Cultural Differences: Ritualized Corporal Punishment

The very first cultural difference that I can remember noticing was when my uncle threatened to hit me when I was around 10.

The question about whether or not one should be allowed to hit their children is a contentious one, even in countries like Italy. Some think that it should be punishable by law. Others think that it is the only way to get some particularly rambunctious kids to behave. Many are somewhere in between, not wanting to judge others on how they raise their kids. This post is not about that question, but rather on how I came to realize that the culturally accepted ways in which corporal punishment is practiced in my two countries of origin are starkly different, and that I was the only one who could stop a very serious misunderstanding from taking place in my family.

I was around 10, and I was (still am) a complete smart-ass. My Italian family thought it was adorable, and they were a little proud of what they saw as a sign of intelligence. My American family thought I was a little brat, as I did not automatically defer to authority figures, and still like to tell me how much of a brat I was to this day. At the time I was visiting my family in the States, and I was left alone in the house with my uncle and my little cousin. I cannot remember what I said or did, I remember simply being happy and laughing, and I was probably teasing my uncle in some way. What I do remember clearly was my uncle suddenly getting very serious, looking me dead in the eye and informing me that, although he was not my father, he was still my uncle and therefore would have every right to take me to the next room and give me a spanking. If I carried on like this, he said, he would have no choice but to punish me, by spanking me, and then inform my mother of my misbehavior.

I stared at him blankly. My little cousin was looking back and forth between me and my uncle, scared. He didn’t shout, nor raise his voice, nor look angry in any way, he might as well have been telling me what he planned to cook for dinner. This calm manner made the situation so much more creepy and humiliating to me. I left the room. I stayed in my bedroom alone until my mother got home. I never told her what he had said to me. It was the only thing I could think to do that would have deescalated the situation.

What you need to understand is, when Italians (and, from what I gather, most Mediterranean cultures) hit their kids, it is in a moment of anger. During an argument, or a fight, a parent might slap their child in the face. If the child is very rebellious, some mothers will take it upon themselves to beat their kids when they’ve done something very dangerous, in a moment of panic. Usually they feel guilty afterwards, and when the situation has calmed down there will be a discussion as to why they got that beating. Hitting children when one is calm is unheard of, and would be the first red flag that this child is being seriously abused at home. When I tell this story to other Italians, it shocks them. The idea that someone could schedule their kid’s beating is unthinkable.

In that living room 18 years ago, I was just as shocked. I had seen American movies, TV shows, and had heard from my uncle and other American adults about how they were disciplined as children, and I had gathered that this calm, matter-of-fact kind of corporal punishment was not completely unusual. My uncle is not a psychopath, he just believes that this was an option available to him to teach me respect. I understood this, looking at him, but there was nothing in the world that could have made me calmly allow myself to be lead into a separate room for a spanking. I would have fought him with every last breath I had, as viciously as if he were trying to throw me from the window. I knew that I would have never forgiven him for trying to subject me to such humiliation. I also knew that this would confirm in his mind that I was a complete and total brat. Unsavable, with no sense of respect. I knew that my mother would have been furious, and they may have never spoken again because of it. I knew that I had the power to prevent all of this from happening, because I knew that my uncle and my mother would never have understood each other’s perspectives on this, and so I left. We never spoke of it again.

Some of you, who have been raised with “when Dad get’s home I will inform him of your misbehavior and he will beat you accordingly”, will think I really was a brat, and I was being stupid. Others will be shocked that this kind of corporal punishment exists outside of horror movies. Others still will be confused as to how being calm and giving your child a spanking could possibly be considered worse than a hard slap in the face given in anger. What is important to note is that, when someone hits a child, the physical pain of it is often the minor point. It’s the way it makes you feel afterwards, the emotional part of it. Making a child accept and bow down to corporal punishment, that any parent could still be able to hit a child when the anger has passed, that is the part that the Italian culture cannot wrap its mind around.


  1. Fitzgerald says

    I’d note that many American families that use corporal punishment in an an ice calm manner to be just as moral ss hitting a child in anger, they’d consider it obviously superior.

    To the American families that actively embrace corporal punishment, doing do calmly and deliberately is what distinguishes it from child abuse. Hitting a child in sudden anger would be an unacceptable loss of control, and a stereotypical behavior of alcoholics. In practice parents are often less collected when they use violence, but that’s the ideal.

    I’m not making any moral judgements in this post, but I do want to clarify just how distinct the cultural patterns are.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I know some find it to be morally superior, and it is the cultural distinction I was trying to make. In Italy, the idea is that no one wants to hit their kids, ever. Most people I know have only been hit maybe 3 or 4 times in their lives. The belief is that anyone can get angry, and momentarity lose control. A child can forgive you for getting very angry with them, and apologizing afterwards. But calm, scheduled corporal punishment, to them, implies that youre heart is not breaking into a thousand pieces when you are physically hitting your child, and how can it not? Do you not love them? I’m not saying that American families who do this don’t love their kids, I’m trying to explain the mentality here. Of course if someone were to lose their minds and hit their kids regularly over stupid things, that would also be a sign of abuse or alcoholism here, but they would still see the ice cold perfunctory hitting as something close to psychopathic

  2. says

    I am horrified of all kinds of spankings.
    Threatening punishment on a kid calmly seems like you’re actually more concerned with your power than with the behaviour as such.
    But spanking a kid when you’Re angry can just as well be turned into even worse abuse. My mother usually did the “when angry” spanking, but then she turned the guilt on me. Oh, sure, she felt bad for having hit me, but I had made her hit me, so it was not only my fault that I’d been hit, it was also my fault that she was feeling bad now.

  3. 3kramer says

    This is not a difficult moral issue. An adult hitting a child is always and without exception an abuse of power, by definition. When done by a parent, it is always and without exception a betrayal of the most basic duty a parent has, not to purposely harm your child. There is never any justification whatsoever that can ever make it anything other than despicable. A single slap, a single smack, a single spank instills hate and violence into the next generation. I dispare for humanity if even social justice advocates cannot see that the root of all social injustice is violence against children.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      I thought I made it clear that my post was not a judgement or opinion on the morality of corporal punishment, but a comment on a deep cultural difference I experienced as a child

  4. 3kramer says

    OK, so I don’t think there are deep cultural differences. In every culture, at every point in history, there are people who are violent toward children and people who are horrified at such abuse. I expect that friends and neighbors in each community you came from had very different attitudes than your family. Abusers try to normalise their abuse by saying “everyone does it” or “it’s what we (insert religion, ethnic or cultural group) do”.

    I grew up in a fundamentalist family and community that my father was a leader of. While he tried to normalise “corporal punishment” in the form of my public beatings, many parents where horrified. In fact some of the most devout and pious members never lifted a finger against their children.

    So when you say Italians find abuse in anger acceptable but Americans find cold-blooded abuse acceptable, I think you have been conditioned by your abusers to think that is what is normal. The world is divided into violent child abusers and not, there is no deeper cultural difference.

    • thoughtsofcrys says

      Let me make one thing clear: I was not hit as a child. My family saw corporal punishment as bad, lazy parenting at best, and abuse at worst. That does not mean that they saw any parent who ever smacked their child even once as abusers. The people who think that a single slap, or a single spanking automatically qualifies those parents as violent child abusers are definitely in the minority, in both countries. While many don’t do it, that does not mean that a certain grey area does not exist. It is in this grey area that a cultural difference exists.
      The kind of beatings you speak of are, I’m sure, found to be horrific by a majority of people, especially outside of a fundamentalist context, no matter how much your father tried to normalize it in the community.
      The fundamental difference comes from a bowing down to authority. Parents in Italy would never expect a child to bow their heads and take a beating, and any child who did so would give them the impression of an abused child, no matter how “light” the beating might be. Even a few light slaps on the butt, both taken and given in an ice-cold manner, would seem like something out of a creepy horror movie.
      Personally, I think Sweden has the right idea on the subject. Hitting children is not allowed, but they don’t automatically remove children from their parents or throw people in jail if all they did was give their kid a single slap when they were being mouthy. They explain to the parents that it is not tolerated, provide counseling and parenting classes, and just try to help overwhelmed parents. But hey, that’s just my opinion on the legality of it, once again, it does not pertain to the discussion I was trying to start.

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