What You Teach Your Kids When You Hit Them

What You Teach Your Kids When You Hit Them April 30, 2014

Until we live in a culture that not only respects but also upholds basic civil rights for children, most children will not know love. Love is as love does, and it is our responsibility to give children love. When we love children we acknowledge by our every action that they are not property, that they have rights–that we respect and uphold their rights. Without justice there can be no love. –bell hooks, All About Love

Love and abuse cannot coexist. —bell hooks, All About Love

Giorgio Conrad (1827-1889), “Street Scene” via Wikipedia Commons
[Painting of a woman spanking a young boy]
[Content Note: Church-Supported Child Abuse, Domestic Violence]

The other day, I decided to spend some time listening to sermons on my former church’s website. My former church is an Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) church, that I stopped going to regularly when I left for college in 2008, and officially left a couple of years ago. I would describe it as abusive, and as having many cult-like elements.

In the sermon I listened to, which can be found on their website, the pastor describes disciplining his children (emphasis mine):

There was one time I whipped my daughter. I whipped her too hard. … I cried like a baby … I apologized to her. Man, it hurt me. I whipped her out of anger.

You can ask my boys this. When I’ve had to spank my boys, and spank, and spank, and spank, and spank, [chuckles] I’d send them to their room and a few minutes later I’d go in and hug on them and love on them.

You say, ‘You mean after you’ve whipped your boys, you go in and you make them hug you and you kiss them and you tell them you love them?’ Yup. We do that. Because I want them to know the reason we whip them wasn’t because we hate them. It’s to change their behavior.

These few lines show the manipulative tactics used by many abusers against their victims (and yes, if you hit your kids, you are assaulting them and it is abusive).

The way abusers center themselves and their own “pain” in order to ignore the pain their victims are feeling (“Man, it hurt me..”). The way abusers conflate abuse and love, sometimes, as in this case, by forcing or coercing their victims into physical intimacy (“You mean after you’ve whipped your boys, you go in and you make them hug you…?”). The way they tell their victims, during these vulnerable moments, “I’m doing this because I love you.”

The abuse of spanking isn’t just in the act of hitting a child. In fact, perhaps the most abusive and damaging aspect of spanking is in the way it teaches children that someone can hurt you like that, and it can be rightly called love.

I remember being in an abusive relationship when I was in high school, with a young man that I had met at this same church.

If I tried to walk away from him during a fight, or break up with him, he’d grab my arm so tightly it hurt. “I’m doing this because I love you,” he’d say, “and I want us to work things out.”

If I wanted to go hang out with my friends instead of spending time with him, he’d pinch me or pull me into his car. “I’m doing this because I love you,” he’d say, “and I want to spend time with you.”

He would hurt me all the time–pinching, poking, grabbing, picking me up, sometimes even hitting me. Then he would force and/or coerce me to spend time with him, or make-out with him, or even have sex with him.

But he never enough to bruise me or make me bleed…

Except those few times…

The time he grabbed my arm hard enough to leave hand print-shaped bruises all over it, forcing me to wear long-sleeved shirts for a week. The time he nearly broke my nose, and ruined my favorite shirt by causing me to bleed all over it.

But those times he was really, really, sorry. Those times he cried and he cried, and told me how much it hurt him that he had hurt me. Those times, he forced me to put my feelings of pain aside so I could comfort him–after all, it hurt him more than it hurt me, right?

Those few times were just “out of anger,” and not like all the other times, which were “out of love,” even though they all caused me enough unwanted pain to make me afraid to do things I wanted to do.

The thing is, this terrible relationship didn’t happen in a vacuum. In fact, the thought patterns that kept me from trying to leave had begun to develop years beforehand, when I was spanked as a child. 

I try not to blame my parents too much for this, and have personally chosen to forgive them. They were told their whole lives by this same church that spanking was the only way to discipline, and that they could not be good, loving parents unless they spanked me. But, whether or not they wanted to spank, the effects of their spanking were (and still are) harmful to me, especially when I started dating my abuser.

My parents never left bruises or caused me to bleed (not even once), and only spanked me a handful of times growing up. But the threat of spanking was constantly there. My dad would crack his belt like a whip and threaten to spank us, sometimes when we were acting up, and other times just for the fun of it. That noise still triggers fear for me.

After spankings, when we were hurting and scared and crying, my dad would want to hug us and tell us he loved us. I remember wanting to do ANYTHING but give that man a hug at the time, but felt I had no choice, because I wanted to avoid getting another spanking.

Even though it only happened a few times, even though it never left bruises, it controlled me. It dehumanized me. And when I turned 16, I thought I knew what love was: unwanted pain and forced intimacy.

“I’m doing this because I love you.” 

Parents, I don’t doubt most of you feel love toward your children. I want to tell you that love is an action, and if love is an action, then so is hate. It doesn’t matter if you feel love toward your kids when you hit them. It doesn’t matter if you “aren’t doing this because you hate them.” Using the power you have over your child as a parent to cause them pain is an act of hate, not an act of love.

I don’t doubt that you want to act in love toward your children. I don’t doubt that you want them to grow up to be happy, healthy, functional adults. If this is true, stop listening to lies from abusive leaders like my former pastor. It would be better if he were thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck then that he should keep preaching these messages that are actively hurting children.

I want you to think, next time you hear a pastor preach a sermon like the one I just quoted:

Do you want your child to grow up and fall in love with someone who hits them? How would you feel if your child’s partner hit them and then forced your child to hug them right afterward? When you hit your child and then say, ‘This is because I love you,’ what do you think your child is going to do when they get older, and someone else starts hitting them and telling them the same thing?

Your actions are teaching your children what love looks like. You are teaching your children what love to accept. Teach them that abuse isn’t love. Teach them that love and abuse cannot coexist.

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