Spanking and Unconditional Love

I wrote in several of my childhood journals that I would never spank my kids. The shame and frustration I had experienced was enough to convince me it was ineffective and harmful. But somehow by the time I was an adult I had changed my position again. Part of my reason was the major denial of any issues in my childhood. I felt like acknowledging painful things from my past would be a betrayal of my parents, and I loved them and wanted to be loyal to them. So I continued to pretend that nothing had ever been wrong, and tried to prove that to myself.  I was also a very conservative Christian, and every parenting book I read was written from that punitive perspective. One of them was “To Train up a Child” by Michael and Debi Pearl. The introduction to the book includes this passage:


“I have had children in my house that would be enough to give an electric wheat grinder a nervous breakdown. The parents look like escapees from a Second World War, Polish boxcar. Another hour with them, and I would have been searching the yellow-pages for discount vasectomies. While we try to sit and talk, the children are constantly running in and out of doors, complaining of ill treatment from the others, begging to go or stay or eat, or demanding a toy that the other children will not relinquish. The mother must continually jump up and rescue some breakable object. She says, “No” six-hundred and sixty-six times in the space of two hours. She spanks each child two or three times–usually with her hand on top of a diaper. Other than misaligning the child’s spine, it seems to have no effect.

When we speak of consistently rewarding every transgression with a switching (not a karate chop to the lower backbone), this mother can only see herself as further brutalizing children for whom it will do no good. Her discipline is just “laying down a field of fire” to give herself sufficient cover to get through to the next task. She doesn’t hope to conquer their wills, just create enough diversion to accomplish her own mission.

Another mother walks in with her little ones and sits down to talk. She says to them, “Go out in the sun-room to play and don’t bother Mama unless you need something.” For the next two hours we are not even aware the children are present–except when a little one comes in holding herself saying, “Pee-pee, Mama.” They play together well, resolve their own conflicts and don’t expect attention when one turns the rocking horse over and gets a knot on her head. They don’t come in and out–they have been told not to. This mother never spanked her children while at my house. And she never needed to rebuke them. She looks rested. When the children are called to go home, one says, “Mama, can I stay and play with Shoshanna?” Mother answers, “No, not today. We have work to do at home.” As he lifts his arms, the little fellow is picked up. Hugging his mother’s neck, he says, “I love you Mama.”

This young mother said to me, “My children want to please me. They try so hard to do everything I say. We have such fun together.” She is looking forward to more children.”


This is the contrast I saw again and again in these books.

Mother who doesn’t spank her kids correctly and consistently: Exhausted, frustrated, a bad witness.

Mother who cares enough to discipline her kids correctly by rewarding every single infraction with a swift switching: Relaxed, well rested, happy, has kids who love her.

Many of these books even warned that children would grow up to reject God if their parents were not properly authoritative. I wondered if this was true. As a Christian, it was very important to me that my children came to faith in Christ as I had. Was refusing to spank worth that risk? Perhaps my parents had had the right idea, but just hadn’t implemented it as well as they could have. Or perhaps I was just remembering incorrectly, I mean what child would enjoy getting spanked anyway; I told myself I was probably over reacting. My parenting was going to be different. I was determined to do it perfectly. My goal was to be so consistent with my discipline that they would be well-behaved and never need spankings past the point of about 7 or 8 years old. I read as many Christian parenting books as I could get my hands on, I was going to do this right.

I was parenting punitively out of fear. Fear that my kids would reject my faith, fear that they would be unruly and misbehaved, fear that I wouldn’t be able to handle how many children I was going to have, or how closely spaced they were turning out to be. I clung to the promises from these books, and the people who used them. If I only followed their system correctly, I would be happy, well-rested, with well-behaved kids who would love me. I would have kids who wanted to please me. I would love being a mom.

I had other fears too, that I tried not to acknowledge. Fear that I was doing it wrong, whenever a day went badly I worried that I was not following the instructions correctly. I was afraid of the day that a couple of swats would not be enough to command compliance and respect from my kids, I never wanted to end up in a spanking war with a child, devolving into those rare but traumatizing marathon type spankings that I remembered from childhood.

The 3 year anniversary of when I quit spanking my kids, passed in August. I can hardly believe it. I used to think it was impossible to parent without spanking, and now I cannot imagine going back to that. I’ve written how this decision has changed my life, and what affects I have seen in my own life and the lives of my children, but something else has happened gradually that I have only begun to notice. The decision to quit spanking has taught me what it means to love unconditionally.

The underlying premise in all of those Christian parenting books I read as an expectant young mom, was that kids who did not act a certain way were unlovable. Children who were not properly controlled were exhausting and life-draining.  The parents had no time to themselves and were stretched to their limits and beyond, pretty much every day. Even a short time spent with children like this was enough to make anyone rethink being a parent. While supposedly, if a parent spanked their children into being godly, parenting was a breeze, moms had tons of time to care for the kids they had and plenty left over to dream about the many future babies they were going to have.

This mentality stressed that a good child, a child worth having, a child worth loving, would be well mannered, calm, compliant and quiet. Children who were energetic, or ever manifested moodiness, anger or resistance to the parents agenda, was a child who was bad, a child you wished you’d never had, a child who was impossible to love. And the power to have either child was in your hands, in the form of a switch. This sets the parent up for a repeating cycle of feeling like a failure every time their child is normal. Yes, I said normal. Because I don’t know anyone, not even a mature adult, who is well mannered, calm, compliant and quiet all the time.

When I first quit spanking, I had to fight the urge to punish my children every time they weren’t “good” children. It took a long time for me to get past that fear and realize that I could love children that were not perfect.

Now the line at the end of the section I quoted from the Pearls child training book makes me feel sick.

“My children want to please me. They try so hard to do everything I say. We have such fun together.”

When I read this once upon a time, I believed that children were rebellious and sinful from babyhood on. I now understand that all children want desperately for their parents to be pleased with them. My parenting was performance oriented, waiting to see if my children loved me enough to obey instantly and with a smile. I now understand that children are trying hard all the time, life is new and confusing, and they are still learning. I thought that having fun with my children was contingent upon how well behaved they were. I now understand that children have emotions, and moods, and are sometimes hungry or tired or misunderstood just like anyone else.

I no longer have to set conditions on my love; I can love and accept my children for who they are regardless of how well they perform on any given day. And yes, some days go very smoothly and that is nice. And other days are more challenging, and that is OK too. I have learned that I don’t always have to be ecstatic every single moment, sometimes I will be tired or moody myself, and that is OK.

I have a hard time putting that relief into words.


Please take some time to go to Olive Branch Blog and read about other parents who made the choice to stop using corporal punishment in their homes, many of them have been brave enough to share their stories publicly.

  • Melanie

    As the mom of a 9-month-old baby, I can certainly appreciate feeling exasperated by Christian parenting books. I got a free copy of “Shepherding a Child’s Heart”- doesn’t that sound so benign and loving? But I stopped reading and decided it wasn’t for me when the author proposed that we should start spanking children as soon as they’re old enough to disobey. In my case, that would mean that I should start hitting my child now, without taking into consideration whether she is actually developmentally able to choose obedience and understand every cue from me every time. Rigid obedience isn’t worth it to me.

    This isn’t to say that I will never spank my children. However, it will be one tool of many in my box if I do, not the only consequence every time. It absolutely has to be tempered with a little bit of developmental psychology!

    • Sheila

      Hey, why not use a lot of developmental psychology and not spank at all? Once I realized I could discipline fine without spanking, I decided not to do it at all … because if I COULD do something that didn’t inflict pain on my child, it seemed to me that I SHOULD make that choice.

      Now I see how wise this was. My first son might not be perfectly behaved at all times, but we have a very close, trusting relationship. He KNOWS I would never hurt him. And because of this, he doesn’t do all those things I thought were “normal” toddler behaviors — hiding to do something naughty, running away when called to come, etc. And surprisingly, he “behaves” as well or better than other children his age that I know, even if he isn’t perfectly silent and compliant in every moment.

      I “kept my options open” about spanking for a long time, but now I’ve shut the door on it and have zero regrets. :D

  • Stef

    That line: “My children want to please me. They try so hard to do everything I say. We have such fun together.” Makes my stomach roll. Two things immediately spring to mind. The first is that those children are afraid. I’ve been abused in a romantic relationship and when I was, that was how I felt. I wanted to please him. I tried SO HARD to do everything he said… and when he wasn’t humiliating, terrifying, or abusing me, I was so elated that we had such intensely fun, happy times… until I inevitably said or did the wrong thing, or wasn’t cheerful enough in my response to him. That’s when it all came crashing down. He never physically struck me, and yet I still lived in terror of my next screw-up. I can only imagine how much worse that fear would have been if I’d been a child and the person that loomed over me was the one I was supposed to be safest with, who loved me more than anyone else, who had been charged with my safety and protection.

    The other thing that springs to mind are those old movies “The Stepford Wives” and “The Stepford Kids”. People are not perfect. “Perfect” children and “perfect” spouses are horrifying because they are so fundamentally wrong. It is our flaws and quirks that make us REAL. I’d much rather be surrounded by loud, boisterous kids who have needs and opinions than a group of children so frightened of the consequences of interrupting their mother’s visit that NONE of them risked it for the sake of letting an adult know that a child sustained a head injury!

  • smrnda

    Don’t have kids of my own, but I worked in child care for a while and I see zero (ZERO) evidence that spanking accomplishes anything.

    First, children can be taught to behave well without hitting them. A great way to get kids to behave is to explain the reasons why you do things, be consistent, set a good example yourself. I view this as something you have to teach kids because it won’t be long before they have to make decisions on their own, and they’ll have to be able to think through unfamiliar situations and decide on the right course of action.

    Second, people need to be realistic about what you can expect from kids. Babies cry all the time because if they didn’t adults would neglect them. Babies haven’t yet learned that they can count on their caregivers to respond promptly to their needs. Kids are still learning how to behave the way they’re still learning how to speak, move, read and write. They’ll make mistakes and sometimes, if you look into why children do things, you’ll realize that it makes perfect sense to them.

    Third, if you think in terms of obedience and disobedience and a contest of wills, then everything turns into a conflict. If you think about meeting your kids needs, teaching them and listening to them, you don’t see everything as a conflict. If you accept children as having their own feelings and wants and opinions then so much is just no longer a big deal. A lot of these people who spout this nonsense about kids are just control freaks.

    I actually think it’s important for children to have a strong will of their own, they’ll need it as adults.

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  • Megan

    Hi Melissa, I just wanted to say I think you’ve got some of the best parenting advice out there! I just discovered your blog about a month ago, and I literally read every back post you had because I was so intrigued by your upbringing, how you parent and you and your wife’s story. I do not have kids yet, but always knew I wouldn’t spank. My parents only spanked me 3 times as a child, I cannot remember if the punished achieved the results they were going for, so further spanking was never needed, or if their feelings of guilt were too much to use spankings more often. Either way I don’t ever remember living in fear of my parents. The part where I get scared about raising children is if I don’t spank, how will I parent? Our society has taught me that. I just wanted to say thank you so much for not just saying there is another way, but telling us about it. Hearing about your trials and celebrations with your children related to your parenting has been a wonderful inspiration. Thank you.

  • Beth

    Good for you. I am so happy you can think for yourself and bring this wholeness to your children. It is a tragedy that so many follow Mike and Debi Pearl’s advice.

  • Kálvin

    Very good article.

    I need to remind myself of this line more ” I have learned that I don’t always have to be ecstatic every single moment, sometimes I will be tired or moody myself, and that is OK”.

  • Considerer

    You’re so right about the unconditional thing – you don’t love *anyone* because of how they behave, you love them because of who they are; because of their intrinsic value as a person, and this seems to get missed a lot these days. Smacking also teaches children it’s ok to be violent towards people you love as well as to threaten violence in order to get the behaviour you want (my own many, many smacks as a child testify that this fails on every level other than to make you fear your parents).

  • kat

    thank you for all your posts on parenting and overcoming spanking. they’ve been very helpful. I can’t put into words how helpful I have found them. :)

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  • Leah

    On the subject of love, I think that is something the Pearls have done right with their own kids: they spent a huge amount of time and effort on them; they worked hard at respecting their opinions and capabilities, and they love them to pieces, they really do. Their kids seem to have grown up okay, and there is no doubt in my mind that’s why. Understand that I really, really don’t like the Pearls: I think the way they view children in general is twisted, that their advise is abusive, and that their inability to take any responsibility for the fallout of their advice shows moral cowardice (and on top of that, I hate Debbie’s writing style. Shallow, I know, but her writing bothers me almost as much as her advice.) I’ve read a lot of their stuff, simply out of morbid curiosity (I was blessed to be raised 100% non-violently, and mostly non-punitively, much more like what you’re doing with your kids now) and I have felt physically sick reading it plenty of times. But there are also places where you can just feel how crazy they are about their kids.
    The trouble is that they don’t emphasize that part of it very much. They don’t sell the important part. They don’t push parents to love their kids, and respect them, and work with them…they say to hit them. They make up for the violence they do in their own family, but they advise other parents to do the opposite: to ignore their own judgement, to default to hitting instead of thinking about what’s appropriate, to harden their hearts against their own children. I get quite genuinely worried when I hear about someone reading their stuff, because I know people can get suckered into believing their big lie: that the Pearls’ discipline system is why they have “good” kids and that non-violent parents leads to “bad” kids. The consequences of their bad advice horrify me, but in fairness to them, they love their kids like nobody’s business, and it has worked wonders, despite their other parenting failures.

  • Jessica_B

    I am coming out of lurking to comment. While we are years from having children, my hubby thinks spanking is okay. I’ll need to break him of that delusion before we have kids. I hope he’ll read books that say these things when the time comes.
    (Random but relevant I don’t think spanking is okay.)

  • Thea

    My liberal feminist Quaker parents spanked me only as a last resort, and it backfired horribly. I knew that being spanked meant I had won the fight because I had made them completely lose emotional control. To this day, when I see someone use violence or the threat of violence I feel horrified and embarrassed for everyone involved, the way I would if the person had suddenly lost control of some other bodily function.

  • LS

    I came across your blog a bit randomly, but I love this entry and the comments.
    I spanked or swatted my son very few times when he was little, and only when he was doing something that could have physically hurt him anyway–touching the stove, crossing the street without holding my hand, or running away from me in a parking lot.

    A tip that I read along time ago, that really shaped my parenting:
    You should want to raise a child who can say “no”.
    If you teach your child to be obedient at all costs (rather than thinking for themselves and choosing behavior that is considerate of others), if you never allow them to scream “No!” or defy you, they may be more susceptible to bullying, sexual abuse, or even being kidnapped; as they get older, to peer pressure to do drugs or have sex, to being unable to get out of controlling or violent relationships, etc. They need to practice saying “No” and making choices–even if it’s a choice of what they’d like to wear today. They need to have their ideas & feelings & bodies respected. They need to not feel helpless. This doesn’t mean letting them walk all over you, but discussing what they want sometimes before you say no, rather than always imposing your will upon them without explanation. It may even teach them to have better self-control; how will they learn it if they can never make decisions for themselves?

    It hasn’t always been easy for me; sometimes when my son & I have a conflict, I’m tempted to pull out the old, “Because I say so!” or punish him for being defiant. But this is in conflict with my responsibility to raise a child who can think for himself. I always tell him my reasons for saying no, or we work out ways he can earn a yes. I also want to raise him to be able to present his reasons for wanting to do something in a calm and logical way, without getting angry or giving up.

    Also, I beg of you…allow your children to trust their instincts, teach them that adults need to earn their respect and trust. Many parents punish their kids at the slightest hint or rumor that they’ve been disrespectful to a teacher or elder. But remember that children are very sensitive about being treated fairly, and many adults are unfair, manipulative, biased toward prettier children or not fond of children at all, and too many of them are just downright horrible people.

  • Christine

    I work very hard to not use “Mommy said no” with my 12-month-old (there’s not a lot else you can use at that age, as “Mommy and Daddy don’t want you going there because that’s our space, not yours” gets a little complex), because I don’t want her to turn into the Pearls’ “perfect” child, even if I don’t need to hit her to do that. I can’t imagine having fun with a child who didn’t know that she was her own person, and that curiosity was a good thing. If I train my child to not do anything I don’t say that they may do, how am I supposed to interact with them? (Ignoring the developmental issues entirely).

  • Infertile Minnesota

    It is shameful that that awful book by the Pearls is still in print! Spanking is never the right thing to do. Sound research and common sense tells us so. I write a lot about childhood experiences and their effects on us later in life.