The Legacy of Spanking

I’ve chosen another tack with small human obedience than my husband would occasionally like. He’s really just a threatener at heart. But there’s a legacy in my background, one I disliked then and now. It has to do with hitting.

My parents spanked, erring to the heavy-handed side, but in the name of Jesus. Others raised in the bosom of the Seventh-day Adventist church recognize this call to spoons and hands as Proverbs 22:6. Reproof was common in my church, even publicly, and Proverbs supported those efforts with many more gems:

“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol,” Proverbs 23:13-14

“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him,” Proverbs 13:24

“Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts,” Proverbs 20:30

“Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid,” Proverbs 12:1

“The eye that mocks a father and scorns to obey a mother will be picked out by the ravens of the valley and eaten by the vultures,” Proverbs 30:17

I remember these quotes from Sabbath School, the children’s church group we attended Saturday mornings. But even more do I remember my mother’s underarm pinch from the corral of the second church pew.

Church, after my father became a minister when I was nine, meant pulling a shroud of middle-aged spinster over our childhood selves, which was difficult to do consistently. Shrieking with indignant surprise at the pinch got me another one. Sometimes the pinch meant “sing louder,” because God knew I didn’t mean the low register mumble-sing. More often it meant “too loud,” or “be still,” and was accompanied by a death glare. The pinches came after I ignored the ear pull or the neck squeeze, but before the spanking. Discipline being godly – and considering our family now attended church up to three times per Saturday – it’s shocking my underarms aren’t dimpled.

Allison, me and Amy in grandpa’s chair – sisters!

My sisters and I also experienced time-outs, skipped meals, mouths washed with soap, kicks in the behind, standing in corners, frequent scripture-laced lectures, and being ignored by our parents. Much as we tried not misbehave, spankings seemed to come due occasionally, accruing like electric bills, in order to ultimately shape us into loving humans who fit the shape of heaven.

The worst part of a spanking depended on who gave it. For mom, it was the tearful apology afterwards where I had to agree her behavior was helping me on some level I didn’t understand. That ended with a hug usually. For dad, it was the Bible quotes (see above) as acknowledgement he was doing the Lord’s work of discipline, and then the prayer together afterwards while my bottom stung.

At least mom allowed a retreat, a private mourning, before she re-entered the scene with emotional demands. I had time to rage into my pillow or throw dolls around in anger before tucking all the edges of myself in again. I did not know how to speak to this treatment. The irony that the people who loved me most, hit me most, and then their god condoned it. As a child, the word I used – to myself – was “unfair.”

Yet when my son first looked at me with true belligerence, raising his chin and narrowing his blue eyes, I felt the weight of my heritage surge. My hand – puppetry, surely – raised to smack his gray denimed leg. I felt sick by how easy violent thoughts had arrived, no planning, no summons. Lowering my hand, I slumped to the ground, telling him I felt sad. My son’s chubby hand patted my head, sticking to my hair. Of course I cried. I felt lost somewhere between my history, my pregnant hormones and my own ideals.

“For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it,” Hebrews 12:11

Thank you, Hebrews, but I do not find this to be true. I believe the violence always begets violence, that violence doesn’t leave enough space for inquiry about intention, much less healing and peace. I’ve had to purposefully scrub myself of the idea of punishment as a guide. In order to lean on peaceful processes rather than my default, I had to find, learn and implement new methods.

I reject spanking as a parenting tool. I always have. Hitting equals hitting, the end – and I know this on all possible human levels.

Several times my parents have confessed their sadness at employing these measures; I’ve endured my mother’s tearful apologies. But healing came for me after having children and advocating for them with my own parents. I’ve seen my parents’ tendency to violence continue, deeply rooted in both habit and cultural lore. Now they pause and look at me, like I’m a beacon, gauging if their reaction needs tempering or is justified. Their judgments are so firmly set they can’t see around, though what they want is connection, love. The judgment itself forms a barrier they can’t allow themselves to pass. It feels sad.

My confusion from a childhood steeped in corporal punishment has yielded odd results. Does withholding now give latent rewards? This daily childhood practice is a concept reinforced socially with diet culture, sex culture, money savings advice. Even in school, deep interest in a topic is curtailed by “you’ll learn that next year,” as if maturity, not curricula, guides the process. And though these are all stupid, idiotic examples, part of my pendulum swings to withholding out of familiarity. Well travelled roads, and all that. Withholding information, food, attention, love.

When I am calm and able to think, I’ve aimed for other roads. I want to practice radical acceptance with all people, starting with my own.

I practiced nonviolent communication with my son for years, and we’ve gathered a rapport I can count on when conversations toughen. He’s a determined soul, with many words behind his viewpoint. But my daughter, a retreating type, defies the use of feeling or need words, growing defensive when faced with descriptions of her emotional state. Gently, I leave her space, trying to use the words inside myself instead, waiting until she’s braver, more trusting. I don’t know what else to do but pivot as I go.

I do not keep bitternesses stacked along the doorways between us. My reaction is all I can change, that and how I store this information. I prefer short-term, no rent. But letting go of my anger around spanking, for example, doesn’t mean its effect is gone, just quieter.

I’m still working to change my facial reaction patterns, the judgments drawn in my furrowed brow as I address my child in anger. I hate that. It channels my mother, her permed hair bouncing in the church pew as her pinching fingers reach toward me. Those same furrows dip between my eyes, an echo.

I am working on it.

2 thoughts on “The Legacy of Spanking

  1. I probably didn’t get spanked enough. But I do believe it’s better if, through example and discussion, parents guide their children towards adulthood. But there is a time and place when harsher means are necessary, but it should be out of truly correcting. I remember my uncle sharing he’d only been spanked once, that he remembers. A very harsh spanking, but as he said, necessary. It was when he disrespected his mother and his father would have none of it. I think he realized his father didn’t want to do it, but that a lesson was necessary. After that, there never was another. If parents love their children, and the children know it, when harsher methods are needed, they know and understand. Otherwise, they grow up as we see many today.


    1. I disagree. My parents definitely felt this attitude to be right, though their execution was imperfect and the lasting impression was one of rage. If I’d had only one spanking, perhaps that would have been a clearer message. But to me, hitting isn’t justifiable.


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