Train up a child, in the way he should go

I remember a time some months ago, when 2 year old Ms Pooky was getting her leg stuck in the bars on the back of the kitchen chairs over and over. No matter how many times I helped her slide her ankle out from where it was wedged between the bars, a few minutes or hours later she would be standing on a chair singing to herself while she leaned over to color or play with play dough, and her foot would slip in-between the bars and slide to where it was stuck, at which point she would erupt in bloodcurdling screams until I came to coach her on how to get her foot loose. I tried to explain how her foot was getting stuck, demonstrated how she should slide her foot up slowly to get it out, and even suggested standing on a different chair, all to no avail. For a while she was getting stuck so frequently, I found myself becoming irritated with her. Why did she keep getting trapped over and over despite the painful experience and knowledge of how her foot got stuck there? Immediately I made the connection of where that mindset was coming from. It was tied to my old understanding of child training. The idea that administering pain whenever my child did something I did not want them to do would train them not to do it again.

As time has gone on since I quit spanking, I wonder more and more why I used to think that this worked. Yes, I got short term results when I was spanking my kids. But were they really putting together the pieces of why they shouldn’t do something? Or were they learning to avoid situations where mom would hit them?  My 2 year old was getting the same pain of having her ankle caught, from the same actions again and again, and yet it didn’t change her behaviour.  Whether she was too distracted to notice when her foot was getting trapped, or curious enough to try it again, or even just trying to get some attention from me a couple of times, eventually she stopped getting her foot stuck in the bars of the chair. But it took several weeks, and the pain didn’t seem to be a huge motivator for her stopping, she just seemed to grow out of it.
Pain didn’t train, at least not quickly.
In another example, my 5 year old loves going barefoot, but she is constantly coming inside with splinters, scrapes and this week even a bee sting on her foot. I have pointed out that wearing shoes would prevent most of these injuries, but she continues to run out the door barefoot almost every day, and even the days where she wears her sandals, I inevitably find them lying outside on the sidewalk later. The joy of being barefoot outweighs the risk of getting hurt feet. And that is her choice.
Again, pain doesn’t train. 
And do I really want to use pain to train my children? As I’ve watched my 1 year old learn to walk and run and climb, it strikes me again. He falls, trips, bumps, and wipes out. But he gets up, and tries again. Every single one of my children has had that quality of determination. It’s incredible to watch.  I want him to have that power. Why would I use pain to consistently teach him that it is risky to try new things?
When a child knows they could get spanked for a particular thing, their choices change. Is the behaviour worth it? Is the taste of that stolen piece of candy worth the risk of getting spanked? Is sneaking outside to run in the sun worth the risk of getting spanked? Is enduring the spanking for whining worth the attention it gets you from your parent? So I ask again.
Does pain really train?
It is only when spanking is used as the only discipline measure (as many of the Christian parenting books teach) that there appears to be some sort of training. Then no matter what you do, you could be spanked. If you forget to do a task, you will be spanked. If you take too long to do a task, you will be spanked. If you do a task incorrectly, you will be spanked. If you speak up, roll your eyes, disagree, drag your feet, close a door too loudly, read the wrong book, say the wrong thing, walk the wrong way, wear the wrong clothes, you could be spanked. Only then (these authors proclaim) when spanking is used exclusively and consistently, does it seem to have any real power to train. And I think that in some ways, they are right. This is where pain does train. But I ask, what exactly does it train your children to believe? I think this is a question that a post from the ongoing series “Still Crying answers intensely from experience.


Here is an excerpt:
If you want your children to see your anger as something to be afraid of, spank them.
If you want your children to sneak behind your back and keep things to themselves to avoid your anger, spank them.
If you want your children to hurt and berate themselves when they feel like they’ve let themselves down, spank them.
If you want your children to be fed lies like “this hurts me more than it hurts you”, spank them.
This sounds familiar. Spanking taught me to hide what I felt and thought. Spanking taught me that my mistakes made me deserving of physical harm. Spanking taught me that letting anyone down was not acceptable. Spanking taught me that it was never OK to be wrong.
I believe pain does train, but it trains dysfunction. I’ve seen it in my life, in how I was unable to feel or express emotion in healthy ways, in how I am still terrified of failure, in how I learned to do my best to please others. And I saw it in the behaviour of my children before we stopped spanking, how they expressed affection less, how they lied more, how they were afraid of being wrong.


So I ask again.
Does pain really train? And if it does, what exactly does it teach?
And is that really “the way your child should go?”

Re-post: I am Not My Parents
Rather Dead Than Queer
Re-Post: Rights of a Child
Re-post: A Mama’s Journey
  • kagekiri

    Wow, yeah, that's sounds a lot like the effects of my own upbringing with spanking.

    I'm in my 20s and still worried about pleasing others, and have had issues with physically punishing myself (punching my legs or slapping myself in the face as hard as possible) along with more general self-hatred/self-censoring. Being bad at something in public is unacceptable to me.

    Thanks for the link, Melissa!


  • Sachi

    Trying things and figuring out what hurts and what doesn't is a necessary part of growing up. It also teaches about risks and rewards. Taking risks is not always a bad thing, and the sorts of risks that kids typically take are good experience for later in life.

    I never tried to insulate my kids from risks, although I did tell them to avoid sticking a knife into a toaster.

  • Africaturtle

    Similar experience is what made me drop Mike Pearl's teachings as well! I had been applying the rod for some months already when my daughter, around 2 yrs old, grabbed a hold of an electric heater. She was crying bc itwas so hot it hurt her hands… But she did not have the "sense" to let go… She waited for me to come rescue her. I realized then how confusing pain can be and that even if the child responds to the pain (crying, freezing in place) they dont have the cause/effect thing down and cannot always fifure out how to avod the pain. I suppose i was already questioning at that point but, that "sealed the deal" so to speak.

    Im currious how you transitioned from spanking to not spanking…. For me the period was lengthy between saying "i dont want to spank my kids" and letting go of the habbit entirely…. And even now the urge comes back around and i have swatted a leg here or there… Though not at all with the mentality of "training" as i once did… It's usually when it seems that nothing else is working and one is acting out so severely that either he is hurting me or being so difficult that a cant care for the others as i need to. Sometimes it seems a swat is almost a "reflex" . What do you think about this? Do you ever feel tempted to spank now that you're against it.

  • Melissa

    For me, I had reached the point where I was so burned out/concerned with where my parenting was going, I felt like I should "take a break" from spanking and figure out what I was doing wrong. When I tentatively told my spouse of my plan to take a break, my spouse suggested that we try and see if we could quit entirely. At first I switched to time outs almost exclusively since I was trying to go cold turkey off of spanking I needed to feel like I was doing SOMETHING. I still had times where I felt helpless and ended up swatting someone, and it took me months to break the habit of threatening to spank. It was definetely a reflexive response that I had to combat for months.(I've written a lot more about my journey out of that mindset under the category of "Discipline" on the side of my blog if you want more detail) Today? I would say that I very rarely have the tempation/impulse to spank, and I find it is usually when I am very emotionally overwhelmed with something else going on in my life and my children are triggering those emotions. Thankfully I am to the point where I am learning healthy ways to deal with those impulses, parent my child more gently, and get help for whatever it is I am dealing with.

  • Dara…

    Wow! This is an excellent point I had not yet considered! Wow! Thanks for writing/posting this!

  • Mark

    Thanks for this and other posts you've written on corporal punishment. You've been a huge encouragement to me in my own parenting. Like Africaturtle, I've also stopped spanking but still struggle every once in a while to give those crazy kids of mine a swat. But I feel less anger towards them now than I used to, and I feel our household is far more loving and gentle; especially when I compare it in my head to my own childhood.
    Keep it up!

  • lucrezaborgia

    I was one of those kids who never wanted to wear shoes. This was on the streets of South Florida. I can't count the times I've majorly cut up my feet but I still didn't care. Even now I can barely tolerate shoes and love wearing my sandals even in the winter.

  • Persephone

    I was fourteen years old the last time I was spanked. I never forgot. I will never forget. And it completely ended any respect I had for my parents.

    If my parents had done to an adult what they did to me, they would have had felony charges brought against them.

  • Victoria Finney

    Awesome post. My mother beat me as a child for every little infraction. I've spanked my daughter once (something I swore I would never do as I know all too well the harm it causes) and afterwards I hid in my room and cried for half an hour.
    It is not always EASIER not to spank, sometimes it is the harder option, but my child is beautifully behaved and polite, so it can be done!

  • Melissa

    Thank you Mark. It is an ongoing struggle of growth and change. Thanks for being on the journey with me!

  • Melissa

    :) Sometimes these things are just part of who we are.

  • Melissa

    Persephone- Yes. (((Hugs)))

  • Melissa

    Victoria- I agree, it is not always easier not to spank. I find it strange when people try to argue with me that not spanking your kids is lazy parenting and that spanking takes real work to "do it right", because I did my best to do spanking "right" it was still far less work and involvement than what I do now.

  • Melissa

    Thank you Dara!

  • Melissa

    Sachi- I also love watching my kids take risks and learn from their adventures. And of course I warn them of danger and watch out for their safety. :)

  • Melissa

    kagekiri- Thanks for reading! I hope you are encouraged by the Still Crying project.

  • Rosa

    I've never been a spanker, always been philosophically opposed. But I was raised by spankers (and shouters, and threateners) and I do feel the impulse. It's hard to learn to parent differently than you were parented.

  • Anonymous

    I was raised with spanking, shouting and threats and it had an incredible effect on my life.

    I am obese because I pushed my feelings down and comforted myself with food.

    I chose never to have children because I didn't think I could be a good parent.

    I made terrible life choices because I really didn't know how to choose for myself or think through the consequences.

    I have been seriously depressed (not being able to get out of bed) for months or even years at a time, hating myself for it and feeling worthless.

    When I was getting married, at 35, I was afraid to ask a woman I had been friends with since the age of 11 to be my maid of honour because my parents did not approve of her and forbid me to see her as a teen. Fortunately my husband to be supported me, I realized how ridiculous it was and my parents never said a word.

    I am now 57 and in therapy, still grappling with some of these issues, and the fact that I chose a husband who displays some of the same behaviours. I have been diagnosed as Bi-Polar and through therapy I am learning that my mood depends greatly on his actions, rather than my own feelings. I am reacting the same way I did as a child; being scared, not expressing my feelings, stuffing them down with food.

    I have almost left him several times, but I was too scared of what he might say or do if I did. He is not physically violent, or I would have gotten out years ago, but with my therapist I have come to discover that he is emotionally abusive. I didn't recognize it because I grew up that way; to me it feels normal.

    I don't know whether I will stay with him or not. As I grow stronger the relationship improves, but I am ready to say "I don't want to live with someone who feels it is acceptable to treat me like this".

    • Kate Corbett

      You can have a happy life on your own where no one is abusive to you. I have done this for myself after years of struggle and know it is possible. I have my own apartment now and live alone and am in control, for the most part, of my life. I understand how hard it can be to revert to old patterns, however, of self-destruction. Stay strong. I have never been happier than I am now. There is no one to put me down.

  • CarolinaQ

    Oh honey. This post – which I've read more than once- made me cry. Thank you. Right up until now I couldn't explain to you why I beat myself up emotionally, why I'm afraid to upset my partners, why I feel like I have to hide dissenting opinions from everyone. I'm still afraid of getting hurt. On behalf of your children, thank you for being such an amazing parent.

  • brgulker

    Reinforcing desired behavior >>>>> punishing unwanted behavior. Behavioral Science 101, but unknown to lot sand lots of people :)

    Works great in training animals, and of course, when raising kids! Or so I have read anyways.

  • Kate Corbett

    I am a historic researcher. I am struck by the similarities between the child-rearing philosophy of the Pearl Family and Puritans in the early 1600s. Philip Greven of Rutgers University wrote a book called “The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience and the Self in Early America”. Puritans used to train children (and babies) the exact same way. They hit them, humiliated them, made them feel shameful and bad, attempted to break their will, etc. He also wrote a book called “Spare the Child” which examines modern examples of child rearing in this tradition and the psychological effects. I think you would find it interesting. You have a unique perspective.

  • Rick

    Your argument against spanking is explained as two polar opposites. There is at least one other view.

    Because one or more books teach parents to spank for every wrong choice, that does mean throwing out the baby with bath water is the solution. I was spanked (I remember only one occasion) and I spanked my children. I am a healthy adult grandfather and I have balanced and enjoyable relationships with my adult children. I spanked for “big” wrongs — defiance and lying (I won’t go into why I chose those two but they involve fundamentally, important bad choices) being the big offenders in our home. I rarely needed to spank our four children, but it was effective for them. And they agree to this day as adults with their own children. BTW — I didn’t spank in anger and I did make sure it was painful. As a counterpoint to your argument about pain, I am convinced that pain can be used for good — the way God intended pain to be experienced. Without pain (in our bodies) we would have numerous problems with disease and maladies. The kind of pain felt through God’s design is good and useful bringing positive results, and spanking can lead to character building in children by teaching them that there are consequences for wrong behavior.

    • Melissa

      I believe I address those arguements in some of my other posts on spanking. Feel free to read them if you are actually interested. You can also check out the parenting websites I link at the top of my page for more information on gentle parenting.

  • Bex

    “If you want your children to see your anger as something to be afraid of, spank them.
    If you want your children to sneak behind your back and keep things to themselves to avoid your anger, spank them.
    If you want your children to hurt and berate themselves when they feel like they’ve let themselves down, spank them.
    If you want your children to be fed lies like “this hurts me more than it hurts you”, spank them.”

    This statement sorta makes me nervous. I don’t know why, i guess i should explain. Everything in this statement reflects me. I was raised spanked. I can remember specific points in which i’ve been spanked. OFTEN. I mean i’m 17 now and the last time i was spanked in any way was about 2ish years ago, i think. But i live in a very conservative household, my parents are seventh day adventists, and were also raised in a culture that believes in spanking. frankly my father doesn’t believe in spanking, and only ever spanked me ONCE from my memory and it was on the hand for a dangerous action i committed when i was 8; when i played around with the car door while we were driving.
    HOWEVER my mother is the disciplinarian/authoritarian in the house. She spanks. She resorts to spanking very very much, i’ve learned to circumvent her anger. and i don’t know, but reading those statements, i realize that “Child” is me. I’m bloody freaking terrified of my mother’s anger, and she’s not even physically threatening, she’s only 4″10 (i’m 5″3) and about 130lbs (i weigh less but i’m taller and so she doesn’t PHYSICALLY overbear me anymore.) but i’m afraid of her anger. I also learned super early on that my thoughts/feelings/ideas unless they coincided with her superconservative religious ones, were bad. very very bad. And sometimes i still chastize myself for being a “bad daughter” and not believing (i’m an atheist) and not being good (i don’t have a problem with secular music or any of the “subtly forbidden things) and not being straight (i’m bisexual). And even though i work hard in school and logically i know i do exceptionally well (top 5% of my graduating class) i still feel.. worthless?
    I learned over time to sneak around and to lie, and i also developed some issues (not just from spanking/my cognitive dissonance but also from perfectionsim and bullying at school/church by peers). I learned to lie about how i felt “I’m fine, i’m ok, “; i learned to hide my dwindling belief and actually for a period of time berated/hated/punished myself for having “devilish thoughts”; i tried to hate myself for my sexuality but i didn’t hate OTHERS for it so i couldn’t really do that. I wasn’t allowed to do alot of things, the basics like drugs, dancing or cinema movies. no secular music, and the weirder like to art (mostly my mom’s belief that art would draw me to the devil) and the friends i tried to have, and going over to people’s houses, and having to wear skirts (i absolved that however before highschool and have a BIT more control over my wardrobe now :) ) and foods we eat, and i just wanted SOMETHING to consider mine in my life. not in a selfish way just in an identity way like” see i did this and it’s good and so yeah here i am and this is part of me.”

    and then this one “If you want your children to hurt and berate themselves when they feel like they’ve let themselves down, spank them.”
    I’ve delt with selfinjurous behavior since i was about 12-13. I started cutting myself in middleschool and sometimes i’d remember moments i’d “failed” or been a bad daughter and i’d get angry with myself and then i’d get upset for feeling upset and then —> self injury. and i also developed an eating disorder when i was 15. I still deal with both.

    I guess what i’m saying is that, i hope one day not to spank my children. and i hope one day that i can come to terms with my past. i know my parents love me. they do. they do everything in order that they might raise a “good child” in the “right way” who doesn’t stray from “the path” so she can live a “happy life” “their way.” but that isn’t me. it never will be. they may never accept that (when i come out both bi/atheist) but maybe they’ll learn to live past it, the way that i’m trying to teach myself now to live past that past. Thanks for listening, sorry for the long comment.

    • Melissa

      Bex- So much of your comment resonates with me. It is a long journey, but well worth it. Be gentle with yourself, and know that there are so so many of us who are traveling alongside you on our way to wholeness.