That is a difficult question.
My parents hit me on two occasions, both of which are branded in my memory. These incidents are two of the few early memories I can trust, because there are no pictures of these happy events, no evidence outside of several biased witnesses.
I was about to turn five, and we were moving from the only home I had ever known, a tiny 4-room house in Lake Hopatcong, NJ on a dead-end street. There were about ten other kids my age living on this street, so there was always someone to play with. We traveled as a pack, roaming the block alone, our parents knowing that as we moved from yard to yard there was always some mother at home, watching.
We were moving into a larger, older, more isolated home. An Eastern Orthodox church to the right and a farm house tucked into the woods on the left and no other neighbors for what felt like miles.
I didn’t want to go. I was happy where we were.
My mother told me that I had to clean up my room because the Hambugers—that was their name—were coming to look at our house, and possibly, to buy it.
I sprang into action: cutting up bits of paper and strewing them on the floor. Dumping as many of my toys as I could into my sister, Jennifer’s, crib. I was surveying my handiwork, quite proud of myself, when my parents walked into the room.
That was spanking number one.
Now of course, my parents were probably totally stressed out. Here they were trying to sell the house, scraping their pennies together to bring me to a town with the best school district their money could buy. I don’t blame them for being angry.
But, had they been attune to what I was feeling in that moment, there might have been a conversation that took place. Something about me being sad, or scared, to move away. Something about all the great things that awaited me in our new home—my own room, new friends, a big backyard to play in with large rocks for scrambling and hickory trees for collecting nuts and a big sandbox for digging.
I see it, now, as a moment where we really missed each other.
The second time I was spanked was in the new home. I was probably about seven or so. Jennifer and I were painting in the dining room, a room, I should add, in which we rarely ate, when Jennifer spilled the red paint on my mother’s straw rug. Now, a straw rug probably isn’t the most practical decorating choice for a dining room. All sorts of things were probably embedded in that rug. And I’m not sure why we were painting in the dining room in the first place.
When my mother came in, she freaked out, “Who dropped paint on my straw rug?” she demanded to know.
“Not me,” my sister and I replied in unison. Only when I said it, it was THE TRUTH and when she said it, it was A LIE. Mom summoned dad (the big guns) to try extract the REAL STORY from us. We continued to blame each other. Since it was not clear to them who was telling the truth (though Jenny was quite skilled in the art of deception and I sucked at it, somehow they didn’t know this yet), we both were spanked raw.
I say raw, because by the time dad was done and had sent us to our rooms, our tushies were glowing red. We snuck out, got wet washcloths, and gently laid them on each other’s butts. Five minutes earlier we were ready to sell each other out, now we were joined in solidarity against our common enemy.
But I still tell my mother that it was Jenny, that I didn’t deserve that spanking, and can work up a lot of righteous rage, 35 years later.
Okay, so maybe I’m not scarred for life, but in my mind, neither of these spankings was justified.
So is spanking every justified?
I think I would have smacked Sophie across the bottom if, unknowingly had ran out into the street as a toddler, (like my husband Kevin did, though, he tells me, the spankings were unsuccessful in deterring him from future breaks and eventually his parents just decided to move so he didn’t wind up eviscerated by the tank-like cars that were made in the 70s). Or if she tried to stick a wet finger in a socket, or engaged in a similar life-threatening behavior where I wanted to draw a quick association between the dangerous act and pain.
But Sophie never did these things. I told her to stay away from the road, and she did. I told her “no” when she went near things she should touch, and she’d look stricken and move away.
The moments I am most tempted to strike Sophie—because I have been tempted, and I think I would have to be a saint not to be at least occasionally tempted to hit her—I am angry. Frustrated. I JUST WANT HER TO LISTEN.
But what I know in my heart of hearts is that spanking will not accomplish my goal. Not with Sophie. Simply raising my voice induces her to escalate. And, once she does, she is not beyond using her own fists, nails, and teeth to get her point across.
When Sophie is angry, she channels me using my angry voice, my angry words. I can only imagine what she would do if I hit her. Suddenly, in her mind, physical violence would be justified. Self-defense.
Your honor. She hit me first.
And where does it end, really? I try to play it out in my mind—through to its completion. Do I think a spanking would end the incident? That she would discover some new corner of respect and apologize. Oh no. She would rise in indignance, cognitions fueling emotions fueling cognitions fueling emotions in a whirlwind of growing ferocity that would result in some thing like this:
“Mommy! You are not allow to hit me! I am just a little girl! You are the parent! You are supposed to teach me the right thing!” (She really does make such accusations.)
And either I would be more steeped in my anger, or worse, I would be overcome with guilt, “Sophie, I’m sorry. Mommy lost control. I should have never hit you.”
“THAT’S RIGHT,” she would scream, now confident that she has the upper hand, wielding guilt as her weapon.” “YOU HURT ME. I’M GOING TO TELL DADDY.”
I know that some people believe hitting can inspire fear, and what I think they would deem a healthy amount of fear and might even translate as respect. Maybe they feared their own parents in this way and thought it was an effective parenting style—they behaved or they needed it because they didn’t behave.
In order for me to respect someone, I need to think that person worthy of my respect. There needs to be something about that person that I admire, that I seek to emulate, not that I fear.
And even if spanking does inspire fear and cessation of bad behavior in the short term, research has found that children who are hit tend to act out more in the long term. A recent study of 2,500 children published in Pediatrics found that those who are spanked more frequently at age three were much more likely to be aggressive by age five.
More aggressive? Oy vey. No thank you.
And so, l remove myself from the situation. I take deep breaths. I swear a blue streak in my head, but I keep my hands to myself.
At least today I did.