“My parents spanked me, and I turned out okay!”
God, how I loathe this argument in favor of corporal punishment.
I wasn’t spanked as a child. If someone had set up a nanny cam in our home between the time I was in, oh, first grade, and the time my mother finally left the no-good sack of shit my father was at the time, it would have recorded frequent occasions of what these days would be considered savage child abuse. My father liked to drink, which was a problem because he was not a happy drunk. As his alcohol level increased, he got in turn gregarious, boisterous, morose, and angry. When he was toward the end of that scale, he could get furiously pissed off at anything.
During my childhood, my father ran a series of pubs into the ground. He liked to be the proprietor of the local watering hole, but he wasn’t a very good businessman, so we moved around a lot as he started place after place with much enthusiasm and high hopes, only to see everything shuttered and me having to change schools again when the initial excitement of a new business had worn off and the money stopped making it to the suppliers and the power company again. I suspect this had a great deal to do with what I now, with my adult knowledge, understand was a latent cycle of low self-esteem and depression. It didn’t take much to put him in a bad mood—a pub patron upstaging him or making a light-hearted joke at his expense, that sort of thing—and then the hair trigger was set.
I was his first-born, and after my mother I was the biggest target around that couldn’t fight back and kick his ass. (The one time he picked a fight with a patron he ended up getting cold-cocked and laid out on the floor of the pub in just one hit. The guy warned him not to be stupid, and only hit my father in self-defense when he didn’t take repeated warnings. That didn’t do much for his self-esteem that week, let me tell you.) It didn’t work in my favor that I was shy, bookish, and in many ways not the rough-and-tough son he would have preferred. Sometimes it was stuff that I said or did, but more often it was something I didn’t say or do and should have, in his opinion. Then the belt would come out, and he’d beat the shit out of me. Not just “a spanking”, or “a slap or two on the butt”. We’re talking five or ten minutes of continuous and indiscriminate application of the belt on any exposed part of the body. Struggling pissed him off and made him hit harder. Staying passive and not showing the proper level of distress was taken as defiance or implication that he didn’t hit hard enough, and that made him hit harder too.
But here’s what I realized at long last, with many years between me and that wretched childhood of mine: he was never the bad guy in his own mind. He was never an abuser in his own eyes. There were always the classic make-up actions borne of the shame of knowing you’ve gone too far: ice cream consolation, promises of future fun, and half-hearted apologies that weren’t really apologies because they always placed the responsibility for his loss of control in my court. See what you made me do? That hurt me way more than it hurt you. Why can’t you just listen to what I’m telling you? In his own eyes, he was the stern but loving disciplinarian, straightening out a defiant kid that had stepped too far out of line by disrespecting parental authority. I never understood the reasoning, of course, at eight or ten or twelve years old. I only understood that I was a wimpy disappointment of a son who spent too much time with his nose in a book, and that it was wise to become invisible when he tromped up the stairs after a long evening tending bar.
And here’s another thing I realized long after the fact: I don’t remember the good times with him.
I’m sure there were some. I have pictures from my childhood that show us all on vacation, or at local amusement parks, at parties, out playing with cousins in backyard pools on family visits—but I hardly remember any of those moments, and I don’t recall much in the way of happy things from that time. What I do remember are the beatings, and being scared of my dad most of the time, and the physical and mental effort to go out of my way to not cross paths with him.
I’m sure he loved me and my siblings. But I don’t remember the acts of love. I remember the open hand and the belt, and the tears, and the late-night huddled fear.
And that’s why the idea of hitting my children makes me physically sick.
There is no clear delineation between “necessary discipline” and “abuse”. Physical violence is always abuse. It doesn’t teach anything but fear and resentment, and it will always, always, always come back to you in some form.
“My parents spanked me, and I turned out okay!”
Bullshit. You turned out okay despite the corporal punishment, not because of it. And don’t say there’s a difference between your spankings and my abuse, because then you’re operating a really slippery moral sliding scale, and I can guarantee you that my father too was convinced at the time that what he was going was an unpleasant but necessary parental duty to recalibrate my moral compass. You know, so I’d turn out okay as an adult. What you need to do is to take that justification of “appropriate” violence and realize that what you’re doing is to establish what level of physical and mental pain is okay to inflict on your child intentionally. The answers should always and unambiguously be none.
My father died over fifteen years ago, in his early fifties, alone and eaten up with cancer. He’s buried in a welfare plot somewhere in Frankfurt. I met him only once after my mom left him. When I saw him again, he was in his early fifties and in bad health, and I was in my early twenties and in prime shape, so the power imbalance went the other way, and there was no animosity. I don’t feel anything other than pity when I think of him now. I should have had a good childhood, and he should have had a loving family and children and grandchildren by his side when he got sick and died, but it was all wasted, and it was all due to things solely in his control, and it’s the saddest fucking thing in the world.
I was hit as a child, and I turned out okay. Eventually. After a long time and much perspective, and after having kids of my own. But that shit leaves scars in the head that won’t heal, ever. And from one parent to another, I’m telling you that you don’t want to risk putting those scars there. Because love and fear can’t take up the same space, and what you want your children to feel when they hear you walking up the stairs is the former, not the latter. Hitting doesn’t teach a child anything, at least not anything close to what you think it will teach them.