I was hit with a “switch” as a child and I turned out okay

adrian-peterson-child-abuse-4Or did I?

The media is abuzz with the recent off field violence of NFL players Ray Rice and now Adrian Peterson.  As horrific as the events may be (Rice punching his wife unconscious and Peterson hitting his child with a “switch”), I’m hopeful that they will raise our consciousness around these issues that are still lingering in the shadows–the issues of domestic violence and child abuse.

When someone uses physical punishment to manage their child’s behavior (like spanking, switching, slapping, whipping) it is often rationalized or even glorified with statements like, “Harsh discipline made me the man I am today,” or “I was spanked as a child and I turned out okay.”

Except…when I look around me, I’m not sure we have turned out okay.  There seems to be a LOT of violence in the world.  There’s seems to be a LOT of people who believe that the way to solve problems is to control someone, terrify someone, or punish someone.

So I’m not at all convinced that any of us have turned out okay.  To be okay, we sure have made a mess of this civilization thing.  Collectively, we seem to treat each other with less than respect, especially when we don’t agree with someone or hold the same opinions or beliefs as they do.

Largely, the way we treat others is directly related to how we were treated as a child because that’s what got hardwired into our brains.  So when 61% – 80% (depending on the survey) of U.S. parents report using physical punishment on their children, it creates a cycle of violence that’s never-ending until someone sticks their stake in the ground and proclaims, This cycle stops with me!

But I also know how hard it is to stop these generational patterns.  I was hit with a “switch” when I was little.  Growing up in the south, my parents disciplined in thespare the rod, spoil the child fashion without realizing that the rod in the bible is a tool that shepherds used to guide their sheep, not hit them! Remember, the psalms? “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.”

I was not comforted by my mom’s version of the rod.  “Switching” was how my mom disciplined me in the most severe cases of when I defied her rules, or when she was just tired and exhausted and didn’t know what else to do.  And to add insult to injury I had to go out back and cut my own “switch” off the tree.  I would spend a considerable amount of time trying to select the branch that looked like it would do the least harm to my legs. Do I leave the leaves on or take them off?  Do I cut it short or cut it long?

I can remember the stings, the raw welts that rose up, the heat that emanated from the wounds for several hours afterward.  But mostly I remember the anger in my mother’s voice and in her hands.  It didn’t sound or feel anything like love to me.

But I turned out okay, right?

While I’m “okay” by many standards, I wonder….  If I had been treated with moreunderstanding and compassion as a child when I “misbehaved,” might I have been spared the many years of emotional and verbal abuse I endured in a past relationship?  Might I not have spent more than a decade recovering from co-dependency?  Might I have known, deep in my core, that I didn’t deserve to be mistreated and would not allow it?  Might I have loved myself and taken care of myself more?

As for men who were “whipped” or “switched” when they were boys.  If they had been shown more understanding and compassion as a child, might they be more respectful and gentle to women?  Might they use their strength to model, for their own kids, self-control, understanding, and problem-solving that doesn’t include violence?  Wouldn’t these be great life skills to pass along to the next generation?

One day as she watched her grandkids play, my mother said, “I can’t imagine hitting either one of these boys.  I don’t know how in the world I did it to you when you were young.  That’s just what people did back then and I didn’t know any different.  I’m sorry I hit you.  I could never hit a child now.”  Those words were like healing balm for the scars on my soul.

I know my mom loved me and I’m glad she eventually became aware of how hitting hurts children–their souls even more than their bodies.  I’m also glad I learned alternate ways to discipline my children and mostly broke this generational pattern for my family.  Even though I swore not to spank my children, it happened a few times.  So I know the huge effort it takes to break these generational patterns, these reactions that are hardwired in our brains from early childhood.  If we were hit as a child, it’s very difficult NOT to pass this treatment on to our children. So I committed to do the hard work, to put my stake in the ground, and declare that this generational pattern ends here!

Ultimately, what I long for is a world where we don’t just turn out “okay.”  I want children to thrive, to flourish, to know their own worth and to feel loved, wholly loved, mistakes and all.  I want parents to be gentle guides with their children by setting loving limits, and modeling how to handle frustration and anger that arises.  Not with physical violence, but by saying, “Hey buddy, I can’t let you hit your brother or push him.  In our family, everyone is safe.  So come over here and sit by me and tell me what’s going on with you?  Why did you push him away from that video game?  How could you handle that differently next time?”  That’s how I wish my mom had responded when I “misbehaved”…with curiosity and a sense that she had my back even if she didn’t like my behavior.  That’s what I try to model for my kids.  Because I want them passing on these important peace-building and problem-solving skills to my grandchildren someday.

Research on Physical Punishment

In 2008, the “Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children” by Elizabeth T. Gershoff, Ph.D. was published. This report was endorsed by over seventy U.S. organizations including the Academy on Violence and Abuse, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, and American Medical Association. The report synthesizes one hundred years of social science research and hundreds of published studies on physical punishment conducted by professionals in the fields of psychology, medicine, education, social work, and sociology.

The research supports several conclusions:

  • There is little research evidence that physical punishment improves children’s behavior in the long term.
  • There is substantial research evidence that physical punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future.
  • There is clear research evidence that physical punishment puts children at risk for negative outcomes, including increased mental health problems.
  • There is consistent evidence that children who are physically punished are at greater risk of serious injury and physical abuse.

In recent years, scientists have found that even spanking–the most widely accepted and allegedly humane form of corporal punishment–has alarmingly negative consequences for childhood development. Spanking can increase a child’s risk of aggressionantisocial behavior, andmental health disorders later in life. It slows cognitive development and decreases language skills. Spanking may not leave outward signs of injury, but the mental scars it inflicts can last a lifetime.