Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?

I was raised by parents who firmly believed in “spare the rod, spoil the child.” When we did something wrong, and they found out, it ended in a spanking. Usually with the wooden spoon, though I remember having to go pick my own switch more than once. We’d have to wait in our room upstairs until Mom came up, sat on a bed and said, “Elizabeth, get over here.” God, those words were terrifying. I feel like it always went oldest to youngest, but I may just be making that up. We’d all get punished together, so first was best, because it was over and you could just cry while the other two were getting theirs. Last was the worst, with all the anticipation. In the end, though, I guess it didn’t really matter when you went, it still hurt like hell.

I know at some point in the process, we’d have to say why we were in trouble, what we did wrong, and, I think, ask for forgiveness. At the very least apologize. I’m thinking this was before the hammer fell, because I know I was usually too upset to talk after. Was there a prayer too? My sisters have better memories than I do, they’d know. And the rule was you had to cry. Crying meant you were really sorry, and the bad-behavior demon/devil/evil was broken. That’s not a joke, the devil made us do bad things, made everyone do bad things. My parents did a brief stint at a couple’s therapy group program at the church. When they fought, my sisters and I formed a ring around them, shouted “STRIFE BREAK” and stamped our feet to get the devil out.

I had a weird childhood.

But the spanking was the most normal part I think. Aside from the devil talk, of course. All of our friends were from church, and their parents spanked them, too. One family had a big wooden paddle with “Spare the rod, spoil the child” carved on it. We’d trade stories, maybe share tips. You could never use your hands to cover your backside, one warning to move them and if you didn’t move fast enough, you got a rap across your hands. I know someone at Sunday school tried to shove a pillow down their pants as cushion. I don’t think they succeeded. Or put on an extra pair of pants. That wasn’t an option in our house. We knew if we tried anything like that, it was going to be so much worse. Which was pretty much the point of corporal punishment, right?

I was awful when I was in trouble. Mom would get one whack in and I was writhing on the floor, sobbing hysterically. I had no pride in those moments. My middle sister had all of the pride. She’d refuse to cry. It was amazing now that I think about it, the defiance and will this little girl had – which was the devil hardening her heart, or something like that. I can’t remember how my youngest sister was, I can’t remember if she always tried to cover her butt with her hands or if that was me. I do know Mom hated that. (And I only mention Mom because our father was a total sap. We’d be happy when he was the one who caught us doing wrong, because he felt bad spanking us because we were girls and he didn’t want to hurt us. Then one day we came out snickering about how easy he was, and The Mother was there and heard it all. Back upstairs and the for real shit went down.)

I’ll say this, though, it was effective with us. We were exceptionally well behaved children. We never asked for things at the grocery store. We never rough housed where we weren’t allowed. We didn’t run around a store, or scream inside. We didn’t throw tantrums when we didn’t get our way. And we weren’t miserable or in constant fear. We knew not to act up unless we were prepared for the consequences. We were happy for the most part. I remember being happy more often than not. We didn’t have marks. There wasn’t any other physical punishment or anything that tipped to abuse. Our parents were strict, but generally reasonable. Spanking was completely normal; I assumed everyone’s parents did it. Everyone I knew had been spanked at some point, it’s what parents did to their children. It was in the Bible. Spare the rod, spoil the child.

I was really confused when I started babysitting and learned about timeouts. They seemed beyond pointless to me. Getting sent to your room? That’s where I’d want to be anyways. It’s where my books were. (Or toys for those who weren’t born giant nerds.) Being in a room alone with a book? That was a reward in my world. We didn’t have a big house, and my sisters were annoying all of the time and wouldn’t just leave me alone. 15 minutes of silence was a luxury. How the hell did that work? Rewarding someone for being bad? It just never made sense. No wonder so many kids are horrible, I’d think, they had no discipline from their parents. Kids need structure, need rules, consequences, rewards and punishment. Punishment was obviously physical, that’s the only thing that works.

I’ve grown and changed a lot since I was a babysitter. My friends have had kids, and I’ve brought up spanking more than once to help get their kid under control. I used the same logic that my parents did – spare the rod, spoil the child. When used sparingly, for the worst behavior, it could help the kid. If time outs, taking toys away, no tv, grounding, rational discussions and screaming fits weren’t working, what was left? No one wants their kid to be an out of control monster. Spanking was the solution in my book.

Except, I’ve found, sometimes it’s completely useless.

I tried it out a couple of times on Charlie. Especially just after we’d all started living together. The huge change left him out of sorts and wild. He tested all of his limits and would try to hit or bite, succeeding more than once. That’s the type of behavior that cannot be tolerated, and I knew he could be better. So, I’d swat his butt and put him in time out. But if he was already frustrated and out of control, the spanking just reinforced that mood. I’d lose my temper and have to remove myself from the situation, usually to go outside and smoke a cigarette and cry while Scott got him calmed. I went through the whole routine a few more times before accepting the fact that spanking was not the answer at all for Charlie. Time outs were, which was so weird to realize. The thing I thought of as a joke beat the thing I’d had imprinted in my mind as the proper parenting technique.

I’ll smack the back of his hand sometimes. Like when he’s picked food out of the trashcan, or goes to touch something hot or dangerous, or gets too rough with the dog. It serves more as a focus than a punishment, the whole world is a giant distraction for him, and sometimes I need his full attention and a hand slap will get it for me. But more likely, I’ll restrain him in a bear hug because he’s hitting or biting himself. I’ll sit him in his chair and stand in front of him for a few minutes, blocking his escape. We’ve had more than one battle of wills that I win every time. The battles are less frequent, so is the acting out and being a total monster.

What I’ve learned is the rod can take many forms. I still believe in consequences for actions, but that goes for positive behavior as well as negative. It’s a lot easier to incentivize the good than punishing the bad. And what works for one child doesn’t always work for the other. Cal, I can’t imagine needing to spank. Taking away Cartoon Network or the Wii or the iPod or whatever other gadget is more than enough. Mostly. Sometimes I take everything and send him to bed at 7. I go in and talk to him, settle him down, give him cuddles while he cries, explain what he did wrong, how to not do it again, give him better problem solving skills. There’s a social interaction gap in his thinking, a fact I have to remember. Things make sense to him in a different way than they do for me.

I’m the hardass in the house. Tears do not move my stony heart. Saying sorry doesn’t change the fact that a rule was broken. I want the boys to learn they have to work for the things they want. That the things they have are to be respected. That they are privileges, not rights. That their father and I work hard to give them fun things, and if they aren’t appreciated I’ll take that shit back with a quickness. I don’t revel in being the bad guy, but I’m really good at it. I’ve had The Look mastered since I was 13 and know how to do the Scary Mom Whisper-yell. And in my house, they’re more effective than a swat on the behind.

And that’s what it all comes down to, what’s the best for the child. They have to learn they don’t get everything they want all the time, that there are boundaries, there are unacceptable behaviors. If they aren’t taught, they turn into horrible people. Parents, our job is simple: Don’t raise an asshole. Sometimes that might mean a swat on the bottom. Sometimes a swat won’t work. Whatever your method, use it – there’s enough jerks in the world, we shouldn’t add more.


  1. lilulo12

    I feel like this blog was written from my own head. It’s so funny how often we can have such similar up-bringings and have the same situations as a perfect stranger.

  2. Julia

    Preaaachhh! I have so many thoughts after nannying this summer and would do all of the things if the kids were actually my own.

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