Editor’s Note: Here on the Kingdom Outpost, we welcome submissions from readers with testimonies and thoughts to share. These may represent a range of views – the editorial team has a range of views on many issues as well.
This essay is a firsthand account of the effects of physical punishment in relation to sexual violence from a man and father who grew up in a conservative Mennonite church. He wanted to share his experience as it relates to how we perceive violence and the nature of God. We welcome comments and responses from readers.
Why spanking children is sexual violence and a violation of God given bodily autonomy
Depending on your own childhood experience, your framework for raising children, or your worldview this title may be quite jarring. It may seem like an over-exaggeration or click bait.
Maybe it causes you to rise up in defense of your parenting choices.
Perhaps it’s extremely triggering because it rings true to your own experience.
Whatever you feel in reading this title, I ask you to give me a chance to tell you a story, my story.
For years, Evangelical Christianity’s parenting paradigm has often been built around some sort of defense of the idea that Biblical parenting includes spanking children. Some communities with this kind of parenting philosophy view spanking as the only kind of discipline that will produce godliness and well trained children. Some spaces have developed an entire system built on spanking as a method of foolproof results, getting creepily detailed in the way a parent should spank, down to the instrument used to spank, how to make it hurt enough, how often to hit and how often to repeat the procedure.
I’m writing this as someone who was raised in those spaces. I am writing to the Christian community because I am part of this community.
I am not writing to develop a hermeneutical argument as to why spanking children as it is done in many conservative Christian spaces is not actually biblical. There has been some really good work done in a couple places by some Christian scholars including Dr. David and Amanda Erickson from Flourishing Homes and Families. They explore the concept of the rod in Scripture, and they provide context and solid biblical exegesis on these often-quoted verses. This is important and needs to be an integral part of the conversation. I will leave that for the biblical scholars to continue to develop and share with the broader Christian community.
I am writing to share my story, my deeply painful story, and my secret experience of spanking as a young child. I’m writing for other little people like me who have a nervous system that cannot handle being hit by a caregiver and are confused and deeply ashamed by the experience.
Trauma loosely defined is anything that overwhelms our nervous system, causing us to be unable to process and getting stuck in our body.
I believe that is what happened to me when I was spanked.
I think now is the time to make something as clear as I can. I had a pretty happy childhood, I felt safe most of the time and had lots of close friends and wonderful experiences. I was a rule follower, didn’t get in trouble that much and genuinely loved my parents and family. If you asked me for happy memories, I could spend a lot of time telling you about those long summer days growing up beside the corn and cows, swimming holes, campfires and straw forts and I would feel the joy that came with those days.
But my parents were firm believers in spanking. They had been spanked. Everyone in our church community believed that spanking was how children were taught obedience. Children were understood to be disobedient by nature and spanking was how authority was established. And so if I acted in a way that was deemed to be worthy of a spanking I was spanked.
Spanking can mean different things to different people. In our community and as I’ve discovered in many conservative spaces (not just Christians) spanking gets closer to beating. It is not a single smack on a clothed bottom, at least in the vast majority of those I knew. It was methodical, hitting with an instrument on a child’s bottom. Often these instruments included wooden spoons, belts, even garden hoses or wooden boards. It was also sometimes done on a child’s bare bottom. It was a series of hard hits that was very painful and at times left marks. This was normal and this was thought to be godly and right discipline. This was what happened to me.
I’m telling my story because I believe spanking is Russian roulette. Many kids I grew up with were spanked this way and seemed to be “fine.” They joked about it, felt they deserved it, and would declare they would spank their kids in the same way so they didn’t become brats.
But for me, there was no blank in the gun. There was a bullet. Spanking completely overwhelmed my nervous system and along with the fear and pain, there came arousal. Especially the times I was spanked on a bare bottom, it was a horrible mixture of shame, pain, fear and sexual arousal. I had no idea as a young child what was happening to me. I was just very confused by my response to it. And this was my first encounter with sexual arousal and violence intertwined in a brutal cocktail of bewildering confusion.
As you can imagine, this would shape my sexuality in some unpleasant ways, creating confusion and setting up neurological pathways of distress wired into my developing and malleable brain. Something created for beauty and closeness becomes shaped by fear and pain.
So from where I sit, spanking is sexual violence. It is the act of striking a child on an erogenous part of their body to purposely cause pain. The buttocks are a sexual part of our body. The spankings that I experienced and thousands of other children experienced were acts of sexual violence. Many kids don’t experience them that way, but I did. I am not alone: many other kids did and do.
People argue that what makes spanking different then abuse is because it is something that is done in love. I would argue from personal experience that “loving spanking” is the most dangerous kind. I knew my parents loved me, but when that love mixed with fear and violence, when it invaded my bodily autonomy in ways my young child’s mind could not understand, it led to my body responding in the way it did.
My bodily autonomy was being invaded, and my mind and body became overwhelmed and attempted to process the pain and fear every time I got spanked. I learned to follow rules, I learned how to please people, but I suffered in silence wondering why I was a freak. Nobody else that I knew of was aroused by being spanked.
I begged God to take it away, to make me forget it, but once trauma has rewritten pathways in your brain, the trauma teaches you how to shut down, to learn new ways of going numb.
Christian parents, I appeal to you, don’t spank your children. It’s Russian roulette. Little humans are attempting to process their world, and are super trusting and loving. Don’t snuff that out by following a kind of parenting that is cold, calculated and demands you turn off a part of your natural nurturing heart put there by God. There is enough trauma in this world…please don’t give them more.
The way of Jesus is one of turning the other cheek, of choosing love over power, of compassion and healing.
So let’s stop spanking our kids. Jesus already overcame violence when he allowed others to beat and kill him. He showed us that true humanity rises above violence and that all people are worthy of love.
Spanking is violent and invasive. It teaches children that they are not in control of their bodies, that adults have the right to cause them pain and don’t need consent to violate their bodily autonomy. We are embodied creatures, bodies and souls woven together by a good God. Our bodies matter to God, the way we experience the world happens in our bodies as much as in our soul. We are all image bearers, children included. Spanking tells children a different tale. You matter less, your feelings, your body matters less. The pain I am causing you is love, different, painful, fear inducing, but love. And when the body responds to the trauma of those messages the way mine did, it sets the stage for the kind of disconnect that became my reality. It was a reality that to escape the pain and seeming betrayal of a spanking, my body found ways to cope that I will wrestle with for the rest of my life. I learned how to shut off my feelings. I would do anything I could to avoid pain, and in doing so I became disembodied – my body and spirit, the seat of my emotions, were separated.
Maybe as we come home to our bodies, we can come home to our kids. We can with love and compassion see God’s kingdom, gentle and kind, revealed on earth.