Mom and Dad each shared the responsibility of rearing us children, but because of Dad's work and travel commitments, Mom was the chief organizer and enforcer of the rules. To a casual visitor at our house, it may have sometimes seemed chaotic with so many children all clamoring for attention at once. Actually, I never knew of a moment when everything wasn't under control.
Around the dinner table there might be six or seven totally different conversations going on at the same time, but with a single word, either Mom or Dad could immediately call us all to order. A remarkable thing about our parents is that not one of us twelve children can remember a time when either of them raised their voice in frustration or anger. Yelling was not allowed inside the house, although we children sometimes howled like a pack of wild hyenas when we were outside playing.
Our home was, for the most part, a happy comfortable place, but it was also run with military-like precision. Everyone knew what the rules were and no one dared step out of line, at least not for long.
Every day after school we were to report to Mom for the assignment of our daily chore, and only after that was done were we free to play. Of course there were exceptions. For instance, if it was my turn to help with the dishes, then I could play until after supper.
As the six older children matured, we were each assigned one of the younger six to watch over. This worked out particularly well on Sunday mornings when we were all preparing for church. When I became a teenager, I always had two people to dress, myself and either Mark, Bruce, or Jeff.
Dad and Mom were both strict disciplinarians. They believed totally in the Biblical admonition, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him,” Proverbs 22:15.
We were reminded often that spankings, or whippings, were meted out for only two reasons: lying or disobedience. I thought that was redundant since it was disobedience to tell a lie. I suppose it was just my folk’s way of emphasizing that always telling the truth was of utmost importance. The only lie I ever remember consciously telling was the one to my first grade teacher on the afternoon before I was saved.
Whenever one of us children received a paddling at school, and that happened to me four or five times a year, it meant an automatic spanking at home. When I got to high school and they began giving detention instead of paddlings, I was spanked at home for that too. The punishment at home was always more severe. Regardless of whatever excuse or explanation I might give, the school teacher or principal was always presumed right.
School spankings were usually administered by the principal -- Mr. Wilson in elementary school and Mr. Schultz in high school. Mr. Wilson had a mean looking paddle carved out of a 1x6 piece of lumber. Etched on one side of it were the words, “Board of Education,” and in the center was a big hole, an inch in diameter. We were told that the hole was there so the paddle would raise blisters, although it didn’t.
Because of fear that a student might accuse the principal of administering unreasonably harsh punishment, Mr. Wilson and Mr. Schultz always had a teacher come into their office to serve as a witness.
The school spankings were tolerable, and I considered getting one a badge of honor. The worse part was the spanking I knew I was going to get at home.
My parents didn’t have a paddle. They spanked either with a belt or a switch. When we lived on 11th Street and had lots of overgrown bushes behind the house, Mom or Dad sometimes sent us children out into the yard to select a switch for our own spanking and bring it to them.
Choosing a switch was excruciating. If I brought in too small of a switch, it would not pass muster and would be discarded in favor of the belt. The trick was to find a switch that was as small as possible without being too small. It was an art at which I became very adept.
When one of us was due a spanking, and Dad was away, Mom would give us a choice to either be spanked by her, or wait until Dad came home and be spanked by him. My choice depended on my mood at the moment. Mom didn’t hit has hard as Dad, but she didn’t have as good an aim either. A blow on the back or legs was worse than one on the butt. Dad always hit the mark, so I usually chose to wait and take my punishment from him.
It was very unusual for me to go an entire day without a whipping. My parents were probably imitating the same stern discipline which they had endured as youngsters. Some of my friends had parents who were just as strict, so I accepted it as normal.
I also had friends who said their parents never spanked them. I both envied and felt sorry for those children. I envied them for not getting whippings. I was sorry that their parents didn’t love them enough to discipline them.
I never doubted the love my parents had for me -- especially my mother. Mom and Dad always exhibited a united front in their discipline and one never disagreed with the other in front of us children. However, on more than one occasion, I overheard my Mom privately plead with Dad not to be so hard on me.
Once Dad came home from a preaching appointment and gathered all of us children around. He wanted to tell us about an experience he had that weekend.On Saturday night, Dad had stayed in a church parsonage with the family of the pastor of the church where he was preaching. He had shared a bedroom with the pastor’s son. That evening, after the lights were out, the pastor’s boy declared, “Brother Conn, my daddy really does love me and my sister.”
“That’s wonderful,” Dad replied. “I’m sure he does.”
“He loves us so much that he wouldn’t spank either of us for anything in the world.”
“Children,” Dad said. “I just want all of you to know that I love you even more than that preacher loves his children.”
For a fleeting moment, a ray of hope sprang up within my heart. I thought Dad was about to announce that he was repenting for ever having spanked us and would never do it again.
“I love you so much,” Dad said, “that if I ever catch one of you being disobedient or going astray, I’m going to whip you until you get back in line and don’t make a shipwreck of your life.”
My almost daily spankings didn’t come because I was a rebellious child. I wasn’t. They usually came for goofing off when I should have been doing my chores, not doing my homework, or scuffling with my brothers and sisters. No doubt the number one reason for spankings was for fighting.
We children probably didn’t fight any more than most siblings and the fights were never serious. But Mom and Dad had zero tolerance for any kind of squabbling. If one of my brothers hit me, and I hit back, even what we called just a “tap,” both would get a spanking.
For example, Paul and I shared a double bed for most of our growing up years. We had an invisible line drawn down the center of the bed, and the two of us had an agreement that if the other crossed that line, he was fair game. If I awoke in the night and found Paul’s leg or head over the line, I had the right to beat the living daylights out of that part of his body until it was withdrawn across the line. Likewise, he had the same privilege concerning me.
The problem with our system was that Mom and Dad didn’t agree with it. No hitting was allowed for any reason. If one of us yelled loudly enough for Mom and Dad to hear, the hitter was spanked. If the other hit back, we were both spanked.
Although I generally thought the punishment Dad and Mom gave us was fair, at least in their own eyes, there were a few times that I questioned my Dad’s judgment.
One particular instance was when Dad had just returned home from a preaching trip that had kept him away for more than a week. We children knew what was to be expected when he returned.
Dad sat in his easy chair and lined us all up like stair steps in front of him, from the oldest to the youngest. Beginning with Philip, we were each ordered to confess everything we had done during Dad’s absence that deserved a whipping. After each tearful confession, he would ask each of us other children if the one being interrogated had left anything out. If any of us could tell of a single misdeed that the other had done but not confessed, he would receive twice as many licks with the belt for that infraction.
After Philip admitted that once he had disobeyed his mother and another time he had stayed out past his curfew, he obediently got down on his hands and knees and Dad gave him the number of lashes he deemed appropriate for the crime.
One by one this continued as each child bared his or her heart, and was summarily spanked. No one dared leave out a single punishable offense because we all knew our siblings would be only too willing to tell, and then we would really get it.
When Dad had left on this trip, I knew that judgment day would come upon his return, as it always did. I was fearful of my dad’s wrath, and while he was away I had made a concentrated effort to be obedient to my mother, to stay out of fights with my brothers and sisters, and to always do my homework and keep the family rules. I honestly could say that I had done nothing deserving of a spanking.
Dad questioned me sternly, demanding that I tell him the truth. I quivered in fear but stood my ground; I had been a good boy. Dad questioned the other children, calling each by name one at a time. “Can you tell me anything Stephen has done that deserves a spanking?” I shivered and waited. They all answered, “No sir, Stephen didn’t do anything wrong this time.”
Dad passed me by and went on down the line, ordering the others to confess their own wrongs. Paul, Sharon, Raymond and all but the youngest babies each got a whipping. Then, before Dad dismissed us, he looked back at me and commanded sternly, “Stephen, get down on your hands and knees in front of me.”
Tears welled up in my eyes; a lump rose in my throat; horror struck my heart. “But why, Daddy?”“
I can’t believe in the entire time I was away you didn’t do at least one thing that deserves a spanking.” He said. “It’s not right for everyone else to get spanked and not you. Let’s just say that I’m going to give you a whipping for general principles.” He spanked me as hard as if I had disobeyed.
Dad had told us children often that when he had to discipline one of us, it hurt him more than it hurt us. From that day forward, I never believed it again.
When I started to school, Dad informed me that he expected me to make all A’s and B’s. He warned that if I brought home a C, I would be spanked for disobedience, because I was capable of better grades.
I made my first C in third grade, and I cried all the way home from school with my report card. I had been excited at the beginning of third grade because I knew that was the year I would learn to write in cursive. I thought that was a very grown-up thing to do.
I eagerly learned cursive, but I was not well coordinated and didn’t have the prettiest handwriting in the world. In those days the teacher graded students on penmanship, and Mrs. Smith gave me a C.
To my great relief, Mom and Dad discussed my C in penmanship and decided to make an exception for only that subject. They explained that penmanship had less to do with intelligence and more with coordination. They knew I was clumsy, so I was given a pass that time.Later, when I brought home C’s on subjects like history and arithmetic, I was spanked. Dad said I had a near genius IQ, so anything less than an A showed I wasn’t trying and anything less than a B deserved a spanking.
Worse than the spankings were the long talks I often had with Dad, usually late at night. He would frequently call me down to the dining room after the other children had gone to bed. That is where he wrote his books and articles at home in the evenings.
He would have me sit down across the table from him and berate me until I wept profusely, telling me that I was going to be a failure in life if I didn’t make better grades. He said I wouldn’t even be able to get a job pumping gas at a filling station but would have to dig ditches.
When I started to cry, I think it made him feel badly. He told me often that the reason I was crying wasn’t because he was being too hard on me. After all, he loved me and was just trying to help me. The reason I was crying, Dad said, is because I had overactive lachrymose (tear) glands.
A particularly vivid memory I have is of such a talk with Dad on the evening of my twelfth birthday. I was very excited about turning twelve. I was on the verge of being a teenager. To me, that meant I was practically grown. That evening Mom had cooked a special dinner, which had been followed by a gift from my parents and birthday cake for all.
Maybe it was something about my turning twelve that triggered Dad that evening. I suppose he thought I was almost grown too, and an utter failure. After the other children had gone to bed, I was called down to the dining room for one of our talks.
Dad told me that I was no longer a child but a young man, and he was concerned that I was not turning out well. Of all his sons, Dad said that I was the one most like him. That’s why he was harder on me than the others. He berated me for more than an hour about my grades, my poor posture, my being over weight, and other flaws. My lachrymose glands kicked in big time.
Then, Dad got down on his knees in front of me. “It’s your birthday and I’m not going to spank you this time,” he said. He started to cry himself, but I strongly suspected that his tears were just theatrics.
“Son,” Dad sobbed, “I have failed you as a father, because someway, somehow I have not motivated you to do better in school so you can someday amount to something worthwhile in life.”That’s when Dad handed me the belt. “Here, Son, take my belt and spank me for failing you so much as a father.”
More than anything I wanted to take advantage of this unexpected opportunity, grab the belt and wallop the daylights out of him. But I didn’t dare. I wasn’t sure Dad was really sincere, and even if he did take a beating from me that time, I felt he would even the score the next time he spanked me -- which I knew would be soon.It was almost midnight when I was sent back up to my room. I was still lying awake in my bed thirty minutes later, when Dad called me down again.
Dad seemed remorseful that he had ruined my twelfth birthday. He apologized, and at the same time defended what he had done as being prompted only out of a heart that loved me and wanted me to reach my full potential. It just broke his heart that I was wasting my life by being a B and C student.
Then Dad handed me a book. It was one from his personal library that was also a favorite of mine, Around the World in 1,000 Pictures. Dad had inscribed the book and handed it to me as a peace offering. “Here, son,” he said, “I want you to have this. Happy birthday!”
I still have that book. On the inside of the front cover in my Dad’s handwriting are these words:
To Stephen, my son,
Whom I love
And who bears
and desire to travel
of his father–
on his 12th birthday.
January 26, 1957
When I pick that book up, even to this day, half a century later, my lachrymose glands begin to work.
One of the last times my Dad whipped me was when I was eighteen. It was the spring of my senior year of high school, on a Friday afternoon. I had just finished eating dinner and was across the street from our house in the parking lot of the North Cleveland Church of God, trying to learn to ride a skate board.
Skate boards were a fairly new invention, and it was my first time to be on one. I wasn’t doing too well, barely keeping my balance. Suddenly, seemingly from out of nowhere, I was tackled by my 14-year-old brother, Raymond.
“That’s my skate board and I’ve been looking for it. Give it to me right now!”
Unknown to us, Dad was watching from the window in his study and saw our scuffle. He stepped onto the front porch and called us home. “Both of you,” he ordered, “up to your rooms right now and don’t come down until it’s time for family devotions at 8 o’clock.”
“But, Dad,” I protested, “You can’t ground me tonight. I’m scheduled to preach for the YPE service at South Cleveland. I’ve got to leave here in about an hour.”
The South Cleveland Church of God was a large congregation on the other side of town and I was excited because my mother had planned to go with me that night. It would be her first time to hear me preach, even though I had started preaching almost three years earlier. Dad had never heard me preach either. I don’t remember why he couldn’t come that night.
“Well, Son,” Dad relented, “if the people at South Cleveland are expecting you to preach tonight, I’ll let you go, but not until you’re punished for fighting.” I dutifully got down on all fours and took my whipping. An hour later, I was standing in the pulpit to preach, my bottom still stinging.
I’ve heard it said that a child’s first concept of God, the Heavenly Father, is learned from his or her relationship with their earthly father. If this is so, that must be the reason I was so afraid of God. I never doubted that my Dad really did love me, and he showed it in many ways. But step out of line for a moment and the consequences were swift and severe. In like manner, I thought no infraction missed God’s all-seeing eye and nothing would go unpunished.
As Dad grew older, he also mellowed. All of us older children will readily tell you that he was much harsher on us than on our younger siblings. Like many of his generation, he thought it was his duty to be stern with us.
I was a young adult when I overheard Dad correcting my baby brother, Jeffrey. “Son,” he said in an exasperated tone, “you have done everything I told you not to do. You have gone where I said you were not to go. You have gotten into things I ordered you to stay away from. Suppose you were a father and your son disobeyed you like that. What would you do with him?”
Jeff swallowed hard, blinked his eyes, and replied hopefully, “Serve him refreshments?’
That answer caught Dad so off-guard he burst out laughing. He grabbed Jeff, gave him a big hug, and said, “Okay, but you must never disobey me again.” Dad took Jeff by the hand, led him into the kitchen, and the two of them enjoyed a snack together.