Willfully Disobedient: I was a “Lovingly” Spanked Child

“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.

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