Bullies Are No Laughing Matter

by Robyn Coburn

Recently I posted to a local-to-me homeschooling list something about bullies.

I defined a bully as “someone who uses their greater physical strength as a tool to intimidate and coerce smaller, weaker people to do what they want.” I said that parents didn’t have to be bullies.

Another list member took issue with this because the context was a discussion, or rather me expressing my opinion, about spanking. Specifically I was disputing that a blog posting about a mother spanking her two year old should be considered humor.

Perhaps effectively asserting that parents who spank are bullies was a bit strong—but the problem was not what I said, but that I didn’t go on to say enough.

When I set aside my fear of confrontation and publicly and for-the-record challenged the idea that a spanking is a funny story, the list owner’s response was minimizing (“just a symbolic swat”) and defensive (“it ought to be obvious that I'm not a member of the hooray-for-hitting squad”) before she shut down the nascent discussion.

This is a homeschooling mother whom I have always considered intelligent, articulate and nice. Yet even she felt called to defend laughing at a mom spanking, called to justify finding humor in a child’s pain.

This phenomenon got me thinking and has caused me to embark on what will be an ongoing personal investigation of the portrayal of childhood and parenting in popular culture, outside of fiction. I’m talking about noticing and recording how the leaders, celebrities and role models in our broader culture speak of their own children, how they reveal their assumptions about children through their jokes and stories.

Helpfully, that very night I watched a guest on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, a comedian making horrible unfunny (and repetitive) jokes about how much he was looking forward to all his children leaving home, following his eldest now in college. Some of his kids are still very young, apparently, and he remarked several times that he didn’t want to hear about them, had never wanted to know about them, until they were out of “his” home. It was the primary theme to his riff.

Astoundingly, he also felt called to tell the nation that he didn’t like his adult daughter’s boyfriend, which I thought showed some nerve! Well, the whole evening should make for interesting conversation at his family Thanksgiving dinner.

When Jamie Foxx accepted his Best Actor Academy Award for the biopic Ray, he stood in front of the world and tearfully praised his strict grandmother for punishing him with spanking, claiming that her “tough love” is what saved him and led him to where he is today. I felt so sad for the boy that was, wondering, would he truly have been less successful if his grandmother had raised him mindfully and gently instead.

He seemed a perfect illustration of the phenomenon observed by Alice Miller. From an essay on her website, “Taking It Personally: Indignation as a Vehicle of Therapy,” Sunday May 01, 2005:

Time and again, I ask myself why it is so difficult to communicate this knowledge, why the perfectly normal response—horror and indignation—fails to materialize when the question at issue is cruelty to small children. Deep down I know the answer, though I keep on hoping I am mistaken. The answer I have found is: Most of us were mistreated as children and had to learn to deny this fact at a very early stage in order to survive. We were forced to believe that we were humiliated and tormented "for our own good," that the beatings we received did not hurt and were harmless, that such treatment served to protect the community (as otherwise we would have turned into dangerous monsters).
In the subsequent discussion of his win, apparently no one noticed that Mr. Foxx was publicly advocating spanking in an international forum.

My realization is that the condescending language and anti-child discourses of the dominant culture are ubiquitous, osmotic and pervasive. As the list owner demonstrated, it is extremely easy to slip unwittingly into those discourses. Like toxic mold, they need strong light, fresh air and vigorous focused action to eradicate them from the recesses of our thinking and our community zeitgeist.

Hence my strong language—the strongly loaded word, “Bully.”

It is true that most parents who choose spanking and punishments as parenting tools probably believe, or have convinced themselves, that they are acting out of love, duty, responsibility and necessity. They may not have the same overt selfish motivations as your common and garden schoolyard bully, horny boss or gang extortionist.

However parents who spank are engaging in the same physical behaviors, using the same intimidating strategies as these socially dysfunctional bullies, for no better outcome than to change the immediate behavior of their kids.

The important point is not whether I privately designate any particular parent as a bully, nor whether I have offended someone by mentioning the word or idea. What is important is that maybe one more parent will move beyond feeling defensive, and will ask themselves the crucial question: “Could my child think of me as a bully?”

The risk, the likelihood, is that the children have the same immediate emotional response towards their parents as they do to bullies—fear, the desire to escape, feeling trapped and powerless, anger.

Then these awful emotional states war with the feelings of love and admiration, the need for comfort and security from their parents, the shattered naivety, the struggle for autonomy.

How can this ambivalence not create resentments, confusion, self-doubt and impinge on a child’s ability to Trust? How can love and pain not become inextricably intertwined, tainting every future relationship?

How do I know this?

I was a spanked child. My mother was a bully.

N.B. Since Robyn and others have commented on this issue, the blog owner has decided to institute an editorial policy that corporal punishment stories will no longer have a place on her parenting humor blog site, a stance Robyn heartily commends.

The article above and this first set of links first appeared in Issue 2 of "Connections", in November 2006.

Useful links:





Stories of other parents who have stopped spanking, and don't regret anything except that it took them so long to make that choice: sandradodd.com/spanking

A list for parents wanting to stop spanking, run by unschooling mother of three, Pam Sorooshian: No More Spanking

Robyn Coburn Ideas for parents Parenting Peacefully