My last post may have left some people wondering where, exactly, I stand on spanking. Since I’ve openly criticized certain parenting philosophies, I want to be honest about how I’ve disciplined my own children, and how my practices have evolved over time. This is my story: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I was spanked.
Like almost all of the kids I grew up with back in the 70s, I was spanked. It didn’t happen often because I was a compliant little girl. I remember getting the belt from my dad once, for spilling ink on his desk. I remember being spanked in the store parking lot after he caught me stealing gum at the grocery store. I remember my mother slapping the back of my thigh after I’d lost my flute (again) in grade school. That’s it: that’s all I remember of being spanked. I don’t believe I suffered long term because of it.
I have spanked.
When I was starting out 21 years ago I didn’t take parenting advice from the Pearls or Ted Tripp: James Dobson was more my speed. But like most parents I knew, I spanked sometimes. My oldest was a very easy child to parent (like mother, like son?), but I still spanked him now and then.
I don’t spank.
What changed? For starters, I changed. Until I became a parent I didn’t realize what a temper I had. It was alarming to discover how angry I could become at the sweet little boy God had entrusted to me – but that was nothing compared to what was coming.
When my oldest son was seven we adopted Daughter #1 from India. She was three years old; tiny, beautiful, smart – and very spirited. She was like a stick of dynamite in our quiet little family. I have one memory in particular of those early months. Striker was tantruming and I was holding her down on her bed. Finally, finally she went very quiet and still, just looking up at me. I thought, “Aha! I win!” Then my daughter lifted her head off of her pillow and spat in my face.
Little swats on the bottom meant nothing to Striker. Harder and more frequent swats didn’t mean anything, either. I wasn’t ready to swear off spanking, but I knew that we were going to need other approaches. One Sunday morning at church, when Striker was four, she threw another tantrum (there were many). As I struggled to remove her from the foyer an older man approached me and gently said, “You know, it wouldn’t hurt her to be spanked once in a while.” I think I just smiled awkwardly and returned to trying to get my limp, screaming daughter off the floor. But inside I seethed, thinking, “You have no idea how many spankings this child has gotten. They don’t work.”
So I was starting to wise up to the fact that spanking is not equally effective with every child, if by “effective” we mean it produces the desired behavior.
Fast forward a few years and I’m parenting four children. Cheesy had come to us as a newborn, and five months later B.Lake came home from Haiti as a three-year-old. He was developmentally delayed and grieving. I was overwhelmed. I struggled to develop a healthy relationship with B.Lake. In retrospect, I waited far too long to seek professional support. The bitter truth is that on a few occasions I completely lost it with my little boy. I behaved in ways that shamed and terrified me.
This is the point in the story where some of you will decide I’m crazy, but I’m telling you the truth. One Sunday while sitting in church I had a very powerful spiritual experience, almost a vision. It had nothing to do with the service itself, about which I remember nothing. I had the sense that Jesus was sitting beside me (seriously, in the pew), and he was showing me my life with B.Lake up to that point – all of my failures, all of my worst moments, all the times when I’d directed my rage and contempt at this child. Then Jesus showed me the future, and it was equally grim. B.Lake was a bitter, angry young man – and given what I’d just seen, who could blame him?
As the vision ended I wept in despair over the damage I’d caused. But Jesus was still there, and he asked me, very simply, “If the situation was hopeless, why would I show you this?”
And so, like Ebenezer Scrooge, I believe that I’d been given a chance to change the future by changing myself. If you still think I’m crazy, just know that it was a good kind of crazy in that it motivated me to reshape my behavior toward my son. In the long run it changed the way I parent my other children as well.
I try not to yell.
I used to feel that, whatever my parenting failures, I was better than people who think they are entitled to abuse their children by virtue of an awful philosophy of discipline. At least I was sorry after I treated my children harshly, right?
At some point I realized that it would matter little to my children why I was cruel, or whether it was premeditated. It was a ridiculous defense to think that losing my temper was less evil than calculatingly setting out to mistreat my children. And so I stopped making excuses for myself. Because I had not been able to administer spankings calmly and judiciously, I took away all permission to spank my children. I looked for alternative ways of teaching and correcting. And I waged spiritual warfare against my temper.
Here’s one thing I’ve found over the last decade of parenting. Anger doesn’t help. It’s an unavoidable emotion sometimes, but it gets in the way of parenting well. My children hear me better when I don’t shout. A gentle answer does, in fact, turn away wrath. Kindness really can lead to repentance. Mercy triumphs over judgment. If a holy and perfect God can extend grace to His children, surely I can do likewise.
There’s more than one way to parent
Some parents reading this will think, “I spank, but I don’t have temper issues like you do. I’m not abusive.” Okay, then. All I ask is that you not judge the non-spankers as unbiblical, permissive, and unconcerned about their children’s characters.
Other parents will read this and think, “I would never have spanked in the first place.” Fair enough. Please don’t assume that all parents who spank are abusive. I’m only speaking of my own experience, and indicting only myself.
But maybe someone reading this is where I was. You spank because it’s what you know, what you’ve been told to do when your kids misbehave. Still, you’re not handling it well and you know it. Your anger frightens you. You feel guilty. You worry that you are damaging your children. Please know that I understand. I’ve been in your shoes. You can message me privately if you need to (firstname.lastname@example.org). My suggestion is that you stop using corporal punishment altogether. Err on the side of protecting your children. You don’t need to spank. There are other ways to parent, even as a Christian, no matter what you’ve been told.
So that’s where I’m at.
I’m a very imperfect parent, but by the grace of God I am growing into a more gracious, less angry mother with the passage of time. It probably goes without saying, but I don’t miss spanking. I am happier and healthier without it. Cheesy and Bee are receiving benefits that their older siblings didn’t have at their age, and I wish that I could go back and redo the early years with my other children. I can’t, though, and sometimes that’s heartbreaking. There are also still times when I lose my temper and yell, but those times are less and less frequent. I’m working on it. And I no longer hit. Ever. Because it’s wrong for me. And because I don’t need to do it.