Hurts Me More Than You: Christine’s Story

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Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.

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Willfully Disobedient: I Was a “Lovingly” Spanked Child

HA note: Christine’s story originally appeared on her blog on September 24, 2014 and is reprinted with permission.

“I was spanked but I turned out just fine.”

“There is a difference between spanking and beating a child. This story clearly crosses the line.”

“Sometimes parents need something a little more to get a child’s attention. I was only spanked when I was doing something dangerous or being a hellion.”

“I deserved it and needed it.”

I inhale sharply as I read through the comment section of an article about NFL player Adrian Peterson’s indictment for child abuse after whipping his son bloody. The glow of my iPad screen is harsh in my otherwise darkened bedroom. Maybe staying up reading the internet wasn’t such a great idea. I quickly glance over at my sleeping husband and cats while I debate getting up or staying in bed. I know this topic has already captured me and it is after one in the morning.

My heart is racing and my mouth dry as I click the “comment” button. I’m nervous, triggered into an emotional response that I still haven’t learned to control, that I’m not sure I want to control. Anger and frustration bubble in the pit of my stomach. Anxiety grips my chest as it claws up my throat. Adrenalin washes over my limbs, which twitch under the sheets. It’s time to fight. Feeling most secure in my bed, I opt to stay as I roll onto my stomach for better access to my tablet keyboard. Then, walking the line between complete emotional cyber meltdown and rational, logical, mind changing academic argumentation, I begin to type the same response I have been sharing in comment sections for the last five years.

Over these years spanking “debates” have made me crazy because many people don’t seem to understand the abuse and damage that so called deliberate, “calm”, or “loving” spanking leaves behind. There seems to be an assumption that so long as the physical hit is done with love and doesn’t leave a mark, then this is not violence or abuse. My mother performed these calm, loving spankings on me and my sisters. They were terrifying and shaming. They were also so normalized that I used to argue that spanking was ok and necessary for children to learn valuable lessons.

I had such an internalized notion of my own badness or rebellion that I believed I deserved such discipline.

My mother ascribed to the teachings of James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. His books Dare to Discipline and The Strong-Willed Child outline steps for parents to follow to make their children compliant. Dobson claims that children should not be disciplined when the parent is angry but that children need to know spanking will be the consequence of “willful disobedience.” He claims that this is a formula for loving correction that will not harm children. However, the thing about the term “willful disobedience” is that it boils down to lack of compliance, which is often found in the actions of just being a child. This was my experience.

There are any number of reasons that I or my sisters were considered to be willfully disobedient. Any instance of not obeying my mother was a prime example of my naturally sinful nature. I have been spanked for running in church, climbing a neighbors tree, following my friends into the woods, or not answering a question when addressed. Disobedience also came as a group if I was unable to maintain the obedience of others. On one occasion my mother tasked me with rounding up my young sisters after church. We would all often scatter after the church service, finding nooks and crannies to play in while our mother talked with the pastor. I tried to wrangle them, get them to the front door, but they were still playing when mom was ready to leave. Due to our collective defiance we were informed that we would be spanked as soon as we were home.

My mother was always calm when calling me to her bedroom, a dusky room with pulled curtains that diffused the afternoon light. It was perpetually warm with the smell of my parents. It was a room that I was only allowed to enter when invited and under other circumstances I would have found it comforting. But not today. I am instructructed to get The Wooden Spoon from the utensil holder in the kitchen and bring it with me. The Spoon or a wooden hairbrush were often used instead of her hand because these were considered to be “neutral objects.”

Spanking with her hand would be abuse. This was correction.

The Wooden Spoon
With tears already rolling down my cheeks, I approach my mother shaking with fear and shame.

Why didn’t I get my sisters to come faster? I should have been better. More good. I wanted to be good but seemed to have a hard time obeying.

She closes the bedroom door softly behind us. She is sure not to slam it because that would indicate anger and spanking a child when angry would be abuse. This was correction. My mother’s voice is soft when she explains that, in the Bible, God says children need to obey their parents. Parents who do not discipline their children actually hate their children.

“This hurts me to spank you but I do it because I love you.”

I don’t want to end up in hell where I will be tortured and gnash my teeth for eternity but I also don’t want to be hit. I continue to cry, tasting the wet salt on my lips. I hope that this time she will change her mind. Not that she ever has. Pointing out my pre-spanking tears my mother warns me that they won’t get me out of this. For her, a child crying in the face of discipline is manipulative and a sign of a sinful nature. She can not give in.

Once across her knees she hits my bottom swiftly and rhythmically. I do not remember how many times she would hit me but I know she was dedicated to spank as many times as it took for me to cry “genuine tears of contrition and remorse.” I know that I cried harder while controlling my desire to wail or scream. Crying this way was considered theatrical and attention seeking. It might have even gained more spanks so I avoid it and try to give my mother’s loving correction respect.

Afterward, she stands me up in front of her and straightens my clothes before I fall into her arms and sob my apology into her chest. With tears in her own eyes she reminds me again that this hurts her more than it does me. This was for my own good. I promise never to transgress again. “I love you,” she coos as she hugs me. If she did this without love, then it would be abuse. But her love makes it a correction. I thank her for loving me so much that she refuses to spare the rod. I do not want to be spoiled. Her own tears subside as she prepares for the next child to correct and signals my time to leave. The others are waiting for their turn. I need to send the next one in.

This form of discipline was normal in my house growing up. Although, it did become less frequent with each new daughter. She would later describe the two youngest as “spoiled” due to their lack of spankings as young children while reminiscing fondly about how I used to try and keep my sisters obedient.

I bitterly told her that I was trying to save them. She just smiled.

As a teenager and young adult, I held onto the belief that spanking with love was the only real way to teach children right from wrong, yet I had a hard time imagining what it would be like to hit my own child someday. I began to question this method as a psychology major when I read studies that clearly illustrated the lasting psychological harm spanking has on children. However, it wasn’t until my mid-20s, when on a city bus, I had a discussion with a friend about childhood spanking and I described my discipline “without anger” experience. As the bus rumbled and bustled around us, I watched as horror, pity, and sadness crept across her face. With tears in her eyes she replied, “I am so sorry that was done to you.” I was taken aback. So deep was the internalization of my own “badness” as a child that I tried to assure her it was no big deal. Spanking did me good. I deserved it. I needed it. I was a bad child.

But how can a child of ten, six, or two years old be bad? And how can anyone claim that the child deserves physically violent discipline? Why would anyone want to equate love with physical violence?

It has been heart wrenching to come to new conclusions about how a parent “loved” me. After a lot of reading and evaluation I now understand how being treated this way had a negative impact on my mental health and conditioned me to ignore my personal boundaries or emotional needs. I now call “spanking with love” what it is: abuse. I have a zero tolerance for any form of physical violence toward children or adults.

I want people who claim that “spanking with love” or “without anger” or “within prescribed parameters” to realize that I am that child. I do not fully relate to other’s abuse stories that include lashings from belts or punches to the head or angry outbursts. My mother claimed to love me every step of the way. She was calm and collected. I had warnings and was given a consequence. My experience is the loving discipline that so many claim to support. And yet, when I share these details I am always met with the response that my experience is clearly abuse and that is not what the debater is talking about. They tell me it was done to them or it wasn’t so bad and that they deserved it and so do their own children. All I can really say to that is what my friend said to me, I am sorry that you have been treated that way. I hope you can see you are more valuable than what was done to you and that you do not need to perpetuate harm.

The stories of others in similar situations have been a life raft in my most troubled waters. In telling my story recently, I also thanked another for telling theirs. I needed that person. Maybe others need me. To you I say, I understand you. I have been there.

You are so strong and have survived so much. I am with you in this.

Hurts Me More Than You: Introduction and Abiram’s Story

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By Nicholas Ducote, HA Community Coordinator 

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Trigger warning for Hurts Me More Than You series: posts in this series may include detailed descriptions of corporal punishment and physical abuse and violence towards children.

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Corporal punishment has become a national conversation after a former NFL Most Valuable Player (MVP) was indicted for child abuse in Texas.

Pictures of the injuries (trigger warning: graphic wounds) can be seen here. A surprisingly large group of people defended Peterson’s actions, many cited his intent to “reasonably” discipline his son, or their own harsh treatment as children. Sean Hannity literally removed his belt and beat his news desk, later remarking that he “deserved” a punch to the face from his father:

These responses remind me of my childhood and young adult, when I thought being spanked bare-bottomed with a plumbing line marketed as “The Rod” was reasonable. It shocked me to the core to realize that The Rod was a literal embodiment of the “plumbing line” advocated by child-abuse manuals like Michael and Debbie Pearl’s To Train Up a Child. The same plumbing line that left no visible marks, but killed Lydia Schatz because it broke down her muscles leading to organ failure.

In my own life, spanking predictably created in me a violent child. My parents always note my “sensitivity” as a very young child, then they became fundamentalists and the corporal punishments increased. Suddenly, I hurt animals, got in fights with neighbors, began my obsession with war, justified violence, and I often fantasized about engaging in violent actions. G.A. Henty’s historical fictions did nothing but stir up those fantasies.

It wasn’t until I read about the impacts of spanking on children that I connected the dots. Antisocial behavior, violence against animals, violent fantasies are all more likely as the frequency and intensity of corporal punishment increases (see endnote for academic reading).

I have wanted to start a conversation about this, but I couldn’t harness the energy for an extensive post on the topic. I’m an ardent football fan and my conversations with abuse apologists on internet forums the last two weeks have been exhausting. Today, “Abiram” sent me his story, similarly inspired by conversations about Adrian Peterson.

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Abiram’s Story

“Are your parents dying?

Are you being persecuted for being a Christian?

Then why are you crying?”

I can’t even count the number of times I heard those words. Always associated with a spanking. For most people. The Adrian Peterson story is either a non-story or something that just doesn’t make sense. For me, it is inescapably real. I have been hit with a paint stirrer, a pizza paddle, a belt, a dowel. Always accompanied by the saying “this hurts me more than it hurts you.” But it doesn’t. Have you ever stared into a mirror wishing that either you would die or your parents would. Have you ever clenched your jaw thinking that maybe your were demon possessed. Have you ever avoided talking to a parent for days because you thought the Holy Spirit would tell them that you had unconfessed sin?

Well I have.

It seems laughable to most, but it is real for me. I was spanked for disagreeing about my actions. Spanked for covering my bottom from swats with the paint stirrer. Spanked hours after being corrected because no lesson would be complete without physical punishment. No one should think back on their childhood and have their most poignant memories be of pain, but I do. My parents weren’t monsters. They can’t be dismissed as an aberration. They are mainstream America. There are no bruises on me today. No physical scars. All the welts have healed.

But my childhood will stay with me till the day I die and possibly after that. I can remember every time in the last 13 years that I have cried. Each time because I felt like someone else had been hurt, not me. But reading about Peterson reminds me that I was hurt. That my brothers and sisters were hurt. May still be hurt. And I don’t know how to make that better. And that kills me inside almost as much as those swats with the belt…. Don’t kid yourself and think that your children won’t remember what happens when they are children.

 We remember everything.

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What was your experience with corporal punishment?

Describe your experience with physical discipline in less than 400 words, in any format — first person, stream of consciousness, short essay, et al. How did the corporal punishment impact you as a child and does it continue to impact you as an adult? If you have children of your own, what is your reaction to the thought of disciplining them as you were?

Submit your stories to: homeschoolersanonymous@gmail.com

Endnotes:

  • “Spanking and the Making of a Violent Society,” Murray A. Straus, Pediatrics 98, no. 4 (October 1996), 836-842. [Link]
  • Murray A. Straus, Emily M. Douglas, Rose Anne Medeiros, The Primordial Violence: Spanking Children, Psychological Development, Violence, and Crime (Routledge, 2013). [Link to Preface]
  • Akemi Tomoda, MD, PhD, Hanako Suzuki, MA, Keren Rabi, MA, Yi-Shin Sheu, BS, Ann Polcari, PhD, and Martin H. Teicher, MD, “Reduced Prefrontal Cortical Gray Matter Volume in Young Adults Exposed to Harsh Corporal Punishment,” Neuroimage 47(Suppl 2), Aug 2009. [Link]

Failing to Understand the Dynamics of Abuse: Focus on the Family on Adrian Peterson and Corporal Punishment

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HA note: The following is reprinted with permission from Libby Anne’s blog Love Joy Feminism. It was originally published on Patheos on September 17, 2014.

Yesterday, Time Magazine’s parenting section featured an article by Focus on the Family’s Jared Pingleton. The article, titled “Spanking Can Be an Appropriate Form of Child Discipline,” addresses the controversy surrounding Adrian Peterson’s suspension from the Minnesota Vikings on pending child abuse charges after leaving open lacerations on his son. In his article, Pingleton makes a case for corporal punishment while clearly calling Peterson’s actions abuse.

Pingleton begins his article with this stand-alone sentence, in bold:

We won’t go wrong if we exercise a firm and consistent hand with a soft and loving heart.

The problem with this statement is that Peterson was exercising a “firm and consistent hand,” and he was disciplining “with a soft and loving heart.” After being taken to court for injury to a child and then suspended from his team, Peterson apologized for causing his son harm, but he was very clear initially that he did not see anything wrong with his actions—and for good reason. After administering corporal punishment to his son, Peterson texted this to the child’s mother:

Never do I go overboard! But all my kids will know, hey daddy has the biggie heart but don’t play no games when it comes to acting right.

This is exactly what Focus on the family and other groups that advocate corporal punishment promote—the argue that a parent should act from a heart full of love, but exercise a firm hand when it comes to obedience and doing what is right. Is it any wonder that Peterson felt he had done nothing wrong? Many Americans were outraged by pictures of Peterson’s son—and for good reason!—but it makesabsolutely no sense to respond to this case by stating that corporal punishment should involve “a firm and consistent hand” and “a soft and loving heart.” In Peterson’s case, it did.

A parent can have “a firm and consistent hand” and “a soft and loving heart” and still abuse their children.

Before I go on, a few words of background. My parents used corporal punishment and did everything “right,” but my experience was nevertheless negative. Today I practice positive parenting and gentle discipline with my own children. Based on my experiences and a wide array of research, I would like to see corporal punishment phased out. I consider all forms of corporal punishment ethically wrong, though it’s worth noting that I do understand that not all are equally harmful. Slapping a child on their clothed bottom in an attempt to make a point is not the same thing as striking a child with an object and leaving bruises or welts. I dislike the term “spanking” because it erases these sorts of distinctions and everyone seems to define it differently. Finally, to avoid confusion I tend to adhere to the guidelines generally followed by social services and reserve the label “abuse” for corporal punishment that causes bodily injury (i.e. bruises, welts, and worse). That is the definition I will be using throughout this post.

My concerns with Pingleton’s article are twofold. First, Pingleton others child abusers to the extent that he makes it impossible to consider that seemingly normal, loving people could be child abusers. The reality is that child abusers often get away with their actions because they can fool those around them into seeing them as kind, loving people who would never harm their children and thus can’t be child abusers. Second, Pingleton reinforces the many justifications child abusers use to defend their actions. Child abusers are rarely malicious or sadistic. More often, they believe that they are just trying to do right by their children, and that pain is how children learn. Yes, Pingleton condemns child abuse, but he seems to lack any understanding of the dynamics of abuse. If he actually understood these dynamics, he would see that his words also serve to make abusers invisible and reinforce their justifications.

Here is an example of how Pingleton others child abusers:

There is a giant chasm between a mild spanking properly administered out of love and an out-of-control adult venting their emotions by physically abusing a child.

In creating this dichotomy between abusive and nonabusive parents, Pingleton is clearly putting Adrian Peterson’s actions in the “out of control adult venting their emotions by physically abusing a child” category. But there has been no indication that Peterson was out of control (i.e. that Peterson was not in careful control of his actions the entire time) or that he was venting his emotions (Peterson has been clear that the punishment was administered to teach his child to not shove other children). Pingleton is trying to shove Adrian Peterson into a child abuse box he has fashioned many sizes too small, because he doesn’t understand who child abusers are or how they operate.

The reality is that there is no “chasm” between “mild spanking properly administered out of love” and “an out-of-control adult venting their emotions by physically abusing a child.”

Instead, there is a sliding scale. There is also no clear and obvious line between a “spanking” and a “beating.” This is what corporal punishment advocates like Pingleton miss. Adrian Peterson was not on one side of this scale or the other—he was somewhere in between. Different people put the line between acceptable parental behavior and abuse at different points on that line, as is made obvious by the fact that some Americans have defended Peterson’s actions as not abusive. This idea that there is a “chasm” between reasonable discipline and child abuse is nonsense.

We often have this caricature of a child abuser in our mind—out of control, angry—and while some abusers do fit that profile others do not. But when we believe abusers look like this caricature we have created, we create a situation where Adrian Peterson can still insist that he is not a child abuser—because he does not look like that. But the reality is that child abusers often don’t look like that at all. In fact, sometimes they look like this:

This idea that child abusers are some sort of monsters and that normal, loving people do not abuse their children a serious, serious problem.

It allows us to miss and overlook very real abuse because the perpetrators are nice, and smile, and say the right things. The reality is that abusers are very good at fooling others and looking picture perfect, and if we don’t understand that we will be likely to brush warning signs under the rug when they do appear.

Pingleton goes on:

It is vital, however, that spanking be administered within proper guidelines. The reports about the punishment meted out by Peterson to his son, and the consequent injuries his son suffered, indicate his behavior on that occasion was far outside those boundaries.

If this is what he wants to argue, Pingleton needs to drop his whole “we won’t go wrong if we exercise a firm and consistent hand with a soft and loving heart” schtick, because Peterson followed that short line of advice and did go wrong. Does Pingleton seriously think that parents who abuse their children don’t believe in being firm and consistent and administering discipline out of love? Does he not know that most parents who abuse their children say things like “this is for your own good” and “I’m only doing this because I love you”? Is he unaware that child abusers say things like “children need a firm hand” and “we have to be consistent”?

I’m glad that Pingleton recognizes that Adrian Peterson abused his child, but I’m troubled by his total lack of understanding of why it happened. He seems completely unaware that what he thinks is a caution against abuse—”we won’t go wrong if we exercise a firm and consistent hand with a soft and loving heart”—is in fact the very argument Peterson used to insist that there was nothing wrong with what he did when he left his son with open lacerations. If Pingleton wants to protect children from being abused, he needs to stop making abuse-enabling statements like that.

That Pingleton has no understanding of the dynamics of abuse is bizarre given that he is the director of Focus on the Family’s counseling program.

Pingleton goes on to give some guidelines for appropriate corporal punishment. He says that it should only be used in “cases of willful disobedience or defiance of authority,” and that “a child should always receive a clear warning” first and understand why they are being punished. The punishment should take place in a private area and should be “lovingly administered” and should not involve “the potential to cause physical harm.” Afterwards, the child should be told once again why they were punished, to ensure that they understand and have learned the intended lesson.

From what I have read, it appears that the only point where Peterson did not follow Pingleton’s advice was in causing physical harm—the open lacerations. But once again, the line here is less obvious that Peterson thinks. My own mother carefully followed the guidelines Pingleton laid out, but she did on very rare occasions leave bruises or welts, and on one occasion she drew blood with a switch. She nevermeant to leave bruises or welts, and certainly never intended to draw blood that one time. But when you’re hitting your child’s soft, bare bottom with a wooden paddle or a switch cut from a tree (my mother used both), it’s harder to make sure you don’t leave bruises, welts, or cuts than one might think. And as Peterson has said many times, he never intended to leave open lacerations—he did not realize that the switch he used would do that much damage to his son’s skin.

What I’m trying to point out is that while Pingleton thinks he is drawing an obvious and simple line between abuse and appropriate discipline, the line he is drawing is not nearly as obvious or clear as he thinks. A parent following Pingleton’s guidelines for administering corporal punishment can leave marks on a child completely unintentionally. After all, striking a child naturally involves some risk of harm. Lydia Schatz’s parents used a plastic switch to administer corporal punishment. This switch broke down the girl’s muscle tissue, and when fragments of muscle tissue entered her bloodstream it caused liver failure.

Lydia’s parents never intended for this to happen and in fact had no idea it could happen, but Lydia still died.

Later on in his article, Pingleton makes it very clear that corporal punishment should hurt. After explaining that parents have a responsibility to discipline their children, Pingleton quotes from the Bible:

No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Hebrews 12:11)

Pingleton argues that teaching children right from wrong should hurt—even that it must hurt—but that it’s for the child’s own good and will yield longterm fruits. This idea that discipline has to hurt, but will pay off in the long run—this was also part of Adrian Peterson’s justification for his actions. Whether Pingleton realizes this or not (and given his understanding of the dynamics of abuse it is likely that he does not), this is yet another argument commonly used by abusers—what they’re doing should hurt, they say, because that’s the only way the child will learn their lesson.

In his texts to his son’s mother, Peterson explained that the reason he went on for so long was that the child did not cry. He took that as an indication that he wasn’t hitting hard enough to get the message across—because getting the message across had to involve pain. Because of his belief that correcting his child’s actions must involve pain, Peterson denied that he had done anything wrong.

Pingleton ends his article with this paragraph:

Parenting is a hard job. None of us do it perfectly. And to make it even more challenging, none of our kids come with an instruction manual attached. But our children need us to do it to the best of our ability, with all the wisdom, love, gentleness and strength we can muster. We won’t go wrong if we exercise a firm and consistent hand with a soft and loving heart.

Pingleton finishes with the same sentence with which he began. He clearly wants to emphasize it. Pingleton says over and over again that abuse is a tragedy and is wrong, wrong, wrong, but he does not seem to recognize that his own words are inadvertently reinforcing child abusers’ justifications for their actions. Does he not realize that child abusers say things like “I’m only trying to make them a better person“? How is he unaware that child abusers say things like “pain is how children learn“?

Ultimately, this is one of my biggest problem with the arguments made by advocates of corporal punishment. Most of their arguments in favor of corporal punishments are the same arguments used by child abusers to justify their abuse. Their only caution against abuse appears to be clarifying that corporal punishment should be administered out of love rather than anger, but this plays into incorrect stereotypes about what child abuse looks like and is less helpful than they seem to think. Suggesting that parents use their own judgement to make sure they don’t go to far is equally unhelpful.

Most child abusers tell their children they are doing this because they love them, and most would deny that they’ve gone too far, or that they ever intend to harm their children.

How can Pingleton not see how his own words can be used to justify not only corporal punishment he considers appropriate but also actual child abuse? How can he not see that child abusers are not all evil monsters venting their anger on their children, and that suggesting that there is a huge “chasm” between child abusers and other parents serves to keep parents from self reflection and prevent people from seeing child abuse right in front of their eyes? How can he be Focus on the Family’s head of counselingand not see this?