It Doesn’t Matter If You Turned Out Fine

One of the recurring discussions that pops up on my social media feeds and blog rolls is one that people have strong opinions about: hitting or spanking kids to punish them. One of the most common exchanges/memes I see in regards to spanking goes like this:

“I got hit and I turned out fine.”

“Do you think it’s ok to hit kids? Then you’re not fine.”

I have problems with both elements of this exchange. While I agree that thinking it’s ok to hit children means you probably aren’t a paragon of ethics, I don’t think the response really gets to the heart of the matter. It focuses on the long term effects of spanking rather than recognizing the most important fact: hitting someone is a Bad Thing. It hurts them. You do not need to show any additional harm beyond the actual hitting. You don’t need to show that it causes psychological damage later in life. Hitting another person all on its own is inappropriate.

The ONLY way that spanking advocates could show that they are correct is by a. showing that the benefits outweigh the negatives or b. showing that hitting their child does not actually harm the child at all. B seems fairly impossible since you are physically striking the kid. Maybe there’s some level of spanking that doesn’t actually hurt the kid at all, but then why are you doing it if the point is to punish? Obviously you have to cause some physical pain or no one would say that it’s a consequence or a punishment. The point of the action is that the pain or discomfort will deter the child from the behavior in the future.

This is where I start to get confused because some people don’t see that as a bad thing. In ethics, when we talk about harm, the most basic one that people can think of is physical pain. So while we could argue about whether or not there are things that outweigh the harm of getting hit, I truly do not know how else to argue that causing your kid some physical pain isn’t harmful in the here and now. Hitting someone hurts them and that is bad. Ok? Ok.

So we move on to a. The ONLY way that spanking would be justified is if it turns out it is actually a super effective disciplinary method that works SO MUCH better than any other way of raising your kid that it outweighs the immediate harm you’re doing the child.

It’s pretty easy to look around and see tons of amazing, awesome people who didn’t get hit as children. It’s easy to find studies that show negative outcomes of spanking in terms of its use in discipline. It doesn’t make kids better behaved: it makes them more likely to lie, more aggressive, and more reliant on external forms of punishment than internal morality. There appear to be some benefits, like children who comply very quickly to requests, but overall there is no evidence that spanking is more effective than other methods of discipline.

So yeah, it’s possible there are long term consequences to spanking that damage someone’s mental health. But it also doesn’t matter. Because you’re hitting someone. You’re hitting someone who’s defenseless and trusts you. That’s bad. And we don’t have evidence that hitting someone is a miracle cure for bad behavior.

So no matter how many awesome people did get hit, it doesn’t matter. Because the only thing that could ever justify hitting a kid is if there is literally no other way to discipline them without letting them grow up into murderers or rapists or just plain old assholes. And that is just very clearly not the case. So next time someone brings up “well I turned out fine,” point out to them that it’s completely irrelevant! Lots of people turn out just fine with all kinds of disciplinary styles! The fact that your defense of your parents’ child rearing style is “it didn’t fuck me up,” says that you know it’s bad and are looking for an excuse.

No more excuses. There is no evidence that spanking turns out people who are better. And all other things being just about equal, not hitting people is better than hitting people.

Cross posted from We Got So Far To Go.


Olivia is a giant pile of nerd who tends to freak out about linguistic prescriptivism, gender roles, and discrimination against the mentally ill. By day she writes things for the Autism Society of Minnesota, and by night she writes things everywhere else. Check out her ongoing screeds against jerkbrains at www.taikonenfea.wordpress.com

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  1. The analogy for me would be “I drove home drunk one night, and didn’t get in accident”

    Well… good? But it’s still a terrible thing to do because it worked out once.

    1. I would have hated to be my parents after a spanking if telekinesis was even close to real.

      Seriously, spanking me just made me want to hurt them and made it more likely that I wouldn’t care if the only consequences of my actions were their disapproval.

      Overall, a piss-poor deterrent.

      1. Shades of Neon Genesis Evangelion?

        “AT field? Is that what you call this? This is the light of my soul, a sacred territory no one may invade. Don’t you lilim realize? Everyone has an AT field.”

        And that’s before the Most Pretentious Sixty-Four Seconds In Television History.

  2. Well said.

    I’d also add that the number of loud proponents of physically harming children should be offset against those of us, like myself, who are decidedly not fine. I was hit early and often, which provided cover nicely for a physically abusive stepfather. I am 38 and have been through a lot of therapy. I still have nightmares about my family of origin. You can’t justify the damage dealt to me when I was most vulnerable by suggesting that others experienced less harm or less lasting harm.

    Being hit taught me to hate and distrust the people who were supposed to provide safety for me. It left me with lasting physiological damage and multiple extremely negative effects.

    1. Absolutely! I in no way want to diminish that factually it is wrong that spanking causes no long term harm.

  3. I think spanking is narrow view of physical correction. If spanking is invariably assault, then picking up a child or restraining them is as well. But in reality, physical correction can simply be sending a kid to their room, putting them in a high chair, or blocking them from pulling on a dog’s tail. My nieces tackle me when I walk in the door and jump off of the sofa onto my back. Are we really going to rule out any physical touch by their parents that is meant as negative feedback? Even when that touch uses no more force than kids themselves use in a wrestling match over who is king of the mountain? Physical corrections have the advantage of immediacy, but should fade as verbal communication becomes effective.

    1. Hitting is different from restraint in pretty much every context. I don’t think it follows that if spanking is assault, restraining someone is also. Imagine you’re at a bar, and someone starts spanking you. If you then restrain that person, who has assaulted someone? Alternately, if two people are arguing, and a third party restrains one of them to prevent a fight, is there assault there?
      I think you could propose a super broad reading of “assault” as “any physical action taken against one’s will”, but I don’t think that’s how it is used in nearly any context.

  4. People who say “my parents hit me and I turned out just fine” are usually smug, self-satisfied jerks who are living proof that no, they didn’t turn out fine. And I’m very glad that I didn’t have children, because until I figured out that my mother was not actually doing it right I’d have been just as bad.

  5. The spanking wars again! Ugh.

    Background: I have two sons, now 22 & 25. From what I’ve seen, they’ve been more difficult than average to raise.

    I’ve never hit them or spanked them. Not because I have some principle against it (I’m not a principled person), but because I never saw a situation where I thought it would help. I think there are situations where I would have hit them: I remember seeing a child (age 8 or so) biting his father’s finger and not letting go. I thought at the time: I’d whack him on the head until he let go. If nothing else, the shock of someone who’d never hit him before hitting him might startle him into letting go.

    It’s also worth noting that there are lots of situations where people hit one another and it’s not this evil thing. Boxing, martial arts, etc. Spanking as a sexual kink (and, no, it’s not always evidence of some trauma.) So I think the focus on hitting vs. not hitting is misguided.

    It’s also the case that a lot of the ways that parents come up with as a substitute for corporal punishment are worse than being spanked. Shaming, withdrawal of love, criticism, taking away or destroying beloved objects, isolation, etc., typically have worse long-term effects than spanking or even whipping.

    What I don’t do (because it doesn’t work) is punish. I didn’t do it with my kids because it was painfully obvious that it didn’t work. At all. It didn’t work with me when I was a kid, and I could see the exact same thing happening with them. The people who try to “help” you learn to parent call it “consequences” nowadays, but it usually amounts to punishment and is equally useless. My kids — like most kids — wanted to please us. They wanted to do what they were supposed to. But children are mostly ruled by impulse. They don’t have the ability to decide not to do something they want to do and stick to it. What’s in front of them is real, everything else is a half-forgotten dream. My older son is on the autistic spectrum, so he had the added problem of not being able to understand a lot of how people interact — it took him years to understand the concept “authority figure” or why people don’t just rob banks if they feel like it. (I think he sort of got it by high school.) Things slip their minds. Stuff we think should be simple is sometimes just plain impossible for them.

    What did work was to anticipate things. To avoid putting them in situations where their impulses were likely to lead them to do things we couldn’t or didn’t want to let them do. Instead of punishing them for not doing things, follow up, remind them. I’d sit with them to get them to do their homework, in some cases breaking down the tasks to chunks they could do, so that they would have the experience of succeeding at doing what they were supposed to. Not demanding they do things they clearly couldn’t, whether or not I could understand why they couldn’t. Pulling them out of overstimulating situations where we knew they’d act up. Making sure they got enough rest. Other people still were convinced we were The World’s Worst Parents (they made it pretty obvious), but we were getting through the days with a bearable level of drama and trauma.

    If I ever have another child (oh how I wish I could!), I wouldn’t promise that I’d never hit them. But I’d have to see how it would actually make things better. And I’d have to have looked around for a better alternative and not found one. It hasn’t happened yet.

  6. When I was in high school ~15 years ago, we did an impromptu corporal punishment survey in one of my classes.
    1) My hand was the only one in the room that didn’t go up.
    2) The five minutes that followed was a cataphony of “it was a GREAT thing that my parents beat me, and it made me the person that I am today” type comments.
    3) *I* was the one put on the spot to defend my “irregular” experience.

    It was disturbing.

  7. Obviously you have to cause some physical pain or no one would say that it’s a consequence or a punishment. The point of the action is that the pain or discomfort will deter the child from the behavior in the future.

    Actually, I don’t think that’s true, or at least it is only true at the very surface. I was spanked and the pain was clearly the least problematic thing about it. I was a wild outdoors kind of kid. Some part of my body was always bledding and there probably was never a time when I had less than half a dozen bruises. Pain was clearly something that happened often and I got used to it. The pain from my mother’S and occasionally father’s spanking wouldn’t have stopped me any more than the bruises and wounds stopped me from climbing another tree or doing tricks on a bike not suitable for doing tricks.
    The things that made spanking so much worse than everything else was the total loss of control PLUS my mother making it clear that there was something intrinsically wrong with me that required her to hit me because “there was no living with me otherwise”.
    Yeah, spanking was part of her regimen of abuse.

  8. I’m a little late to this but I am going to throw out another idea: some of the discussion over spanking your kid gets into what we know from studies might be best, or might work, or s healthier, all that long-term stuff, and the nitty gritty of raising a kid.

    I can tell you there are all kinds of things my sister does to raise her kids “right” according to what a child psychologist would call correct. And you know what? Many times it’s useless. (I am sometimes convinced that few child psychologists have ever actually interacted with a real child).

    This isn’t because the people studying stuff are wrong, necessarily, but there’s just a huge difference between what is in a longitudinal study and what is happening HERE NOW.

    Most of the time parents –especially those who just worked a 10-hour shift and are trying to put some goddamned food on the table before the little one decides to throw a tantrum AGAIN — you get the idea — just want to get stuff to stop and need things to happen like, now. And you can’t negotiate with a 3-year old.

    None of this makes spanking right, but I suspect that this dynamic is an underlying part of the discussion. Sometimes discussion of child-rearing get caught up in a ton of stuff that isn’t about science or stuff like that; it’s about getting through the day.

    BTW I think this gets into something int he OP- that punishment must be physically painful. It needn’t be, it just needs to get the right emotional effect (underscore consequences). Absent consequences there’s no reason for a kid to not, say, torture animals or beat up other kids. And children will do just that — I always say a schoolyard is a prison yard with less self-restraint.

    For the record I have nieces and nephews, do some work with 3-10 year olds, and grew up in a place where spanking but not smacking a kid hard was ok. The occasional spanks I got were never particularly painful, just embarrassing.

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