An Open Letter to Kelly Clarkson

In a January 10th interview, Kelly Clarkson defended her decision to spank her kids, saying in part: “My parents spanked me, and I did fine in life, and I feel fine about it, and I do that as well.  That’s a tricky thing, when you’re out in public, because then people are like, they think that’s wrong or something, but I find nothing wrong with a spanking.”  The following is my response to those remarks.

You love your kids.  I don’t doubt this.  You would give your life for them.  Like the rest of us, you’re doing the best you can with the information you have, and you have the added pressure of having your every decision critiqued by the general public.  I can’t pretend to know what that’s like.

I understand what you are saying here.  I do.  You are simply doing what your parents did, and probably their parents too. Those patterns run deep, and they require a lot of effort, self-reflection, and often painful realizations to break.  Your parents loved you after all, so why would they do something that hurt you?  The fact is, they just did the best they knew how to do, with the information that they had at the time.  But we’re not our parents.  And we have more information now.

You say you’re “fine”, which is one of the most common refrains that I hear from those who spank their kids.  But – and I say this in the most gentle way I know how – you’re believing a lie.  You’re not fine if you think it’s okay to hit children.  That’s what spanking is.  It’s hitting.  And it’s hitting someone smaller and weaker than yourself.

The great thing about the passage of time is that we can learn from the generations before us.  Our parents did (and didn’t) do all kinds of the things that we now know more about, and can ideally learn from and do differently.  We didn’t wear seat belts.  Or bike helmets.  People smoked through their pregnancies. They were encouraged to wean after just a few months, or even weeks.  Just the other day I was thinking about piercings (I’m currently in the process of healing my latest one), and how the old school of thought told us to twist the jewelry every day.  Now, of course, we know that this actually impedes the healing process, and that the best thing to do is to just keep them clean and leave them alone.

When we know better, we do better.

There is a big movement right now admonishing moms to stop judging each other, and instead just recognize that people do things differently.  To a large extent, I agree!  I don’t care if you make your kids a homemade balanced breakfast, or if they eat a Pop-Tart in the car on the way to school.  I don’t care if their bedtime is at 7:00 or 11:00.  I don’t care if they spend their free time watching SpongeBob or reading Moby Dick.

The thing is though, spanking is not a parenting issue.  It’s a human rights issue. Children, like all humans, have the right to be free from violence, especially in their own home.  They have the right to autonomy, to decide who does and does not touch their bodies, and when, and how, and for what reason.  Hitting your children not only teaches them that it’s okay to solve problems by hitting, but it specifically teaches them to hit people who are smaller and weaker than themselves.  It also seriously blurs the lines of consent, and lets them believe that, well, sometimes it’s okay for people to touch private areas of their bodies, as long as the person doing the hitting is unhappy with their behavior.

Hitting a spouse – or a friend or a neighbor or a stranger in a bar – is assault, and a serious offense.  There are even animal cruelty laws to protect animals.  46 of the 50 states have enacted felony penalties for certain forms of animal abuse.  The fact that there are no such laws to protect children does not make it right.  Your right to parent as you see fit never supersedes your child’s right to be free from harm in his or her own home.  Because make no mistake.  No matter how you frame it, spanking is still hitting.  And hitting in any way, shape, or form (other than in self defense) is violence.  And it’s wrong.

The ironic part?  Parents that spank do so because they think it’ll improve their children’s behavior.  But study after study shows that spanking actually has the opposite effect.   Spanking makes a child less likely to listen, not more.  It also contributes to later aggression, anti-social behavior, and mental health problems.  This is real.  This is not an opinion, nor is it just empty words. Spanking is harmful, on every level, and the best of intentions (and absolutely, I believe that most parents are well-intentioned) doesn’t change that.

Our kids need our protection. They need our support and our guidance.  They need us to be living examples of what it means to be respectful and patient and kind.

More than anything though, they need our love.

And hitting should never, ever be conflated with love.

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24 Comments

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24 Responses to An Open Letter to Kelly Clarkson

  1. Rebecca

    My thing is…you can’t always know that your kids are fine. And you definitely won’t know if they’re fine, if you’re doing things that make them feel unsafe. If they know you’ll define them as bad and disrespectful if they tell you their real feelings, then they won’t tell you. If they know you’ll attack and hurt them if they SHOW you their real feelings, they might learn to fake whatever you want, but they’ll still be simmering and hurting, and they won’t be fine.

    They won’t be fine when they’re 20, and they move away from you with a smile, and the explanation “I just want to see other places!”

    They won’t be fine when they never answer your calls.

    Best case scenario, they’ll meet friends and significant others who teach them what it feels like to be in a relationship with somebody who respects you, they’ll work through a lot of anger, and maybe in their 30’s they’ll tentatively try to reestablish a relationship. And THEN you’ll find out how not-fine they were the whole time.

    Or…you could prioritize making sure your children feel safe with you from the start. That can be harder in the short term, but it strikes me as easier and happier in the long run.

  2. This is perfect, and just what I needed to read today. Many of us have such a twisted view of what “fine” or “okay” really looks like anyway. We’ve been conditioned to think that it’s normal to have low self-worth, anxiety, dysfunctional relationships, etc. Thank you for speaking up & for helping to stop this cycle.

  3. Emy

    Yes you know that people who continue to do the same hurtful things to their kids as was done to them are cut off from their own child selves and unaware of the ways in which they were harmed. The extreme examples are people who with no awareness at all of the damage they are doing hit.their children causing physical injuries, bruises etc. Often they believe they have done nothing wrong because they are still protecting their image of their parents, and protecting themselves from feeling the pain and betrayal of the parent they love hurting them. But the truth.is that Kelly has been damaged because she continues to act out by spanking her kids.

  4. Helen

    Yes exactly, spanking is a human rights issue, just like abortion is.

  5. Jessica

    Recovering from violence is so hard! I have spent my whole life trying to overcome being seen as a non-human being when I was a child, and I say non-human, because I (like most of us) wasn’t being protected by basic human’s right and laws, like the assault’s law existing in most countries. What I struggle the most now though is by seeing how this violence has been inflicted so deep inside us, that we are unable to see it anymore, and this shows me how deep the damage is like in this case. Thanks to for the letter to Kelly, it fully represent my feelings, and I find important to address what public figures do to their kids, because unfortunately some of those figures act as models to other people who admire them.

  6. You hit the nail on the head that hitting isn’t a parenting issue or “style” as some people like to think of it – it’s one of the basic human right to feel safe and be autonomous. Thank you for sharing and for having the courage and consciousness to bring this across so basically and beautifully.

  7. Danielle Blech

    I totally understand this. I don’t like spanking my children. My only problem is, it’s hard to find any other punishment for small children that means anything to them. My newly six-year-old is finally coming in to an age where things like playing with friends can be taken away as a consequence instead of a spanking. Both of my kids don’t respond to spanking. They often laugh and don’t stop the behavior I want them to stop. I would love to hear some other ideas on discipline and consequences that I can use instead of spanking. I have read so many articles that say not to spank, but they don’t give suggestions on alternatives. Thank you!

    • Ana

      I highly recommend the book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids by Dr Laura Markham, or the affiliated website ahaparenting.com It gives practical solutions for coaching your children rather than disciplining, and natural results of your actions instead of unrelated consequences.

    • Lizzy Jones

      May I also suggest that it might be helpful to shift your idea of “discipline” to “teaching” instead of “punishment”. If you think “how can I teach my child?” rather than “how can I punish them?” it can open up a whole new way of thinking and being with our children.

      In addition to echoing the recommendation of Dr Markham’ s work, I’d also add No Drama Discipline by Siegel and Bryson (also their book The Whole Brain Child).

      Best wishes to you and your children!

    • Fair question and kudos to you for wanting and asking for for better tools! http://www.languageoflistening.com has been my miracle in how I parent my kids and any relationship. You just have to be willing to embark a looong journey of self-discovery and practice. There are no secrets!

  8. Parents who spank, ask yourselves:

    1) Would my child ever accept a spanking from an adult other than me or my spouse?

    2) Have I told my child in no uncertain terms that it’s never OK for another adult besides Mom or Dad to spank him or her—no matter how badly he or she has misbehaved?

    3) Have I warned my child that some adults may have bad reasons for wanting to spank him or her?

    To see how important these questions can potentially be, please read and reflect on this press release:

    Jefferson County, Colorado
    Administration and Courts Facility
    100 Jefferson County Parkway
    Golden, Colorado 80419
    303-279-6511

    For Immediate Release – Apr 4, 2008

    Contact: Pam Russell
    DA Public Information
    303-271-6905

    Re: Michael DiPalma Sentenced

    Michael David DiPalma appeared today in Jefferson County Court and was sentenced to Intensive Supervision Sex Offender Probation for a period of ten years to life and two years in the county jail. The 33-year-old former day camp teacher pled guilty on January 25 to Sexual Assault of a Child, a class four felony.

    Michael DiPalma, who now lives in Centennial, worked at a Lakewood recreation center teaching Elementary Engineering Using Lego and Elementary Robotics Using Lego in July 2006. One of the students, an 8-year-old boy, was singled out by DiPalma. The boy was given a sticky note and told to make a checkmark on it every time he didn’t follow DiPalma’s instructions. The boy was told he would receive a spanking for each check mark. On July 27, 2006, when the other children were on lunch break, DiPalma lured the boy to his car and put him into the back seat. DiPalma then drove to the parking lot of a nearby apartment complex then climbed into the back seat with the boy. He put the boy on his lap, pulled down his pants and spanked him 20 times on his bare buttocks. The spanking left marks and DiPalma told him not to tell or that he would go to the boy’s house and spank him harder. When the boy’s mother picked him up at the end of the day, he told her what had happened. The family reported the incident to the Lakewood Police Department.

    DiPalma’s case went trial in September, 2006 but the jurors were unable to reach a unanimous verdict.

    The jury heard evidence that in May 2006 DiPalma had worked for a company called “Computer Tots’, teaching an after-school class at Steck Elementary School in Denver. In that class he asked the second graders to vote on which of them should be spanked. He spanked at least two 7-year-olds before his employment at Steck Elementary was terminated.

    Court records also indicate that DiPalma had been accused of unlawful sexual contact of a child, kidnapping, and false imprisonment in 1999 in New Mexico. The boy and girl who were named as victims in that case were 10-year-olds and they did not know DiPalma. He was given a deferred judgment and probation.

    DiPalma was remanded to the custody of the Sheriff following the sentencing. He will be required to register as a sex offender.

  9. Kevin

    Having worked in social work I strongly disagree with this. First of all disciplining is necessary. Kids need to understand their are firm lines you don’t cross because crossing them inflicts severe consequences (natural negative and typically painful outfall)
    My child can’t understand financial ramifications to decisions, relational ramifications to decisions etc, but they can understand to break certain boundaries causes discomfort. Just as you say there are studies that prove it has negative affects, there are just as many studies that prove spanking more healthy than time out. A child’s greatest security comes from their attachment to their parental figures. Certain studies and psychologists have actually come to the conclusion that timeouts create more long term negative affects than spanking because it breaks connection between the child and parenting creating psychological patterns of “my relationship and attachments are dependant on my behaviour” instead of a Spank which if done with the intention of teaching consequences rather than acting out anger maintains relationship and presence while providing a tangible consequence. Keep in mind that attachment theory states children under 7 years of age are not generally able to even experience more than one feeling at a time (mixed emotions) and thus reasoning with them can only go so far. It’s also important to note that kids without clear boundaries and consequences for breaking boundaries are typically more insecure and incapable of dealing with frustrations and consequences later in life. They also have a harder time keeping healthy boundaries towards those who actually do want to hurt them later on.
    I suppose we could start saying fire is violent for burning those who touch it, or animals are abusive for biting a child that pulls its tail, etc etc.
    At the end of the day a parents role is not to be their child’s best friend, it’s to prepare them to be adults in a world that can be cruel, unfair, painful, and immersed in unpleasant consequences.
    If parents can’t teach children that crossing a line will bring pain, the world will teach them for you in ways much more emotionally damaging and debilitating where they will not be prepared to take responsibility, and it’s not guaranteed you’re going to be there to help them through it. In reality anything that causes another discomfort could be viewed as abuse or violence but then we would have societal collapse without any clear ethical or moral boundaries and everyone fighting over the percieved right that I should be to express myself in whatever way I deem appropriate. But I guess that’s already the world we live in

    • jen

      You seem to be assuming that since I do not advocate for spanking than I must be a proponent of time-outs instead. I am not. For kids to learn, they need to be connected with their parents, and as you pointed out, time-outs actually cause *dis*connection, which is of course not at all conducive to a positive parent/child relationship nor to a child learning right from wrong. So no, I do not recommend time-outs either. Thankfully, this is not a zero-sum game, and there are many positive ways to help our children learn without having to hurt them in the process.

    • S in Seattle

      There actually aren’t as many studies showing spanking is better than time outs. The preponderance of the medical literature(I’m a physician) shows harm from and lack of efficacy of spanking. If you prefer anecdotes, I was spanked rarely by my mother. I remember fear and anger from those instances and no recollection of why. I acted up in early grade school, however, and my beloved teacher looked me straight in the eye and said “I’m disappointed in you.” I remember every detail of that moment and what I did and it was the most effective discipline ever. Don’t underestimate a child’s ability to understand, at the very least that her behavior hurts someone she loves.

    • A few counterpoints:

      “My child can’t understand financial ramifications to decisions, relational ramifications to decisions etc,”

      That’s also true of some mentally disabled adults. Yet it’s not OK to spank them.

      “I suppose we could start saying fire is violent for burning those who touch it, or animals are abusive for biting a child that pulls its tail, etc etc.”

      Judiciousness isn’t expected of fire or animals as it is from parents.

      “If parents can’t teach children that crossing a line will bring pain, the world will teach them for you in ways much more emotionally damaging and debilitating where they will not be prepared to take responsibility, and it’s not guaranteed you’re going to be there to help them through it.”

      You can teach them about the hurtfulness of the word and without being part of it.

      “In reality anything that causes another discomfort could be viewed as abuse or violence”

      Fortunately, the law has other criteria for assault/battery.

  10. Children need discipline. I’m not advocating harming a child, but a whack on the leg sure does get a child’s attention and sometimes is necessary if repeated offenses continue. Otherwise a child can continue to do as they want as a child and as an adult. I definitely would spank if my child did something life threatening like running into the street. Never should a punishment be done in anger. But if a child knows that a parent will not let them do something wrong, they learn boundaries and that their parents who are wiser and lovingly guide them. I see children today not being corrected and parents are disrespected. A spanking if needed is meant to help the child. Even the Bible says spare the rod and spoil the child. A child must learn that consequences and sometimes when they don’t listen repeatedly—they need a reminder. I’m not saying to harm.

    • Jessica

      There is something in between hitting our children and neglecting them completely, because those two ways of upbringing are extremes and damaging for any being. Finding the balance our children deserve is the key; helping them to grow and guide them into learning what their limits are with love and respect is fundamental to rise up healthy human beings. No parent would hit their children if they knew other ways to guide/teach them. This is a matter of developing new effective skills. Daniel Siegel is a good reading for this matter.

    • Kelly

      Spanking a child for running into the street is ineffective. After the spank can you then trust your toddler near the street? No, they are too young to be in charge of their own personal safety, therfore it is the parent’s job to keep them close to prevent them from dashing out into danger. Perhaps the parent should be disciplined for not watching out for their child?

  11. Except Kelly Clarkson is not fine. She has openly struggled with depression and eating disorders. That one got past her…. :/

  12. Tessa

    What a wonderful letter, Jen. You sound like you’ve spent some time with Dr. Bavolek and his Nurturing Parenting programs! Love, love, love!!

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