Dear Therapist: My Fiancé Believes Spanking Is Good Parenting

His parents spanked him as a child, and he insists the punishment has shaped him positively.

An illustration of a child with a hand imprint on his face.
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Dear Therapist,

My fiancé and I met four years ago and have an incredible relationship. We both have an admiration, respect, and love for each other that I have never felt in any of my past relationships. He proposed to me early this year and we plan to get married next year.

The engagement brought up a further conversation about the future. I always thought he would make a wonderful father because he is incredibly thoughtful and giving with me and I assumed that he would be that way with his children. However, he grew up in a very traditional southern household and was spanked as a child. I grew up in Colorado with what might be called more “modern” parenting. In our discussions, I learned that he plans to spank his children and that he believes being spanked made him a better person.

In my mind, this is a deal breaker. I believe spanking violates a trust between parent and child that is important for their future relationships. And when I expressed this, he vaguely said that since moving from his small southern town to Colorado, his worldview has changed and that maybe his opinion on this would change as well. Meanwhile, he has an almost nonexistent relationship with his parents, and although I wouldn’t attribute it all to spanking, I feel spanking played a role.

At this point, I am not sure what to think or how to handle this. I know you can’t change a person, but in some way I believe him when he says he could change. What should I do?

San Francisco, Calif.

Dear Jessica,

In the early stages of a happy relationship, couples tend to focus on areas of similarity and let the differences slide. Sometimes, in fact, couples can seem so compatible that they don’t even realize significant differences exist. But all relationships have differences, and it’s important to bring them into the open in order to understand how they might affect you.

You told your fiancé that spanking children is a deal breaker for you, and his response was that he’d be willing to reconsider and possibly change his views. It’s a good sign that he’s taking your perspective seriously—it shows flexibility and open-mindedness, two qualities that usually accompany strong marriages. But what I’m not hearing in his response, or in your letter, is how you two intend to move forward from here.

Instead of sitting in a holding pattern, noodling the dilemma in the privacy of your respective minds, you need to dive deeper into this difference together. For instance, since your conversation took place, has he been able to articulate why he believes that spanking made him a better person? If you see it differently, are you able to talk about those differences? Has he been curious enough to research the effects of spanking on kids to understand why you feel so strongly about this that you would leave him despite how much you love him?

Many people become the kind of parent their parents were, unless they’re educated otherwise. Healthy parenting is about influence, not power. It sounds like you grew up with parents who knew that parenting involves guiding and teaching, not pain and control. The word discipline, in fact, is derived from the Latin word discere, which means “to learn.” Children don’t learn from being hit and left crying—in fact, they miss the entire lesson, which is the conversation about why what they did was problematic or dangerous or inappropriate and what they can do differently to get their needs met instead. Nor do adults learn well by being hit—and perhaps more significantly, if your fiancé hit you to communicate his displeasure with something you did, that would be called abuse. That’s why spanking children is illegal in some 50-odd countries, though it’s legal in the United States (within specific parameters).

Even so, in 2018 the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a policy statement against corporal punishment (their term for spanking), citing evidence of its harmful effects on child development: an increased risk of mental-health problems, cognitive issues from toxic stress, relational difficulties (loving and trusting someone who hits you is hard, which creates problems in adulthood if that is a child’s experience of love), and aggressive behaviors (children copy their parents’ actions, and also externalize their anger and sense of helplessness), among others.

But you don’t have to try to convince your fiancé of all of this, partly because doing so might backfire; ultimately, he’s going to need to come to his own conclusion about what makes him comfortable when parenting his future children. Instead, what might be helpful is for you to take a parenting class together. A parenting class (which you can find by searching online or by calling up a reputable pediatrician’s office and asking for a referral) will show you how to help your future children learn to self-regulate, providing tools and strategies for much more effective discipline, meaning teaching. (For example, in a parenting class your fiancé might learn that sometimes kids act out because they absolutely need to run around outside after what feels like a very long day spent inside their first-grade classroom, and what helps here is some time at the park, not time being in pain.)

You might also use this engagement period to go to couples therapy, where you’ll learn how to talk about your respective reactions to the parenting class, as well as your own childhoods and how those experiences might shape your ideas about what parenting together should look like. It would also be an opportunity for your fiancé to understand more about what sounds like his essentially estranged relationship with his parents. And it would offer a safe place for each of you to be candid about your respective deal breakers—because after all, your fiancé has a potential deal breaker, too. Even after taking the parenting class, he could decide that he won’t be with a partner who disapproves of his spanking his kids.

Whatever the outcome, you’ll learn a great deal about yourselves and each other, which will help you both in your role as parents—whether together or with other partners.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.