The hall at the bottom of the stairs

Note: This post topic may be distressing for survivors of childhood abuse.

My siblings and I had good parents. Dad was college educated and consistently employed. Mom stayed at home to care for us, sewed our clothes, baked us cookies, etc. We were clothed and fed and housed appropriately. They did not suffer with addictions – unless you count motorcycles, amateur radio, and quilting. We had toys and took family vacations and weekend drives for picnics. We visited extended family, joined Scouts, went to church. Mom and Dad taught us so much. They loved us and we loved them; still do. They disciplined us – and they punished us. They called it spanking and sometimes it was a swat (or five) to the behind with a wooden spoon or hairbrush or open hand. But it wasn’t always spanking. It wasn’t often but we knew the difference – it was whipping, it was beating, it was being slapped in the face hard enough to make our heads recoil. In our home from the time I was 8 until 16, the hall at the base of the stairs was where our father hung his arsenal, a ruler and a wide leather belt – I saw them there every night as I ascended the stairs to go to bed and every morning when I came down for breakfast. As an adult I now know that 3 y/o me did not deserve a switch across bare legs for venturing outside to give dolly a bath in the rain barrel. 6 y/o me did not deserve to be  whacked across the bottom with a pine board for exploring outside my yard until dusk told me it was time to come home. 10 y/o me did not deserve 13 lashes with a belt for (I cannot even remember what it was for – but I remember the number, I remember the belt and I remember the pain and humiliation of having to pull down my pants to receive it), 13 y/o me did not deserve to be told to stay out of the way or I’d be next when I tried to protect my younger brother, or the guilt of knowing his pleading for mercy was because I told on him. 18 y/o me did not deserve to be slapped across the face for muttering that someone woke up on the wrong side of the bed (a/k/a talking back). I know that now, but all I “knew” then was that everyone got spanked, that the worst offenses apparently were being too big for my britches or thinking I was smarter than my father, that I deserved it, and that it would teach me a lesson. I know now, too, that I will never ever stand still to receive a beating – nor will I ever stand still and let someone else receive one.

I wish I could say that it stopped with me. Even though I swore I would NEVER do to my kids what was done to me, it happened. It was only a handful of times over the course of their childhoods, but it happened. That it was just a wrist flick with a wooden spoon or my bare hand on a well-padded bottom (except for that time I threw the spring horse, or the time I slapped my teenage daughter on the thigh) does not justify it. It does not assuage the remorse or the clear knowledge that it was always out of MY frustration and exhaustion and anger. I don’t remember what they did – so I’m sure they don’t either. They NEVER deserved it. I never wanted them to feel what I felt or think those post “spanking” thoughts about me that I had about my parents, but I am guessing they did. My daughter likes to tell people I stopped spanking altogether when she was maybe 6 or 7 and she laughed at the half-hearted “paddling” I gave her. Regardless of the frequency or the degree, I am under no illusion that anything good was ever learned or gained by a single instance of my parents – or my – using violence against a child. And I am so sorry.

People say “I got hit and I turned out ok”. We are all right – but only after doing the hard work of healing ourselves from those invisible wounds, picking up the pieces after broken relationships, depression, and addictions. We are strong in our taped-back-togetherness, but we lived a childhood and young adulthood in which we were never as whole and happy as we could have been. That is not something I want for my children or my grandchildren – or any child. Children need structure, limits, guidance, challenges, boundaries, consequences and consistency – not punishment. They do not need to be hit, hurt, bullied, humiliated, intentionally frightened, shamed or isolated for the crime of learning how to be in the world; especially not by the very people intended to protect and guide them. Our parents and to some extent my generation was told that spanking built character and fostered respect. Supposedly it helped us remember the lessons we were “taught” in those tearful minutes before when all you could think was “how bad will it be this time”. Or afterward, when all you wanted was to run and rub the hurt and cry or punch something – but you had to stand and suffer the aftermath, the lessons of guilt and shame not just for the misbehavior but for the pain it caused them when they ‘had to’ spank us.  The only lessons taught were fear of crossing some invisible moving line, of forgetting something you never knew in the first place, of getting caught, and of them. Yes, spanking was acceptable in mid-century America. Women used Lysol disinfectant as a feminine douche solution and men used Saran Wrap as a prophylactic, too! Neither was effective and the practices resulted in unfortunate, unintended, and sometimes horrific consequences. We KNOW better now.

I am not sharing this for sympathy or revenge. Dad’s been gone a few years now and Mom has dementia and is lovingly cared for by me and my brothers and sister. My parents were a product of a harsher time and a more difficult childhood than I had. I am sharing because when I hear people say spanking is ok because they were spanked and they turned out ok, a little girl inside of me still thinks maybe I wasn’t strong enough, that there was something wrong with me because it DID hurt and it DID cause long lasting damage that took a long time to understand and overcome. We need to talk about the pain and suffering that corporal punishment causes, not sugar coat it or justify it. We must not acquiesce to our own victimization. It isn’t a life sentence,  but we were broken  and it is ok to admit that.

I am sharing this because we do know better now.  Research Confirms Spanking Outcomes Similar to Physical Abuse   We know that spanking hurts the child and damages the parent/child relationship. We know that spanking a child to effect socialization, foster respect or even force obedience is like burning down your house because the windows are drafty. Spanking, even the modest swat to the backside with an open hand kind of spanking, simply doesn’t work. Spanking doesn’t work if what you want is to make your child into a responsible, caring, productive and principled person. There are methods for guiding and teaching children, of getting consensus or compliance with reasonable requests of our children; discipline techniques that DO work and do not involve force or violence. In order to learn these skills and overcome those archaic and ineffective patterns of punitive behavior, most of us need guidance ourselves, especially if we were raised with corporal punishment. It is hard to unlearn something that was almost literally burned into your flesh. Take a parenting class, get family counseling, or talk to a parenting coach. You are not a bad parent or a bad person for having resorted to a learned response when you were frustrated, exhausted or hurt – but you can do something different. Take back your power to raise your children your way. And speaking of parental rights, I am not saying criminalize spanking altogether. But just because something isn’t criminal, does not make it right. We can have peace in our homes and loving respectful relationships if we learn how to keep every conflict from becoming a power struggle to be won by overwhelming force. Children can be guided into resilience without being forced into survival mode.

I am sharing this because I never want my precious grandchildren to think there is something wrong with exploring or questioning or speaking their mind, or that making mistakes means there is something wrong or bad about them.  I never want them to think that it’s ok to hit someone when they are angry, tired, frustrated or simply because someone isn’t doing what they want.  And I never, ever, want them to think somehow intentionally inflicting physical or emotional pain has any part in a loving and respectful relationship.

Maybe it didn’t stop with me, but I hope the next generation learns from our pain and our mistakes. Please, let it stop with you.


About wisdomseason

Embracing both the hard scrabble self sufficiency and resilience of my ancestors and the burgeoning Information Age to help make family experience richer, healthier and happier. Maturity does not mean I cannot approach every day with the same excitement I felt as I swung my skinny legs over my bike on a summer morning, bag lunch in my basket, for a day of riding and hiking the woods and fields around my home in upstate New York or went blackberry picking in the heavy cicada song drenched afternoons at my grandmother's in Kentucky. Let's explore!
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