A couple of years ago, I wrote about spanking. I wrote a few posts, actually, and one magazine article, because I’d spanked my own child, and admitted it, and the ensuing uproar from outraged observers demanded its own commentary. And then the commentary kind of got out of hand – the topic was, after all, spanking – and I decided to just stop talking about it, and, indeed, I thought that I’d never write about spanking again. But then the issue of spanking hit the interwebs again yesterday, with this story about a mother who lost custody of her kids after spanking her daughter, and I feel kind of driven, against my better judgment, to comment.
The arguments in response to the story skewed in two opposing directions: there was the argument that spanking is okay, because, hey, we were spanked, and we turned out fine, and then there was the argument that spanking is never, ever okay, no way, no how, and any parent who does it should have their parenting license taken away. I’m not comfortable with either of these arguments. I’m also not comfortable admitting to that, which is, really, the thing that I want to talk about. That is, why is this all so hard to talk about?
I deplore spanking as a matter of practice, but I’ve also spanked my daughter – just once, in the incident that I discuss below – and although I regret it, I don’t think that I was a terrible parent for doing so. Which is to say, my position on this matter is complicated, and spanking is an issue that does not – in the context of its consideration as a subject of public discourse – admit much complication. If you’re a thoughtful, considerate parent, goes the dominant argument, you would never spank your child. Well, I did spank my child. I’m still not happy about it, but I still don’t want you to judge me for it. As I said, it’s complicated.
I have spanked my daughter. There, I said it.
I have spanked my daughter – just once, and for as good a reason as I think is possible to imagine for spanking – and I hated myself for doing it. But even though I hated myself for doing it, and even though I hope that I never do it again, I can’t quite bring myself to be outraged at another parent for doing it. Not because I think that spanking’s right, or even okay, but because disciplining children is a hard and complicated thing and one that – I don’t think – we can presume to understand well enough to judge from across the garden fence or down the grocery aisle or through the TV screen. If it’s not your kid, not your situation, odds are that you can’t fully understand the reasoning that might have gone into the bum-paddle that you witnessed. And if you can’t know, you can’t really judge. At least, I think you can’t. I’m still working this out.
My parents were spankers. They always insisted that they hated doing it, that it hurt them more than it hurt us, and I always fully believed them. I still do. I never felt abused or harmed. I never doubted that they loved me. I never doubted their gentleness. Spanking was a punishment that was delivered upon my sister and I when we breached certain familial rules, like not acting in any way that might bring harm to ourselves or to each other. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, we knew well in advance what was coming. It never came as a surprise, and it was never meted out in the heat of anger. I can barely remember the spankings, now, only that they happened. I can, however, remember with perfect, uncomfortable clarity how it felt – in the years after we were too old for spanking and so were disciplined formally with groundings and informally with guilt – to be made to feel guilty. Guilt carried a greater and more lasting sting than the spankings. I can still feel that guilt – the burning cheeks, the hot tears, the sinking feeling in my stomach as my mother or father told me that I had disappointed them, that they were disappointed in me – in an immediate, visceral way. I have forgotten the spankings. I have not forgotten the guilt.
So I worry more, as a parent, about whether the modes of discipline that I use with my daughter are stinging her soul than I do about whether they’re stinging her bottom. I worry about whether the words that I choose or the tone of my voice or the look on my face are impressing fear or shame upon her. I worry about whether I am making her feel too badly. I worry that I don’t know how badly is too badly. I don’t worry so much about spanking.
Which, yes: it is easy for me to not worry about spanking, because I do not, as a rule, spank. But I have thought about spanking. I have been tempted on well more than one occasion to spank. The one time that I did spank I was – my own parents’ good example notwithstanding – so appalled at myself that I cried and vowed never to do it again, and that has been an easy vow to keep. But I have cried harder on the few occasions that I have made Emilia cry because the words that I used or the tone of my voice made her feel more terribly than was – perhaps? I don’t know – warranted by her actions. I have felt worse about certain other parenting decisions, certain discipline decisions especially, than I did about the spanking.
I don’t believe in – as if it were something that one could or could not ‘believe in’ – hitting. I don’t believe in doing things that cause children harm, that visit unnecessary hurt upon them, that create a climate of fear. But there are things, I believe, that can cause more harm, visit more hurt, create more fear than spanking. And I worry about these things. Avoiding spanking is – with the exception of that one incident where, my god, my god, she very nearly caused serious harm to herself and to her baby brother – easy: you just keep your hands to yourself. Choosing the right words, the right tone, the right facial expressions – containing your anger, your fear, your frustration and wrapping it, tightly, in a perfectly balanced, perfectly contained disciplinary package – is much, much harder. I do my best – I do my very, very best – but even in my measured moments, I worry: have I impressed too much guilt upon her? Have I hurt her feelings unnecessarily? Have I made her doubt my love for her?
It might be said that what I did that day outside the grocery store, a few months back, when I pulled her away from the stroller and her brother and brought my hand to her bottom, represented a bad parenting moment for me. If you had seen it, you might have thought so, too. But I do not think that it was my worst moment – not for now, not even for the future – and the complicatedness of that fact – and of the facts that I do not always discipline perfectly, that I was doing the best that I could under the circumstances, that even in doing my best, I failed, and knew it, but also knew that I could have failed worse – was not something that you could have seen.
Which is why if I ever see you or anyone spanking their child, I will not – unless it seems obviously abusive, and no, I’m not even one hundred percent what that means, which is why these things, these messy, messy things involving judgment are just so, you know, messy – say a word. I cannot say a word, because I am not without that kind of sin, and because I am not even certain that that sin is the worst of its kind.
When I wrote that post, I intentionally declined to describe in detail the circumstances that led me to spank Emilia. That, I thought, would have defeated the purpose of my argument. I wasn’t looking for absolution, or reassurance that what I’d done was okay. I wasn’t pleading my case, hoping to convince anyone that, sometimes, spanking is acceptable. I was arguing, rather, for greater care in exercising judgment. If you’d seen me spank Emilia, you might not have known the circumstances that led to that spank. Which is precisely the point: if you don’t know, shouldn’t you reserve judgment?
In follow-up discussions to that post, however, I described the incident in fuller detail:
We — she and I and her little brother — were leaving a grocery store. She’d been throwing a fit and making a scene and I was doing the best I could to manage her under extremely trying circumstances. As we neared the sidewalk, she pulled away and grabbed the stroller with her brother in it and yanked it toward the street, shrieking in that manic way that is the hallmark of fit-throwing three-year-olds everywhere. There was no time for reasoning or arguing or cajoling. There was no time for shouting or bargaining or threatening. I had to stop her, and I had to do it immediately. So I grabbed her and I pulled her, struggling and shrieking, back to me and I spanked her. It was the kind of spank that well-meaning parents refer to as a “swat on the bottom.” It wasn’t hard, it wasn’t repeated and it was only meant to startle her out of her fit and to make clear that what she was doing – what she was refusing to stop doing – was dangerous and wrong. It worked. I didn’t like it, but it worked. She stopped and blinked and her lower lip quivered and I said, “Honey, I need you to stop,” and I explained why I’d done what I did. To this day I don’t know what I could have done differently.
I felt compelled to clarify what happened, because some of the responses to the original post were of the you are a terrible mother and your children should be taken away from you variety. One commenter said that she would have called the police and sought to press charges if she’d seen me swat my daughter’s bottom. “Really?” I replied in a comment. “You wouldn’t have considered the situation? You wouldn’t have just come over and seen if I needed help?” “No,” she stated. “Calling the police would have been how I helped. How I helped your kids.” For her, the issue was black and white. A spanking under any circumstances, any at all, is grounds for revocation of one’s parenting license. No room for consideration of circumstances, no room for mistakes in judgment, no room for any assessment other than this one: BAD PARENT.
I disagree with her, obviously. I am, as I said in the original post and in posts that followed and in every interview that I’ve ever done in which someone has asked me about my position on spanking, not a proponent of spanking as a disciplinary measure. I do not spank my children; that one incident was the one incident, and it’s never been repeated (the circumstances, too, thankfully, have never been repeated.) I am against spanking. But still: I am made uncomfortable by absolute judgments about spanking. Really uncomfortable. Not just because I am made uncomfortable by absolute judgments about most things – nothing good ever comes of moral absolutism – but because I think that they obscure any discussion about how truly difficult, how soul-wrenchingly challenging, is the whole matter of disciplining our children (ask me how terrible I feel when I yell at my children, which I do, which is a whole other topic. Ask me, too, how judgey I get about the practice of strapping children into ‘naughty chairs’, or putting them in isolation, or just making them cry in general.)
At the same time, however, the case of spanking and judgments about spanking raise interesting questions about the nature of judgment and the difficulty of moderating judgment: how do we balance fairness in judging other parents with protecting children, and in determining what is right and wrong in parenting? How do we decide whether, when or how to intervene in someone else’s parenting? Where’s the line – and how fine is this line – between looking out for the best interests of children and becoming self-appointed enforcers of parental law?
We are, all of us, imperfect parents, and it’s tempting to just pull out the Matthew 7.1 and insist that we none of us judge, lest we all be judged – so tempting, because doesn’t that sentiment capture something important about parenting discourse in the 21st century, which is, it seems, all about judging each other relentlessly? – but to do so would just be to muddy the conversation further. We cannot resist judging, nor, arguably, should we. Moral relativism is no more useful than is moral absolutism. So what do we do with all this? How do we talk about all this? How do we parent, and talk about parenting, when we all of us live in glass houses, and when we none of us want to put down our stones?