how God doesn’t like me doing whatever it was because it was wrong, and he would continue the lecture this way for what seemed like an extremely long time. Finally the lecture would end and he spanked me, not much, but it was a welcome relief, because that was a sign that the punishment was over. I didn’t think it was abusive, and I know it wasn’t his intention to abuse me. Friends had asked me for years if there was some abuse in my past because of my psychological makeup, and I had always said no, but I finally made the connection that I was abused, and that’s why I react the way I do, and have trouble talking with my wife when she’s addressing real problems in my life.

  • Christine

    I think that one of the big problems that results in “I was spanked and I turned out fine” is that there are people (e.g. the Pearls) who deliberately mislabel beatings as spankings. No one would think, hearing “spanking” that it involves some other object being used to hit the child. Nor would most of the other baggage be implied. If you can define the language you can define what people think.

    • Nea

      Not only do the Pearls define the language so that caning — something considered pretty advanced in the BDSM community — is “the same as” a couple of quick corrective swats most people think of as “spanking”, they describe how to set up situations where the child has no way to avoid being beaten because the child has no options except to be curious, confused, unhappy, and even oblivious – all of which are redefined as deliberate disobedience.

  • http://afterabrokenwrist.blogspot.com/ Janice

    NVC… non-violent communication can work wonders with relationships of all types, especially children. One of the best book for learning about this is ‘Respectful Parents, Respectful Kids: 7 Keys to Turn Family Conflict into Cooperation’ . I also liked ‘Playful Parenting’ by Lawrence J. Cohen. Perhaps the best I found is ‘Kids, Parents, and Power Struggles: Winning for a Lifetime by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka. I’ve read all three books, led parent support groups on them and whole heatedly recommend them for teaching empathy and respect to your children by respecting them as people…as Libby Anne often mentions.

  • That Other Jean

    Libby Anne, it’s wonderful that Sally has such insight into her emotions and empathy for yours at so young an age. It’s something many adults don’t have, ever. Well done!

  • Kodie

    I wonder about adults who do this – say they’re sorry when they just mean they’re sorry they got caught, they’re sorry because now you are angry with them and they don’t like being angry at. I had a friend like this, and I know other adults who react like this as well. I tried to work with my friend about this, and what he did over and over that made me angry. He didn’t care about my feelings and I feel like he was purposely pushing my buttons, but on the other hand, he was just who he was and never felt like he needed to change. I had heard that the word “sorry” is not the last effort – obviously people want instant forgiveness and if they mean “sorry” then, depending on what they have done, accept their apology. But saying you’re sorry is, that I heard, the first effort. You realize you messed up, hurt someone, and apologize as a promise not to do it again, to care about your friend and how what you did hurt them in some way. It was a very toxic friendship after all and I had to let it go. It got to the point where I started angry with him and he needled me because I was angry for “no reason” or even accused me of being an angry person outside of our relationship. When you have to build walls of anger to protect yourself against someone who calls themselves your friend, and they cannot be made to understand those walls were built for them, because of how they treat you, then that’s not friendship either. But he would always say he was sorry because he did not like to feel the brunt of someone’s displeasure at them, not because he actually cared how they feel. He did not take care to try not to hurt me again and then I turn into someone I don’t want to be, basically someone who another would say they are sorry just to try to get me to stop yelling. We had some terrific arguments of no consequence that we both got emotionally invested in that I don’t really count as the same thing, and got along other times, but I began to feel like a tool he was using just to have someone to talk to, someone to categorize unfairly, and eventually someone he didn’t mind using as a reference to take out shady loans he still hasn’t paid back, and I still get calls asking for him. When he wasn’t sorry, he didn’t think he had anything to be sorry about, either, and that my anger with him was irrational and he claimed abusive, and I can’t say it wasn’t, but he wasn’t a child and he did abuse the privilege of friendship without care toward my feelings.

    I also realize as an adult, former child of an authoritarian, I have other problems from the abuse of power. I don’t have any kids. I do feel subordinate to most other people, especially when I am working for them, and when I can sense they are about to be displeased with me, I start to well up with tears and maybe even cry. They don’t understand and don’t need to understand psychological bullshit that I feel. I have a very difficult time saying that I’m sorry besides. My mother did not whack me very often, but she was still a threatening force and I went the easy way. Isn’t that something! So many people say in this thread that they weren’t hit more times than they can count, but being hit only a few times has a similar effect – when you know you can be, it does “straighten out” your behavior to comply with the authority. I did not say I’m sorry to avoid getting hit – I do remember one time hearing the “I’ll give you something to cry about” line. I can cry nearly instantly even now to avoid trouble, only now, it gives me a lot of trouble because I’m an adult and I should have outgrown it, and I get teased mercilessly, and in one or two cases, fired from my job. “Sorry” is not easily in my vocabulary. Perhaps every time I want to cry, instead I should say I’m sorry, because that still seems to be the socially acceptable response for an adult. I’m not afraid someone will actually hit me, but I do have a lot of guilt over disappointing people when it’s my job to please them, it just doesn’t come out as “sorry”.

    Where Libby Anne has said to model empathy, I tend to think I get my lack of “sorry” from people who never told me they are sorry when they have wronged me, and suspicious of the word “sorry” from other adults who didn’t finish the sentence, “sorry I got caught”. I may even in a majority of cases unduly perceive the word “sorry” to contain that sentence no matter who says it. I feel like I live in a world where few people are honestly sorry they hurt me in some way. They are sorry they have to sneak by if I’m looking at some product on the grocery store shelf. They are not sorry they got to a parking space I was waiting for. They are sorry if that is good for their customer service, but they are not sorry if they have the upper hand already and mollifying my emotional state will not affect their bottom line in any way. So yeah, this got me pretty jaded. You want to know what being hit gets a child – an adult broken in some way, in my case, sensitive and jaded, as well as being sensitive to authority and who really does have it and why I shouldn’t listen to anyone who doesn’t have it. A person who finds pseudo-deep friendship in other broken people instead of expecting whole healthy people will understand. Diminished ability to trust over time. I swear I can only remember being hit about 2 or 3 times, but I can picture hundreds of instances of the tightened lips and wide crazy eyes. Other kids hate hearing their own middle names.

    What is weird here is that I do relate. As a kid, I don’t remember it always being something I did, but rather my mother being in a bad mood. I can relate to being more sensitive to small things if someone else has already pissed me off. But still she has a strong idea that there is some hierarchy. She demurs at her job because she is an employee and she cannot understand why I don’t lower myself to whatever position, why I try to be taken seriously and strive to include myself as closer to a peer of management. I have a lot of social problems stemming from this attitude and pattern in my early years. And I’m pretty sure my mother is an adult like this because she was a child like me with an authoritarian parent who rampaged on some semi-regular basis.

    And just to reiterate, I wasn’t brought up in a religious household. Religion was never spoken of. Nobody ever said this was best for me because god said so, and nobody got their parenting tips from a religious authority on the matter. In effect, I am an atheist because of my mother’s father still being able to call the shots and my mother as an adult raising her children accordingly without religion under the threat of loss of support.

    • Chrissy

      “I also realize as an adult, former child of an authoritarian, I have other problems from the abuse of power. I don’t have any kids. I do feel subordinate to most other people, especially when I am working for them, and when I can sense they are about to be displeased with me, I start to well up with tears and maybe even cry. ”

      I’ve been reading all of these comments, thinking THIS, and trying to decide how to put it into words. You did it for me. I am paralyzed with fear when my boss – or ANYONE technically “over” me at work – asks to speak with me. I start shaking, I can’t form coherent sentences, my face turns red and I think in a panic over everything I’ve been working on recently. What did I mess up? What did I do wrong? Despite knowing that I am a well-trained and vital asset to my company, I can’t help feeling these things. I thought I just had issues with criticism. Tying it into being raised in an authoritarian household (one exactly like Libby’s) makes more sense- instead of fearing spanking at the hands of an authority, I fear being fired. I have the same physical & emotional response when my husband wants to “talk”, when *anyone* asks seriously to speak with me. It’s annoying and irrational and unfortunately a part of myself that I have to work through. Thanks, mom & dad!

  • J-Rex

    My siblings often mention that when I was younger, I would burst into tears about every tiny mistake I made. Now I realize why. While other siblings often misbehaved and were spanked for it, I was a very good child and rarely did anything wrong. I wasn’t spanked often, but the vast majority of times I was spanked, it was over some simple accident or misunderstanding, like accidentally pouring too much parmesan cheese on my spaghetti, or waiting outside of the store bathroom for my mom, like she told me to, when what she actually meant was to wait outside of the stall.
    The spankings I received taught me that mistakes were not okay. It taught me that even if I’m being good, I could get in trouble at any moment over something I didn’t even realize I did. I just felt scared for most of my childhood. It was never consistent either. Some mistakes were just considered mistakes, but others for whatever reason were worthy of punishment. There never seemed to be any system behind it. They might as well have flipped a coin every time to decide whether it was serious enough to be punished or not. I would cry every time I made a mistake and everyone would wonder why I cried so often.

    • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

      This kills me – punishing children for misunderstandings, or for the normal clumsiness of being a kid. I mean, fine, okay, I’m against spanking, but IF you’re going to do it, at least make damn sure that your child actually intended to do something bad first. Punishing a child for misunderstanding your instructions? Or for pouring too much of something onto their food (something that I am known for as an adult because I have terrible coordination!)? That’s just awful.

      My son is 2 years old, which means two things: 1) that he wants to do everything himself, and 2) that he lacks the coordination to do it. This results in a whole lot of messes. I have to constantly fight the urge to tell him not to do things, or to do them for him against his wishes. I just don’t want to keep cleaning up, but at the same time, that’s a short term concern. My long term concern is to encourage his skill development and confidence by letting him keep trying.

      So, instead, I try to give him advice. “Make sure you hold your plate with both hands, that’s right, one here and one there so you’re balancing the load better, okay go!” And, of course, I always keep paper towels handy.

      But it’s hard. As a parent, it’s easy to get so “in the moment” that we don’t take the time to think about our actions and how they might make our kids feel. *I* know how to carry a plate and he doesn’t, so obviously *I* should be the one to carry it! Except not…

  • Nora

    I teared up reading this. I got spanked a lot as a child. I was more difficult than the other three. Also, my parents would do the “until one of you admits that you did it, all of you get spanked” tactic. Even when I didn’t do it, I’d admit it, so it would be over.

    My parents are long gone and I can’t hate them. They were Catholic and they were truly trying to keep me out of hell. They were deluded but they did love me in their way.

  • AnyBeth

    Second try:
    For me, “I’m sorry” came to mean the more general “Please don’t hurt me”. Parents hardly hit me after I was in grade-school. The real trouble was the emotional abuse that got going as I began to define myself.

    As far as I can tell, for people who have never faced the likes of abuse, “I’m sorry” has several definitions. I can think of three, though there may be others. “I’m sorry” can mean the same as excuse me said after a minor faux pas like accidentally bumping into someone or burping where one shouldn’t. “I’m sorry” can mean something like “I wish to express my feelings of regret and sympathy/empathy at this significantly-less-than-ideal situation you are faced with; I wish it were not so, though I have little-to-no influence.” And, finally, “I’m sorry” can mean “I sincerely regret that I have hurt you and I wish to make amends.” Is that about right?

    It occurs to me that, to the abused person, all three of these can become one at least where the abuser is involved. For the first, there are no small offenses, little errors. Everything is or may be a big deal, worthy of great punishment. To the second, at least some kinds of abuse involves the abuser(s) making their victim(s) out to be responsible for everything, at least everything bad, including the abuser’s own feelings. To the third, well… it’s possible for an abused person to genuinely regret and wish to make amends, it’s just that there’s no way to do that, no way the abuser could possible consider the abused’s efforts as good enough. And “I’m sorry” so becomes a groveling plea. Is it any suprise for it to be so from one who has repeatedly been shown “just how sorry a thing [they are]!”? Any suprise for one who has been trained to feel sorry, if not all the time, then at a moment’s notice?

    To my parents (and sometimes SO’s), “I’m sorry” often meant “Please don’t hurt me” as much as it did anything else (at least except when I was in such a dark place that it meant “I’m nothing”). There wasn’t hitting, but there was plenty of hurt, plenty of damage. I’d considered running away, but not only was there nowhere to run to, there was also the matter of my younger sibling.

    I’ve slowly learned the difference between meanings of “I’m sorry”, though old habits die hard. And I’m doing better in close relationships.

    Libby Anne, I’m very glad you’re creating such a different world for your children than the one which so hurt you. I do believe you that it can be different, even if difficult. I can’t imagine how it could possibly not be worth it, to make your child’s (or, indeed, anyone’s) life so much better. For one who can realize it, what could be so challenging that it’s better to harm a child? While I realize there are people who do, knowing the consequences to the kid, how could one possibly engage in the behavior? It baffles me.

    I will likely never be in a position to have or raise kids. But I’ll never treat anyone, regardless their age, how I was treated.

  • Karleanne

    This sort of discussion always makes me wonder about the effects of cultural context. In the white, upper-middle class circles I grew up in, many of my friends describe the psychological effects of spanking similarly to how you do (which is heartbreaking; to see you breaking that cycle with your own children is wonderful!), even though the spanking they experienced falls into what I think even mainstream society would call “normal spanking,” not “beating” (of course, whether or not that *should* be the case is an entirely different debate). But my husband is a 1.5 generation immigrant from the Philippines, and the casual tone with which he and many of his friends from similar backgrounds discuss physical punishment WAY beyond what was ever used in my circles growing up is astonishing to me sometimes. For many of them, it’s almost a funny story–”Oh god, I remember this one time I was being too loud, and my grandfather beat me with a plastic chair, haha”–and there’s very little talk that it scarred them emotionally.

    It’s always tempting to say that the trauma is the same, and they’ve just been brainwashed to ignore their abuse. But somehow it seems patently disrespectful to dismiss their lived experience in that way.

    • http://www.carpescriptura.com/ MrPopularSentiment

      There’s no question that cultural context makes a difference. The psychological effects do seem to vary by culture: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1207/s15327965pli0803_1

      But that doesn’t excuse it. It can also cause some pretty serious problems in immigrant families where the parents come from a culture where spanking is “no big deal,” but the kids have adopted a very different idea from their new cultural context.

      My husband is an immigrant from a country where spanking was totally normal, and I have a few friends in the immigrant community as well. Most of them (realizing that I favour very liberal people so this isn’t by any means a representative sample of the immigrant community as a whole) view their parents spanking them as “okay” because of the cultural milieu, but are very vocal against spanking their own children.

      I also see the darker side of their stories. The funny stories about getting spanked always seem to end with a description of what they did in future to avoid getting spanked while still continuing the same behaviour that the spanking was designed to extinguish. So even though they didn’t consider spanking to be traumatising, it’s very clear that it was totally ineffective.*

      *And, sometimes, worse than ineffective, such as when my husband was spanked for lighting fires so he started doing it while hiding out in the woods instead, and ended up setting the forest near his town on fire.

      • Christine

        I also feel that the cultural context is important in terms of who would use corporal punishment on their children. If spanking is socially acceptable, parents will spank their kids, and parents who believe in human nature and human development (rather than sin nature) won’t spank as inappropriately – when the child misbehaves rather than when the child makes a mistake, not spanking a child who’s too young to control their actions, etc. If spanking is socially unacceptable then the only people who will do so are those who want to hit their kids and are looking for an excuse or those who are told (by the likes of the Pearls) that they should ignore studies on child development, their own sense of right & wrong, and societal norms.

        Long story short: if someone hits their kids in the West in this day & age I generally start with the assumption that it’s abusive and need a reason for it to not be, but I’m less likely to make that assumption if it’s in a culture that says hitting children is acceptable (not merely one that says, in certain controlled circumstances, it’s legal).

  • http://www.fidesquaerens.org/blog/ Marta L.

    Libby, this post made me cry, too. And the comments as well. It makes me more glad than ever that I grew up in mainline Protestantism rather than evangelicalism, because any physical punishment that didn’t end by the time the kid was 3-4 was seen as a failure of good parenting, or veering toward child abuse, or both.

    It also reminded me of when a neighbor bought a puppy a few days ago. Her kid proudly told me that if the dog misbehaved you told him no or you held him still for a few moments so he would stop it but you didn’t hit it unless he was being very very bad, and only then enough to scare him and never to hurt, and besides they were sending him to obedience school so they wouldn’t have to even do that. Even this kid saw that, with an animal, violence was bad for the dog but also a sign that you were out of control. Human children deserve at least as much consideration.

  • Alexis

    My mother hated when I apologized. She always said that an “I’m sorry” was a wasted breath because feeling sorry didn’t matter, only the consequence of whatever I had done mattered. I did get hit across the bottom, the palms of the hands, and slapped in the mouth on a moderately regular basis (probably about 40% of the time I did something ‘wrong’, which was a few times a day, so usually every couple/few days) until I was 12~ish. I really don’t remember anything except the last time it happened because I lived my childhood in a dissociative fog due to the emotional and psychological abuse by my mother, but I remember standing in a corner outside of my bedroom and seeing her hand come toward my face. I remember a split-second thought of “I don’t want to get hurt” and my own arm moving without conscious thought to stop her. By that point I was already taller than her, and in better shape than her, and I think she realized she was doing something wrong and stopped. But I was never supposed to apologize for anything because they were wasted words and meaningless. I was supposed to accept whatever punishment she chose to give silently and without complaint, and never question her decisions.

  • Justina

    I grew up in an Asian conservative society and a conservative Christian family where beating with a flexible rattan cane was normal.

    I grew up in a family where “stop crying or else”, “admit it or you’ll keep getting it” “I’m hitting you because I love you” was the norm. I distinctly remember taking the rap for my younger brother a few times.

    (chillingly now that I look back on it) We each often tried ways and means to avoid getting caned ourselves, even if it meant betraying each other. There was definately alot of mistrust growing up. We also equated it to power I guess. My twin brother once had the authority to beat us when we were 9 and he would do so when he didn’t get what he wanted for us — say he wanted a ruler and we refused to get it from him.

    Up until recently, I’ve always laughed it off like MrPopularSentiment’s husband even though I am sure I will never spank/hit my potential kids (now that I have read numerous stories on the harm of doing so).

    Thinking about it, I definately feel intimidated by “authority figures” at work. Being called in “for a talk” etc makes me extremely anxious. I tend to shrink into myself if someone is giving off intimidating body language deliberately — such as a HR director who was standing over a seated me at an exit interview with raised voice and cruel remarks. Even when asserting myself, I often feel like I’m nervous and hope my voice doesn’t betray my inner panic.

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