I Turned Out OK In Spite Of Corporal Punishment, Not Because Of It

Drew Magary's post yesterday on corporal punishment and parenting inspired a great deal of feedback, including a long, thoughtful email from a reader named Jason Mello, which, with his permission, we've reprinted below.

I was (am?) a victim of child abuse. After reading your article, I wanted to share some of my feelings on the issue. I apologize in advance for a long email, but this hits me pretty deep.

Let me start by saying I was an average kid growing up. I was a little hyper, but I never got into any real trouble at school or with law enforcement, and I was a standout student academically, and in both music and athletics. Never at any point did my behavior warrant the abuse I repeatedly faced (at least in my mind).

I was a victim of "corporal punishment" administered by both parents growing up, from about age two or three straight through to the last time my mother assaulted me, when I was home from my first semester of college at 18. I have two younger siblings; however, one is a female, and the other is significantly younger than I and experienced health issues growing up, so I caught the majority of the violence.

Let me also say that physical abuse is almost always issued with mental abuse as well, so after your parent is done beating you, you hear about how unworthy you are as a child. My mother once left me at an orphanage for an hour as punishment while she ran errands. She said she was done with my behavior and told me to have a good life. How disturbed is that?

One of the first things I want to dispel is that this is some sort of "race" issue. I grew up in an upper-middle-class, white, suburban household. My father was a town selectmen and a prominent area lawyer. He had an "image to keep up," and he viewed any sort of misbehaving from his children (mostly me) in any public setting (political event, school, swim lessons) as bad for his career and grounds to hit me. My mother agreed and went along with everything. My parents don't have a drug problem or anything, either. From the outside, you'd think they were Mr. and Mrs. Everytown USA.

Growing up, there was more than one occasion when I missed a family event or school day—or had a doctor's appointment rescheduled—to avoid the visual signs of my abuse from being seen. My parents would simply lock me in my room for the day or evening, and leave the house (leaving me alone in said locked room). When I was finally let out, usually very hungry and occasionally having to use the small waste bin in my room as a toilet, my parents would tell me how the beating and subsequent solitary confinement was due to my actions. I have no idea what a child could do to warrant this treatment.

I'm almost 30, and still to this day I have vivid memories of many of the beatings I endured. After a parent-teacher conference in second grade during which my mother was told that I was acting out, she came home, and I got the paddle while standing in Time Out (my mother elected to employ a wooden paddle-ball paddle and usually hit me while I was standing in a corner). I will always remember her saying, "If you think this is bad, just wait until your father gets home." What kind of sick person says this to an eight-year-old?

Going to bed that night was torture. I knew as soon as my father got home from the Selectman's meeting that night, I was in trouble. Sure enough, when my father got in around midnight, he got me out of bed (I couldn't sleep, as I was terrified) and beat the hell out of me, yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs about how I embarrassed him. I could share many more stories, but I think you get the point.

This kind of reaction from my parents was commonplace for the remainder of elementary school: I do something trivial; Mother puts me in the corner and spanks me with a wooden paddle; I get sent to a locked room for the remainder of the evening to "go to bed"; Father comes home, gets me out of bed at whatever time of night, and beats me. I still have problems falling asleep and staying asleep. Once during a beating I called 911 and hung up, knowing the police would be sent to the house to investigate, which would force my parents to at least temporarily stop hitting me. Think of what has to go through a child's head for this to seem like the most appropriate course of defending yourself from your parents. My parents separated when I was in sixth grade, but all that meant was the abuse was issued in two different homes rather than one.

I want to speak about the so-called "positive" aspects of corporal punishment. First off, there are NONE. It's ridiculous for any human with a normal IQ to think that hitting a highly impressionable young child—one who looks to you for nurturing, support, and affection—would reap any positive outcome. It does not teach a child to respect his or her parents; it teaches you to fear them. It took until I was 17 for me to get over this fear, and the only way I did was to finally fight back during two beatings I was receiving, one from my father and one from my stepfather. It took until I was strong enough to fight back and injure these two men who I was supposed to look up to to feel like I didn't have to fear them. Corporal punishment didn't teach me right from wrong; it taught me that if my parents were upset, I was probably getting hit. I swear they would beat me sometimes if they just had a bad day at work.

The amount of emotional and mental damage being abused as a child did to me is staggering. I began smoking pot at age 12 to zone out from all the yelling and violence, and to allow myself to sleep at night. To this day, I have extreme difficulty sleeping without being high. I never listened to any authority figure growing up, often seeking conflict instead, as it was what I was most comfortable with. I was almost thrown off sports teams and out of Boy Scouts for my lack of self-control and complete lack of respect for adult leaders. I had trouble with friendships and relationships, often quickly breaking off friendships if anything remotely negative occurred. I got overly attached to every girlfriend I had because I was grasping at straws for any semblance of a caring family.

I used to have severe anger issues. I would lash out at complete strangers over nothing. My fight-or-flight response was essentially always on. I took everything personal and felt alone. I haven't spoken to my mother in 10 years (I was issued a permanent restraining order after the aforementioned assault at 18), and I really only see or speak to my father at large family gatherings. My relationship with them will never be that of a normal child-parent situation, as I have no plans to forgive them. Ever.

At my first job after college, all of these behaviors were magnified when I encountered several supervisors who were mentally abusive. My reactions ranged from walking off the job to challenging people to fistfights. My anger began to have a serious effect on my relationship, to the point that my girlfriend told me she was going to leave me if I didn't change. I was never and will never be mentally or physically abusive towards her (or anyone else, for that matter), but my anger was just out of control. That's when I started seeing a therapist.

Fast-forward several years, and I am doing worlds better. I'm regarded by people who've met me since my years in therapy as a laid-back guy, something people who met me in my early twenties would have never thought. I very seldom get mad, and when I do, it's about serious stuff, not dropping a spoon on the floor. My relationship is stronger than ever, and I can't thank my girlfriend enough for staying with me. My friends are awesome and supported me through everything. I have a new job, and I genuinely love my new career.

I've accomplished a lot in my life. I have a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in civil engineering from one of the best engineering schools in the country. I've completed more than one 1,000-plus-hour volunteer project for my town. I've hiked every mountain over 4,000 feet in New England. None of this was because of my receiving corporal punishment as a child; it was IN SPITE of it. The only thing "positive" I gained from being abused was that now, essentially, I'm emotionally cold, which helps in my industry (construction). Things can get heated on construction sites, and I am a pro at conflict, especially for a young man. Yell at me and insult me all you want—I can handle it and give it back with the best. Now, this isn't really a positive—it's really just me trying to take something positive out of a real bad situation.

Hitting children is one of the worst crimes humanity undertakes. It causes emotional and mental damage to people for a lifetime, and teaches children that violence is an acceptable way to get what you want. The only people who hit children are ignorant cowards who shouldn't be allowed around children.

I'm glad you've been giving this issue the exposure it needs. You're helping a lot of people like me and hopefully you're helping a few kids not get abused.

My parents abused me, and I turned out OK, not because they hit me—IN SPITE of them hitting me.


Photo by Michael B. Thomas/Getty Images.

Why Do People Hit Their Kids?

There's an old episode of What's Happening!! where Roger fucks up, and his mom decides to beat his ass (this is actually the plot of every episode of What's Happening!!). So his mom asks Rerun for his belt, only Rerun is 300-plus pounds, so when he takes out his belt, it's like eight feet long. And Roger's mom guffaws and cries out, "Oh, Rerun! I wanna whip him, not hang him!" And the whole studio audience goes crazy with laughter.

It's a weird thing, to wanna beat your kid. Kids are small and helpless, and are your own flesh and blood. You'd think the LAST person on earth to hit a child would be that child's own parent, and yet here we are. Beating kids is so common that it's practically a comedic mainstay at this point, from Eddie Murphy's mom throwing a shoe at him to Bill Cosby talking about his dad's fearsome belt. There was a recent episode of Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown set in L.A.'s Koreatown, and all these Korean chefs were laughing about how their parents used to punish them by putting them in stress positions for hours on end: standing and holding books until their arms gave out, etc. Torture, essentially. The chefs were all giggling at the memories, like veterans telling war stories. The beatings were a shared heritage among them.

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There is an imaginary line between corporal punishment and abuse, and the story of Adrian Peterson beating the shit out of his kid with a tree branch demonstrates the insane variance with where Americans see that line. Some people applauded Peterson for this …

… while others, of course, think he belongs in a jail cell. Peterson said his dad used to beat him with an electrical cord, so he considered his own parenting methods to be HUMANE by comparison, which is insane. But that's what happens in a culture of beating. Beating is a tradition that parents hand down to children, who then hand it down (with great force) to their own children, until an entire family tree of abuse has sprung forth. Given the way abuse can spread, it's a wonder any child makes it out of childhood unscathed. And since it's so common, people will twist their minds around pretty much any excuse to justify this cycle. My parents beat me, and I turned out fine!, etc. The idea of abuse gets buried under comedic euphemisms like "whoopin'." HAHA HIS DAD GAVE HIM A WHOOPIN'. Hilarious.

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Now, this is the part where I point out that study after study after study has proven that corporal punishment—even a light spanking—does not work. At all. Corporal punishment makes kids sullen, violent, and angry. I know this because I have dabbled in corporal punishment with my own children, particularly my oldest kid. (Poor first children are always the beta kids: The kids parents fuck up with the most before applying better techniques to their younger siblings.) I have tried spanking the kid, and giving the kid a light smack on the head, and threatening the kid. My dad spanked me once or twice as a child. That's it. I don't even remember it, really. And yet I've probably tried more ways of physically correcting my child than he ever did. And the reason I tried all of these methods is because I am a failure.

That's what corporal punishment is. It's a failure. It's a complete breakdown of communication between parent and child. Children are unpredictable, reckless, and occasionally violent. They can drive otherwise rational humans into fits of rage. And I have had moments—many moments, certainly—where I have felt that rage after exhausting every last possible idea to get them to behave: bribery, timeouts, the silent treatment, walking away (they follow you!), distraction, throwing the kids outside (they end up ringing the doorbell a lot), you name it. So I have tried corporal punishment as a final resort, a desperate last stab at closure. That's an easy way for parents to justify it: You forced me to do this, child. Spanking the kid did nothing for me. It only made me realize what a fucking failure I was. Oh, and the kid still kept yelling.

Spanking and beating your kid teaches your kid to talk with violence. It validates hitting as a legitimate form of communication. Everything is modeled. I have yelled at my kids, and then seen them yell. I have smacked my kid, and then watched her smack someone else. They don't learn to be good from any of it. They don't learn to sit still and practice piano sonatas. All they learn is, Hey, this works! And then they go practice what you just preached. Beating a kid creates an atmosphere of toxicity in a house that lingers forever: One beating leads to the next, and to the next, and to the next, until parents don't even know why they're beating the kid anymore. They just do. Once it is normalized, it takes root. Parents begin to like the habit. Those pictures of Peterson's kid? The violence can get worse ... much worse ... so much worse it's astonishing.

It takes an endless amount of patience to handle a demanding child, and lots of people don't have that patience. We also happen to live in an age of instant gratification, so the idea of spending 10 full minutes getting a child to calm down is agony. People are hurried, stressed, and selfish. If they try beating a kid and it "works," they'll go right to that well the second the kid acts up. Beating a kid is fast and easy, which is what makes it so terrifying. And no parent ever thinks of him- or herself as a child abuser, no matter how bad the abuse gets. There's also a strange political bent to all this ... a "Don't tell me how to raise my kids!" attitude, whereby people demand the freedom to punish their kids however they like, but their kids are not allowed any freedom FROM that discipline.

You need tolerance, intelligence, and love to make it work. Sometimes, I am able to pull this off. Sometimes, I talk the kid down, and then I go to my wife and I'm like DUDE THEY CALMED DOWN AND I DIDN'T EVEN HAVE TO YELL GIMME A COOKIE. And sometimes, I fail miserably and start yelling like a crazy person, only to realize what a shitty job I'm doing. I am getting better (I haven't tried spanking a kid in years), but I still have a lot of work to do. I cannot yell. I cannot hit. No parent ever should. No parent or child will ever get anything productive from it. You are not a hippy-dippy asshole when you avoid spanking. That's a cultural stigma that only justifies further abuse, and it's a cheap way of getting out of the legwork necessary to be a better parent: reading books, going to parenting classes, etc. People think they've tried everything when they really haven't.

If it takes sending Adrian Peterson to jail to explain "don't hit your kids" concept to all the junior Bob Knights out there, so be it. Go ahead and look at those pictures again and tell me what good will come from it. Because I don't see it. I don't see how 10 lashings do the trick instead of just one. I don't see how that lesson won't be taught to that child again and again and again, until it isn't a lesson at all. And I don't see how Peterson's grandkids avoid a similar fate.


Drew Magary writes for Deadspin. He's also a correspondent for GQ. Follow him on Twitter@drewmagary and email him at drew@deadspin.com. You can also buy Drew's book,Someone Could Get Hurt, through his homepage.

Illustration by Jim Cooke.

The Concourse is Deadspin's home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter:@DSconcourse.

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