Since Steve Bannon was appointed chief strategist to President-elect Donald Trump, people have been outraged that a noted bigot and misogynist will play a central role in the Trump White House. On Wednesday, comments made by Bannon about how to treat mental illness added fuel to the fire.
According to emails released by the Hill, last December Bannon dismissed suggestions made by Breitbart News' Washington editor Matt Boyle that the website post a story supporting Speaker Paul Ryan's proposal to overhaul the mental health care system. “I’ve got a cure for mental health issue[s],” Bannon wrote in the emails. “Spank your children more.”
Bannon's comments are obviously offensive to anyone who has ever struggled with mental health issues, but they're also offensive to parents, particularly those who have been spanked as kids.
I vividly recall being spanked as a child. It happened often, and when it happened, I was told not to cry. I remember most clearly when my cousin and I were caught making prank calls, and my father spanked me as I walked by him.
After it happened, I didn’t feel remorse for my actions. I didn’t feel that I’d behave better next time. I do, however, remember the roiling anger and shame I felt. I knew it was only OK for my dad to hit me because I was smaller than him, and I hated him for it.
I'm not alone in feeling that spanking is an ineffective method of punishment. In fact, thanks to a flurry of studies on spanking, we know that corporal punishment has a host of negative psychological consequences for kids.
According to an April 2016 study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, which studied more than 50 years on data on 160,000 children, children who were spanked are also more likely to exhibit "increased anti-social behavior, aggression, mental health problems and cognitive difficulties that last into adulthood." They're also more likely to defy their parents, thus negating the idea that "spare the rod, spoil the child" is an effective method of punishment.
Luckily, spanking is on the decline. A new study in Pediatrics' December issue shows that corporal punishment is on the decline from 1988 (when I was growing up) to 2011, when my own children were growing up.
As a parent, I'd vowed never to spank my children, so they would never experience the shame I did when I was hit. And for the most part, I got through the toddler years without raising a hand to any of my kids. I kept my cool.
Until one day, I didn’t.
I don’t remember what my oldest son did to make me want to spank him. Probably some combination of tantrumming, screaming, and being disrespectful. Maybe he had hit one of his brothers, or hit the dog, or hit me. But I recall rage. I recall a sense of powerlessness. And so I reached back, wound up, and smacked him hard on the butt. He stopped what he was doing and wept. So did I.
After that first time, I told my son that I'd never do it again, and that no one was allowed to hit anyone else in our house. But once you spank, once you open that door to hitting your own child, it becomes easier and easier to do it again: when they hit you. When they scream in your face. When they kick their brother in the stomach, or throw plastic dinosaurs at you. It’s so easy, so tempting, to raise your hand to stop it.
My husband and I made an agreement not to spank the kids, ever. No matter what they did. No matter how angry we got.
And slowly, we stopped spanking.
Once you spank, once you open that door to hitting your own child, it becomes easier and easier to do it again.
Because I have a short fuse, it’s easy to push me over the edge. But I've learned how important it is to walk out of the room when I'm angry. Instead of hitting, I give myself my own time-out.
I’ve also found out that my kids benefit from one of two different forms of discipline: a time-out or a time-in. I ask them, in the midst of their bad behavior: “Do you want to be by yourself, or do you want to be with me?” If they want to be with me, I hold them next to me on the couch, in my lap, in my bed. Even though they might rant and scream, I stay there through it. That teaches them that their emotions are OK, rather than shameful and in need of repression (which is what spanking teaches them).
If they’re too overwrought to answer, they usually need to be by themselves, so I carry them to their room, put them in their bed, and leave them there until they come out. Both of these strategies are proactive: they give me a solution and a way to work towards it.
It's not easy being a parent, and it's not easy to control your anger when your kids are acting up. But whenever I'm tempted to raise a hand to my child, I remember the shame and rage I felt when I was spanked. I never want my children to feel that way. I never want them to hate me the way I hated my parents for hitting me.
Once my kids got old enough to misbehave, I had to learn other means of discipline. Otherwise, I slid back into what I knew — and what I knew was spanking.
So no, Steve Bannon — the solution to mental illness isn't to spank your kids more. If anything, spanking is psychologically harmful to children, in a way that they never quite forget. I'm living proof of that.
I’m glad I don’t spank my kids any more. I’m sorry I ever did. I only hope they don’t remember, and if they do, they’ll forgive me.