Your correspondent Mike reminded me of my mother’s use of language when it came to matters of discipline. I was also born and brought up in Britain, though in my case it was in an industrial working class town in the north west of England during the 60s.
Though poor, my family were fiercely proud and with that came a strict adherence to the discipline of my parents’ own generation as the best way to bring up a child to be a good law-abiding citizen. In other words, children were expected to behave and if they didn’t, punishment was swift and summary.
I didn’t hear the word ‘spanking’ until I was older and it was used in an American movie. We were given a ‘smacked bottom’, ‘a hard smacked bottom’ or ‘a really hard smacked bottom’.
For some of my friends this could be over trousers (always short, in my day) or underpants (always white Y-fronts, the British equivalent of jockey shorts). The punishment could be applied with the back of a hairbrush or with a belt. But for me, until I was about 12, punishment was always by hand and on my bare bottom.
I can’t remember when I got it first but I believe I was about four years old. My Mother told me recently that when she first smacked me she did it on the seat of my shorts, but I would grit my teeth and refuse to cry, no matter how hard she smacked.
She mentioned this to a neighbour who had brought up four boys and was told that the only thing to do was to ‘take down his pants and smack his bare bottom until he yells, otherwise he will grow up defying you’.
The next time she smacked me she did just this and sure enough, after the first couple of ringing smacks on my bare bottom, I was crying. Mother tells me that from then, on she only had to begin taking my trousers down for me to be in tears and pleading.
So this reaction was what sealed my fate for the next few years. It wasn’t an everyday occurrence in itself but I remember that the threat of what might happen was always present.
My mother used language to show the various degrees of danger that I was getting myself into whenever I misbehaved. “Someone’s going to get their bare bottom smacked,” was said almost as a joke and contained no threat at all, but was simply a reminder of what might happen if things got out of hand.
If she said ‘I’ll smack your bottom’, I knew that this was an early warning – but not too serious. When she said ‘I’ll smack your bare bottom’, this was a firmer warning. The use of the word ‘bare’ meant that she was getting impatient but as any smacking was always on my bare bottom, the word itself was only used as emphasis.
These threats could be said quite calmly or with a raised and angry voice – but in fact the tone was no indication as to how imminent the actual deed was, and at this stage it was never carried out.
The threat when we went out anywhere was that I must be on my best behaviour because ‘if you show me up, I’ll take your pants down and smack your bare bottom in front of everyone’ – the emphasis being on ‘everyone’. I usually paid attention to this, as I knew she would and I did experience it on several particularly humiliating occasions.
Far more dangerous was the question: ‘Do you want your bare bottom smacked?’, for then I had to judge whether this was rhetorical (in which case I must look suitably afraid and sheepish, and say nothing) or if an answer was demanded (in which case, I had to say ‘no, Mum’ and drop my head in shame).
If I had judged it right and given the correct response, I would be told ‘well, behave then!’ and Mother would carry on as if nothing had happened.
If I had made the wrong decision and answered ‘no’ when no answer was expected, this could be judged as ‘cheek’. If I remained silent when I should answer, this might be thought of as dumb insolence and could either elicit a good telling off or, if her patience was at an end, the very smacking I had come to dread. Again, the tone in which the question was asked was no indication to just how close I was to being smacked.
The most terrifying piece of language would come either after several warnings that I had failed to heed, or very occasionally when my behaviour was immediately deemed to have gone over the mark. The tone was always quiet and calm and she would often be engaged in some chore such as sewing or knitting, which she would continue without a break.
She would not even raise her head or look at me, but would quietly say: “Are you going to stop what you’re doing…or perhaps you would prefer to have your bare bottom smacked?”
‘Perhaps’ and ‘prefer’ were the words to fear for it would suppose that I had a choice and could immediately stop my offending behaviour and politely say that I would prefer not. I knew that the moment those words were uttered, there was nothing I could do and nine times out of ten, I was for it.
I would begin to plead. “No, mummy, please – I won’t do it again. I will be good. I won’t do it again. Please.”
Even as I spoke, she would slowly put down whatever it was she was doing and begin to rise. I would retreat away from her, still pleading, and she would approach me without speaking. She would take hold of my arm and turn me round.
My trousers were yanked down unceremoniously, to be followed by my white underpants, and I would either be put quickly over her knee or bent over an armchair or sofa. She would then smack my bare bottom very hard and very fast as I cried and begged for it to stop.
Afterwards, I would be sent to my room until I had stopped crying and she would either come to see me or I would go down to see her. I was always then hugged and forgiven. The atmosphere would have changed completely and my misdemeanour was forgotten – but I knew in no uncertain terms that the next time I misbehaved, I would get the same.