I was spanked as a kid. I remember it as a threat; I remember it happening regularly, open hand on the ass. But I remember the last time I got spanked the most vividly. My cousin and I had been playing the game Girl Talk, and one of the dares told us to prank call somebody. So I picked up the 1980s portable phone with the spike antennae and dialed a random number. An old lady answered. “Hello?” she said. “Bye!” I snipped back and hung up. We laughed uproariously.
We also didn’t know about *69. The phone rang. “Hello?” I said.
“I’d like to speak to your father, please,” said a familiar voice. That sounded just like the lady I pranked, I thought, but I got my dad on the phone. I heard him roaring downstairs. Clearly, handing over the phone was the latest in a string of bad decisions.
He screamed at us both. But he only spanked me, hard, as I walked by. It stung. I didn’t think, Man, I should never prank call anyone again. I didn’t think, I feel sorry for what I did. I didn’t think of the old lady, forced to walk to the phone. Instead, I thought, You can only hit me because you’re bigger than me. I felt shame. I felt hate. And I swore I would never spank my own children.
I grew up, and I never forgot it. Every time I’d been spanked as a child, I’d felt that same mixture of shame and hate and impotent child-rage, and I promised myself I would never inflict that on anyone else. So when we got pregnant, I knew: This child would never be spanked. I told everyone, “This child will never be spanked.” Some of them applauded. Some of them rolled their eyes. Some of them said, “You just wait.” But I stood firm. No child would ever be hit under my watch; there would be no spanking in my home.
I found backing for my decision. When we applied to be foster parents, they said we couldn’t use any kind of corporal punishment. As the rest of the room rioted in disbelief, I smiled, secure in the knowledge that I could parent without hitting. I knew the philosophy: positive parenting. It called for time-ins, for removal from the situation, for listening to your child when they tantrum and realizing they’re in an emotional state in which they can’t process information, never hitting, never spanking. I knew what to do.
Then I had three boys. At ages 6, 4, and 2, we were having a long morning in a messy house. I was standing on top of dirty clothes, trying to put on makeup while the kids played in another room. I heard sounds of plastic swordplay. There were screams, but they were happy screams—until they weren’t. My oldest ran to me, sobbing.
“August bit me,” he said, referring to the 4-year-old. August had been hitting, and punching, and body-slamming, and generally abusing everyone all morning. Blaise’s arm sported rising toothmarks and a teensy, tiny bit of blood. I roared like my father. All the misery of the morning had built into something, some kind of towering, blind rage. “Augustine! Get in here!” And he came. God bless him, he came. Because sure, he was in trouble, but what was going to happen?
With one hand, I snatched my son up by the arm. With the other, I spanked him on the ass as hard as I could. He screeched in pain and shock.
I let him down. “Don’t ever bite your brother again!” I yelled.
He sat down and cried in a little puddle on the bathroom floor. I remembered my promise: I would never spank or hit a child. I cried. I also remembered that they say you should never spank in anger. But if you’re not angry, why are you hitting your kid? I was definitely angry when I hit August. And now that the moment had passed, I felt sad and ashamed.
One principle of positive parenting is admitting when you’re wrong. I do this all the time: when I yell too much, when I refuse to read a book, when I clear their plates before they’ve finished, even if they’re taking forever. So I knew I had to apologize for spanking, but I didn’t even know how to begin.
“August? Baby?” I sat down on the floor and put my arms around him. “I’m sorry I hit you.”
“You hit me, Mama!” he said, in shock and pain and disbelief, because in his world, mamas don’t hit.
“I did. I hit you because I was angry. And I’m very, very, very sorry. I promise not to hit you again.”
“You promise?” said my 6-year-old who stood watching.
“I promise, baby,” I said.
Unfortunately, once you open the spanking door, it’s hard to let go. I found myself threatening the kids with it. Every time, they remind me: “No hitting, Mama! You promised! You can’t hit me!” I’m forced to admit that, yes, they’re right. I will not hit my children again. I made a promise.
Hopefully, this time, I can keep it.