Spanking, Littleton, and Willows
Tanya Coyle Cassingham, October 2000


On Monday, April 19, I logged onto the parenting web site that I visit almost daily. The survey question for the day was, "Do you spank your children?" As I clicked the "No" button I thought that surely, in this day and age, the overwhelming response would be identical to mine. I was dismayed when the current results popped up on the next screen: 67% of the respondents said "Yes."

I clicked on the chat feature and opened the page where the survey question was discussed. Most of the comments were from those of us who said "No," giving all the usual reasons why spanking isn't an appropriate form of discipline. Throwing in my two cents, I mentioned that the American Academy of Pediatrics had taken a stand against spanking. I said that no matter what you called it, it is still hitting your child. I said it teaches them that physical violence is a way to resolve conflicts.

The next day, the massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, CO took place.

Now, I'm not saying that every child who is spanked will grow up to become a maladjusted, gun-toting homicidal teenager. Most of them won't. But the fact that 67% of an upwardly mobile, net-surfing, supposedly educated group believes that physical violence is an acceptable form of conflict resolution speaks volumns.

One has only to read Grimm's fairy tales to realize that humans have a long tradition of mistreating and disrespecting their offspring. We also have a history of slavery, racism, and spousal abuse which were once commonly accepted but are now against the law, and are unacceptable. Yet hitting your child is still not only legal, but socially acceptable.

Oh sure, there are laws that protect children. But I know from personal experience that for a DFACS agency to step in, the abuse has to be horrendous. I had a close friend in high school who got pregnant, and had a child far too young. She and her young husband lived in deplorable conditions, trying to make it on their own. Partly, I believe, because of their own upbringings, partly because of the overwhelming stress they were under, they gave in to their baser instincts of rage. I began to see signs of abuse and neglect in the baby. The occasional bruised legs and arms in a child too young to walk; diapers left unchanged all day; apathy and hopelessness in the parents. After agonizing for weeks, I finally placed a call to the loca DFACS. I was told that I could not remain anonymous, that I would have to personally press charges against the parents -- my friends. Furthermore, the harried social worker explained, only about 5% of such cases ended up with any action being taken. She went on to say that even if action were taken, the baby could end up in a foster home under even worse conditions. Was I sure that I wanted to continue with my formal complaint? I wasn't. I hung up and sobbed for a while, then did what I could to help out. I babysat, giving them time off, and tried to be a positive presence in the baby's life. But my faith in the child welfare system was irreparably damaged.

Studies have shown that adults who were spanked as kids are much more likely to spank their own kids. Sociologists have theorized that children grow up to dissociate from the anger they feel toward their parents for the spankings: they cannot associate the person they love most in the world with the person hitting them. Thus they grow up with the anger either partially or totally suppressed, until they have their own children. Then it is likely that the act of "disciplining" their children through spanking is actually a channel for them to expel rage at their own parents. In other words, you're not really spanking your child, you're beating the crap out of your own parent(s) as pay-back.

So it would seem that our kids are completely at our mercy. For many of us, parenting wields the highest degree of power and control we will ever have. Forget the behavioral studies about how your parenting will influence your child's future. I'm talking about right now, this minute. Every parent in the world has the power to walk up to their child and MAKE them do something. Anything. From "Clean your room," a resonable command, to "pick up every pebble in the driveway or I'll kill you." There is no other relationship in the world in which we will have opportunity to wield such power over another human being.

The day that I participated in the survery about spanking, I thought of how huge a double standard we have for our children. Let's say you are in a grocery store and you are pushing your cart behind a man and a woman who are bickering about what to buy. Suddenly the man reaches over and slaps the woman, on the bottom, the arm, maybe even the face. A hard slap that resounds along the aisle. You would (hopefully) be appalled, outraged. You think about intervening, but.... Well, you know. Maybe they'll just go home. You continue down the aisle and watch the man get angrier as the woman still refuses to comply with him. She seems unbelievably stubborn, you think. Why doesn't she just give in? What could they be arguing about? They stop walking, and now the man delivers a series of slaps and blows to her, shouting that she had better SHUT UP NOW. At this point you and other shoppers intervene. Perhaps a store employee calls the police. The man may be arrested for simple battery. The police officer may explain, as the man is lead away, "It is illegal to hit your wife, or anyone else."

Now let's take the same scenario, but with a child. Do I even need to repeat it? I think we all know that there will probably be no intervention, no calling the cops, no arrest. Just a sniffling, completely humiliated child, finally made to "cooperate" by the use of physical violence.

What does this disrespect and humiliation do to children? All you need to do is imagine how you would feel if you were in the grocery with your spouse, and he or she began hitting you and/or yelling at you. Or, for that matter, imagine one of your parents, right now, at whatever age they are, hitting you and yelling at you. That is exactly how a child feels. We are all human, and we all have the same feelings, whether we are 5 or 50. Remember the Golden Rule? Why do so many think this doesn't apply to children and parents? After all, the child-parent bond is said to be the most important relationship in one's life.

I'm sorry if you spank, or spanked, and my opinion hurts you. That is not my intent. Rather, I hope to raise consciousness just a little about the reality of spanking. Should you read this and decide that spanking is still best for your family, so be it. If you used to spank your kids and feel bad about it now, I hope this will provide some healing. You did the best you could at the time. You will have a chance one day to NOT spank your grandkids!

Of course, children do need discipline. But the dictionary defines discipline as "instruction... To train or develop." What would have been an alternative to hitting the kid in the grocery store? What would be an alternative to hitting your spouse? I could name many, and they all have one thing in common: they are time-consuming and require thought. Personally, my rule was after five minutes of unacceptable public behavior, we left. Yes, this meant once leaving a cart half-full of groceries in the middle of the store. My daughter, then 2, was teething and grumpy. She hadn't napped. She fell asleep in the car on the way home. Later we went back to the grocery and she was happy as a lark. I can't imagine how slapping her around in the store could have done any good. Now, at nearly 8 years old, the tantrums are pretty much gone. When necessary, we take away TV privileges, or social plans. We make sure we stick to reasonable routines. More important, we reward her cooperation with increased responsibilities, staying up to watch a special TV program, maybe a trinket, a card, or a special outing. And lots and lots of hugs. We don't assume that she knows we love her and value her; we tell her, often. Are we perfect parents? Heck, no. We screw up, all the time. We get busy and impatient. We don't always listen closely. We forget to praise. We miss school conferences. We send the occasional mixed message (gasp). We teach her, by our example, that humans are never perfect.

But we never, ever, hit her. Except that one time. Most of us anti-spanking parents can confess to "just that one time." In my case my child, then 4, was having an awful tantrum, during which she spit in my face. Gut reaction: I reached out and slapped her bottom. Believe me, I will never be allowed to forget it. I have been embarassed on at least one occasion, in the middle of heated anti-speaking statements, by my little darling piping up, "Uh-uh, mommy, remember that time you spanked me?" I may try to make light of it now, but I am not proud of that loss of control. Afterward, I felt horribly disconnected from my child, and from my spiritual source. I had to sit down with my sobbing child and explain that I had lost my temper, that even though her spitting at me was totally unacceptable, I was sorry I hit her. We talked about other things I could have done, and what an appropriate punishment would be. I vowed never to do it again, and I haven't.

I don't know if the two boys who shot their classmates in Littleton were spanked as kids. I do know that they lived in a society where it is still acceptable to do so. Where violence, whether in fantasy video games, movies, or the newspaper, is a way of life. I believe we all know that they felt disrespected, dishonored, disconnected. Some of us may remember feeling the same way as teens. I often hear parents say of their teens, half-joking, "they really should be locked away somewhere until they are at least 18." Maybe there is a tendancy to push our teens away emotionally, because they are pushing for independence. This is the paradox of the teen years: you need to push your parents away while at the same time you need them to be close, more than ever. I pray that when my daughter is a teen, I can be a willow. Let her push on me and bend me, but keep my roots firmly planted. I pray I will always bend toward her when she pushes, not away.

Tanya Coyle Cassingham:

Ms. Cassingham worked as a journalist in New Orleans in the 1980s and moved to Atlanta in 1986. She recently completed a novel which she expects to have published next year. She currently works at Emory University as assistant to the chairman of Microbiology where she writes grants and edits journal articles. She is also an AIDS activist.

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