I witnessed a child being spanked and I had a visceral response.
I literally wanted to throw up.
I wanted to pummel the dad and rescue the young girl.
I wanted to tell her she wasn’t bad and she was enough and that this pain was not a notion of love.
I was going to march down there with a good dose of information and research and my high horse and throw the book at him. YOU’VE BEEN SERVED!
But I didn’t.
Part of me regrets not standing up for her. The other part of me knows that while my intent was there, my approach would likely fall on guarded ears.
In my scheming for ways to inform this parent, I came across what I initially considered an absurd thought. Yet no matter how many times I attempted to shoo it away, it kept circling back into my consciousness.
What if we had compassion for the parents who spank their children instead of shaming them?
Oddly enough, me marching down there would have only contributed to a process where shame begets shame, likely not too different from what he may have received from his own attachments at some point in his formative years … the same shame he was now passing on to his daughter like a baton in an ancestral relay race.
Humans rarely do things just to do them. Our nervous system fires in such a way that it aims to do what is familiar because familiar feels safe. While we can never assume another person’s emotional history, I will say that when parents spank it is often a symptom of something else.
Maybe they were once the recipient.
Maybe they don’t see their emotional wounding.
Maybe they don’t want to see it.
Maybe they feel they turned out fine.
Maybe they feel they don’t have any other tools.
What I do know is that if we want the parents who use spanking as a child-rearing tool to consider a different way, attacking them isn’t the answer. As a species, when we feel threatened, our bodies activate a protective response. We fight. We flee. We freeze. What we are not doing in those moments is taking in new information, considering it, and learning.
To advocate for the children who fall subject to corporal punishment, perhaps we must witness the inner child of the punisher.
Why Do Parents Spank
It is safe to assume that most parents don’t get a thrill from spanking their children. Using corporal punishment is something people are conditioned to do. It is a socialized response. Let’s take a look at why someone may choose to spank their child.
For some, there is a good chance that their own behavior and emotions were met with emotional and physical pain causing them to conflate abuse and love as they were told that, via their actions, they “asked for it” and that the swat was “for their own good.”
When a caregiver chooses to inflict physical and emotional pain, worry, fear, and shame to reform behavior and achieve obedience, and then also applies love and affection in the moment to define love, it perpetuates something called trauma bonding. It wires the circuits of the psyche, connecting love with pain, fear, control, and discomfort.
Fast forward and well-meaning parents who love their children respond to them in the ways they were taught, by the definitions of love laid out for them. It takes awareness and commitment to rewire those circuits.
But I Turned Out Fine
Some adults who were spanked as children admit that it hurt and that they did what it took to avoid being hit, yet they still defend it. When children are forced to abandon who they are in order to appease their caregiver and escape pain - aka survive - it can cause a psychological response that includes sympathy and support for their parents and, in some cases, can manifest in unpleasant feelings towards advocates who speak out against corporal punishment.
Additionally, some simply feel that they turned out fine. We now know this as an anecdotal fallacy, which means that “I am not negatively affected (as far as I can tell), so it must be okay for everyone.” The harm in this is that it takes a sample size of one and generalizes it to the greater. Not every child is the same, and not every parenting method lands on their nervous system the same.
Finally, for other parents who were spanked and continue to spank, acknowledging their child’s pain means acknowledging their own, which isn’t an easy thing to commit to. It may simply be too painful to reflect on their childhood and witness the evidence of their youth.
I Want Respect
Some parents choose spanking because they misconstrue development for defiance. They don’t realize that true authority comes from connection, not the force of a swift hand.
Sometimes people use the word respect to mean “treating someone like a person” and sometimes they use respect to mean “treating someone like an authority.”
Sometimes those who are used to being treated like an authority say, “If you won’t respect me then I won’t respect you” and by that, they mean, “if you won’t treat me like an authority then I won’t treat you like a person.” This, sadly, is often a generational mentality passed down from one to the next until someone chooses to break that cycle.
I Don’t Have Other Tools
Other parents spank their children because they lack the skills and resources to do it differently. They have become conditioned to view spanking as normal and accepted. They were not taught how to accept and manage their own emotions and so, in a stressful situation (which parenting can certainly be), they are unable to think of a better response. They default to what they know, as we often do.
This is where we come in. Not from a place of attacking the spanker but from a place of curiosity to understand the why beneath their behavior, much like we practice with our kids.
Remember, as humans, we can’t learn when we feel threatened and so how we approach our advocation matters. Once they realize they are not under attack and safety is established, they may be more likely to receive the offered information.
We can meet these adults where they are and build from there, much like we do our children. In fact, in many ways, their inner child may be calling out for a lifeline. Choosing connection over shame, you just may be that lifeline.