SpankFree Parenting Part 1: Can We Have a ScreamFree Conversation?
[Before you start reading this, please note: this article is a bit longer than what you may be used to. I’m inviting us all into a thoughtful conversation about an emotion-filled topic, and I find that hard to do in our modern brief blog format.]
Years ago, when we at ScreamFree were just starting out, we would tour the countryside with our then self-published book, ScreamFree Parenting. This meant selling books out of the backs of our cars, doing book signings with maybe 2 people showing up, and even setting up booths at local fairs. Anything and everything to get the word out about this “revolutionary” way of parenting (according to us).
One time, at the Duluth Fall Festival here in Georgia, I was approached by an obviously agitated father. He came at me with indignation, demanding an answer to his one question. Looking up at our sign emblazoned with the title of our program, he pointed his finger at me and asked, “Have you ever spanked your kids?!?!” I could tell he was looking to put me on the witness stand as soon as he walked up, but I was still a bit surprised by the challenge.
“Yes,” I admitted.
“Thank you!” was all he said, as he hurriedly stormed away. His reply told me that he felt vindicated somehow. My reply told me that I had wasted an opportunity. By reluctantly acquiescing to his confrontation, with only a one-word confession, I missed the chance to invite this man into a new way of thinking. After all, that’s my job as a therapist, author, and educator.
I can do better.
I could have answered him differently. All I gave him were the facts, when I could have told him the truth: “Unfortunately, yes. On two occasions I swatted my son.” All I gave him was an answer, when I could have led him into a hidden question: “Why do you ask? What answer are you hoping for?” This could have, perhaps, led us to a calmer, deeper conversation about parenting in general. Perhaps we could have even had a ScreamFree conversation about spank-free parenting.
And that’s what I’m hoping to initiate here in this series. What I believe the world needs, if we are to continually elevate our parenting to higher and higher standards, are calm and thoughtful conversations. Nothing stirs up the emotions like talking about our kids, and that’s why cooler heads are needed if we hope to lead them well. This is especially true when it comes to the practice of spanking.
As you have no doubt noticed, spanking is quite the hot-button issue. The anxiety-filled divide between those for and against can sometimes make the aisle between House Republicans and Democrats look small. This is largely why we at ScreamFree have avoided taking the issue head on. See, up to this point we’ve always wanted to gain as wide an audience as possible. Knowing how emotionally charged the spanking issue could be, we did not want to introduce an easy way for many well-intentioned parents to easily dismiss us. As much as we would love to promote a spanking-free world, we have, up to this point, chosen not to die on that hill. Until last week, that is.
Two Sundays ago, I chose to wade into the waters of the corporal punishment controversy. I posted some of my initial thoughts about the Adrian Peterson child abuse/spanking case. Five thoughts, to be exact. This represented the first time I had ever specifically spoken out, in print, against spanking.
What sparked it for me was watching several ex-players like Keyshawn Johnson and Ray Lewis talk about how “whoopings with switches” was the way they were raised, how most kids were and are still raised in the culture/region they grew up in, and how this kind of discipline is what made them the successful men they are today.
I have to admit, I found myself feeling triggered. Do you know what I mean by “triggered”? It’s like what happens when the doctor taps your knee with that rubber triangle hammer. But instead of your leg jerking up, your emotions act out. Something hammers a tender spot deep in your psyche, and you react. And very often, you jerk in reaction. And if you’re not careful, you can become a jerk yourself. Hold that thought. Back to the TV.
At that point in the broadcast, I was sensing a growing sense of rage within me. I started thinking about all the abused kids, and the adults-abused-as-kids, I’ve counseled, all emotionally or physically injured in the name of parents exercising their state-sanctioned and biblically-informed discipline.
I started thinking about all the current parents I know who, like Johnson, carry around a confusing conflict within them. He admitted he was whooped as a child, and he needed such spankings to become successful. But he also admitted that he would never lay his hands on his own children. This can leave parents with a profound challenge to their own integrity—not knowing how to honor their parents’ decisions while choosing not to continue their same actions.
Finally, I started thinking about my own family, and the numerous stories (and memories) of spankings with belts, switches, shoes, kitchen utensils, open palms and closed fists, going back multiple generations.
I was feeling and thinking all of this, and then Cris Carter, ex-wide receiver for the Minnesota Vikings, spoke up. He agreed with everyone about being raised that way by his courageous single mother. But then Carter floored the room.
My mom did the best job she could do, raising seven kids by herself. But there are thousands of things I have learned since then, that my mom was wrong [about]! This is the 21st century! My mom was wrong—she did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me! And I promised my kids I won’t teach that mess to them! You can’t beat a kid to make ‘em do what you want them to do. Thousand of things we have learned since then.
I don’t think I’m out of line to assert that in many circles, is sacrosanct to criticize your mother in the African-American community. Especially the single mothers that have so wonderfully helped hold that community together for decades.
Well, seeing Carter be that bold and that brave, I started to craft my thoughts. I figured it was time to employ my platform as a parenting expert and enter the conversation. Here were my five points:
- Adrian Peterson is not accused of spanking. He is accused of inflicting visible harm upon a child, in the name of spanking. To use this case as an argument that parents today are not allowed to parent is a defense of abuse, not spanking.
- At the same time, there is no longer any parental justification for spanking of any kind. Spanking has now been scientifically linked to decreasing student performance, self-esteem, conflict negotiation skills, and even IQ and brain mass.
- The biblical argument for spanking is ridiculous. I have been trained in the ancient languages and “spare the rod, spoil the child” was never meant literally. The “rod” was a reference to one of the tools of a shepherd, who used his rod to steer the sheep in the right direction when they went astray. He would not ever put a sheep across his lap and use his rod to punish it. For us, the rod is the rod of discipline. Thus, the meaning of “spare the rod, spoil the child” is that whenever we neglect to apply the natural, logical consequences of our child’s choices, we spoil them with a delusional view of the world and their place in it.
- Just because you were spanked as a child, and you believe you turned out fine, does not just justify spanking. That reasoning could justify anything that happened to view as a child. “I got hit by a car as a kid, but I turned out fine.” Ludicrous.
- And, just because you were spanked as a child and turned out fine does not mean that one led to the other. Like Adrian Peterson, I, too was raised in a spanking household in East Texas. In fact, I am a fifth generation East Texan. And everyone in my family was spanked with weapons throughout our childhoods. That any of us have turned out well means we survived that experience not thrived because of it.
Initially, I thought my biggest problem with the whole conversation was the departure of logic. That’s the gist behind all the points above, right? It just doesn’t make sense to defend spanking by citing an abuse case. It doesn’t make sense to continue spanking when there is so much scientific evidence against it. It doesn’t make sense to use a religion of peace and love to justify physical punishment. It doesn’t make sense to attribute your current adult success to just one aspect of your childhood. It doesn’t make sense to locate your past geographical culture as a reason to reflexively continue its practices. These are logical arguments, and I thought I was presenting them logically.
But who are we kidding. It’s obvious by my rhetoric that my biggest problem was not intellectual, it was emotional. As I mentioned above, I allowed myself to get triggered, at a deep level, by the irrational defenses I was hearing, by the photos of Peterson’s wounded son, and by the growing cacophony of defensive voices across social media. And I got emotionally reactive to my own levels of pain and shame, stemming from my childhood experiences and the experiences of my family members going back multiple generations.
In other words, I screamed. I used words in my argumentation like “ludicrous” and “ridiculous,” which were not meant to inclusively persuade people’s minds, but exclusively shame people’s positions. I used phrases like “all my family members” and “throughout our childhoods,” which were not meant to accurately represent, but exaggerate for effect. These were reactively chosen, I admit. As a writer, speaker, and therapist, my words are my currency, and I work hard to spend them wisely. If what I’m truly going for is to create generational change, then reactively choosing words to exclude, shame, and exaggerate is committing a cardinal sin: neglecting what I want most (lasting family transformation), for what I want right now (immediate personal vindication).
Finally, I chose a word, “weapons,” to label the instruments used for spanking in multiple generations of my family. I thought a lot about this word before I chose it, and even felt uncomfortable putting it out there. But then I saw the wounds on Adrian Peterson’s 4-year-old son. Then I recalled stories handed down in my family about various instruments being used for punishment. Then I recalled my own memories of stuffing my pants with Charmin to soften the blows I knew were coming, and then being stripped bare so as to better get the point across.
“Weapons” is indeed a provocative word. But its basic definition, “any instrument used to inflict bodily harm” means it could be the perfect word to describe what was allegedly in Adrian Peterson’s grasp. It could be the perfect word to describe the 3-foot-long paddle hanging in our middle school Vice Principal’s office, with holes drilled out of the middle to make it more aerodynamic. It could be the perfect word to describe a leather belt folded in half, or a wooden yardstick broken from the blows, or a shoe hurtled through the air, like Eddie Murphy described so flawlessly in his stand-up routine.
But if I’m honest, I chose that word not to be accurate, but to be inflammatory. If I’m honest, I wanted it to sting, perhaps as badly as switches and belts themselves. If I’m honest, I chose “weapons” because I’m not fully healed on the inside, regardless of how healthy I appear to the outside world as a relationship expert. And in so doing, I know that I hurt some family members that I care about. While I disagree that I have somehow dishonored our family’s reputation, I can understand that seeing any revealing or disparaging words in print could hurt.
I apologize; I can do better.
And I will in this series. Over the next couple of weeks, we at ScreamFree are going to publish a number of podcasts and articles that promote a calm conversation about spanking. This series will try to cover all the five points I listed in my first Facebook post, but do so in a much fuller, and much less shaming, way. We will look at the various arguments pro- and con-, paying special attention to the Judeo-Christian positions that so many parents invoke, as well as the scientific findings of the last 20 years. Finally, we will strive to show how ScreamFree Parenting offers a clear path for parents who wish to uphold their clear authority in home, and employ the power of clear consequences to guide their children.
And, in an effort to be inviting and inclusive, and to invoke in all of a spirit of non-judgmental transparency, here’s how I will choose to begin:
Hi, my name is Hal, and I’m a spanker. (Now, you’re supposed to say, “Hi, Hal” in unison, in 12-step group protocol.) Yes I, Hal Runkel, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, and the creator of ScreamFree Parenting, have spanked my kids.
How about you?