Have you stopped beating your son, yet?

You're only supposed to answer "Yes" or "No" to that question. So either way... you're hooped.

It's an old joke, see?
Isn't it funny?
Ha, ha.

Go ahead. Ask me if I've stopped beating my son, yet.

No. Wait. First, ask me about the time I was with my tree-planting crew up in way-northern British Columbia, and it got so hot that our steel shovels were making sparks when they hit rocks, and starting fires on the cut-block.

We had to go on Fire Watch, which meant that we woke up at three o'clock (that's a.m., you pansies) for breakfast and were planting by four-thirty, so we could get in a solid day's work before knocking off by one in the afternoon when it got too dangerous.

Well, most of us knocked off. One guy had to stay on the block for an hour afterwards to make sure none of our little mini-shovel-fires spread and cost the logging company we were working for a bajillion dollars to put out. Sucked to be him.

I never had to do that, though. I got to go back to the logging camp we were tenting near, and try to stay awake for six o'clock dinner. We'd sit around, play chess, take showers -- whatever. There was this one guy -- his name was Marco, I think -- who insisted on ice-water showers. That was all fine and good for him, I suppose, but our three showerheads happened to be all hooked together, and you had to toggle the handles together to arrive at a compromised temperature that everybody could live with.

So there I was, sitting with Marco outside the shower and counting the guys in line (praying my little heart out that I wouldn't end up in there at the same time as him), when for some reason the conversation moved around to spanking. Marco let slip that his parents never spanked him growing up, and I thought, "Aha! Now it all makes sense!"

See, I was taught that one of the most important verses in the Bible said that if you didn't beat your kids a little, they'd grow up rotten. And Marco, who'd never been beaten at all, was obviously trying to make up for it with a little icewater S&M.

There was something wrong with him, that's for sure. There had to be. Because if you want kids to turn out all right, you have to spank 'em. Fact of life.

All right.

Go ahead with that first question.


Yes, I've stopped beating my son. Well, stopped spanking him... if you wanna be technical about it. And I never really spanked him much. Never particularly hard, and not on his bare butt, like I always got. Just a few quick swats when he did something really rotten.

Fact is, he and I had this game we'd play where he'd do something I didn't like, and after a short time-out I'd put him over my knee and ask if he wanted Big Spankings or Little Spankings. He'd invariably say "little spankings," so I'd give him the lightest of swats and send him on his way.

I wanted to encourage him away from the use of force to achieve desired results, and had a hard time ignoring the irony of spanking him for, say, hitting another kid.

Still, I had been spanked, and I'd turned out all right... hadn't I? 

I always knew my parents loved me, and I didn't harbor any ongoing resentment for the odd bottom-swat or two.

Or... did I?

Shortly after my marriage, when I was floundering in an emotional morass I didn't understand, I bolted awake one night in my first full-fledged panic attack. It was because of a recurring nightmare I'd had as a child -- a sort of vague, indescribable terror that perhaps could best be hinted at as a mashup of fear, inadequacy, and impending doom.

I got out of bed, left the bedroom, and started to pace. 

I was freaked.

I didn't know what was happening, or why. I paced, and paced, and paced. And then I did the only thing I knew how to do -- the only therapy I'd ever been able to connect with: I picked up a pen and paper and I started to write. I wrote page after page.

I wrote in a frenzy.

I wrote for what felt like an hour, and when I was done writing I had scribbled my way to an answer -- an explanation of my recurring nightmare that until that day had been nothing but an inchoate terror. By wordifizing that terror, I robbed it of its power. It was gone, and I never had it (or a panic attack) again.

This is what that nightmare was: it was Fear of my Father.

Now, don't get me wrong. I cannot recall a single instance where my dad ever hit me in anger. He was and is a gentle, calm, kind man. He taught me my dislike of guns, and my qualified pacifism. My dad taught me that real men don't resort to violence to communicate their frustration with big, seemingly-insurmountable problems. My dad met life with good humor, good sense, and a willingness to turn the other cheek.

Perhaps that was why I -- a very sensitive, emotional boy -- was so deeply affected by the few times when my dad did get angry. Why that anger seeped into my heart as a tidal-wave-roar, blasting me and running right over me... making me feel useless and worthless and hopeless.

So I, too, have raised my son gently.

I have generally taken the way of peace -- talking him through what he's done. Trying to get him to see how what he's done has violated the Golden Rule, and then disciplining him with the (non-violent) consequences of his actions.

But sometimes, I haven't. Sometimes I've told myself that a spanking was the only way to get through to him, and I have spanked him. And sometimes, for the briefest of seconds, I have seen flashing in his eyes just that same sort of terror that I felt for so long, in my nightmares.

I saw my son fear me. I saw him fear my anger and I, too, was afraid.

What had I done?

Dear GOD! What had I done?!?

My son would behave. He would learn to fear me, and behave. He would fear my anger, and so he would hide from me the inevitable parts of himself that he knew might upset me. He would love me with part of himself, because he would know that I would only ever love parts of him. My anger would have taught him that.

I didn't spank him often -- but I don't think I needed to. The effect was there.

So the other day I sat my son down and made him a promise. I told him that I would never spank him again. I would never threaten him with spankings again. There would be consequences when he disobeyed me, sure, but I was very sorry for the times that I had spanked him in the past. That was wrong, and I was done. No more spankings, ever. And it was his job to remind me, if I ever forgot.

He was quite pleased with this.

And I have breathed a sigh of relief, too, as a measure of fear has passed from my life... maybe even forever. I know it will be much, much more difficult for me as a parent without being able to resort to the quick-fix of violence in order to force immediate compliance. I'm glad, though. I didn't sign up for something easy.

In closing, I want to reiterate that I don't feel horribly scarred by my own spanking experience. I had wonderful parents who were slow to anger and rich in love. And I think it's theoretically possible to use spanking effectively and lovingly in your child's life.

Possibly possible.

But I no longer think spanking is some kind of moral imperative. I no longer believe that sparing a beating with a rod ruins a child forever, or even that that is what that Bible verse (Proverbs 13:24) actually meant.

That verse was part of a book written by a shepherd, who used a rod to nudge wayward sheep back toward the flock. Not with anger, but with gentleness. "Thy rod and thy staff they comfort me," he wrote elsewhere.

So yes, I've stopped beating my son.

No more spankings.



  1. Thanks for writing this. I came over from Elizabeth Esther. I have struggled with whether to spank or not for as long as we've had our children. My 7yo is sensitive and emotional and he now fears me. He hides things he does and looks to see if I'm looking before he takes a lot of steps. It's awful. My other two children don't do this at all and don't fear me, but there is something about his spirit that has not benefited from the way we have been disciplining. I've been trying to take a different route of holding him and hugging him through his frustrations which has helped, but I still feel at a loss for when I get angry (which doesn't involve spanking, but my obvious frustration and visible anger and yelling). I've been sending myself to my room, but that isn't always practical as I'm often in the middle of cooking when these situations arise. Then I send everyone else to their room. I feel selfish, but know the alternative is worse. Then I bang on the floor or throw a stuffed animal across the room and scream cuss words in my head and that usually helps me feel better.
    I'm interested in studying more about the verse re: spare the rod, spoil the child. I had always thought that it meant that children will most likely need spankings, I've never heard of it in the way you describe it. It makes more sense and seems to align with Jesus' gentle spirit. There's was an article in Parenting Wild Things yesterday that I'm heading over to read now.

    1. Thank you for your thoughts, Kate. I certainly don't have answers, but I'm glad to be a part of the conversation. Hope you find the peace and tranquility amid the storm. It's hard, I know. The only thing I can say is, keep asking questions. Ask them with your mind and your spirit, and listen to the answers you give yourself. Love is bigger than your anger -- I believe that.


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