Parenting In Spain: Inanimate Retribution

February 17, 2011 By: erik Category: Complaining, Parenting, Spain, Weird 1,671 views

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What!  Now, how did that table get in my mouth?As an expat parent of a toddler in Spain, I have noticed a rather bizarre parenting behavior exhibited by Spaniards caring for small children. A typical scenario goes something like this:

A toddler is careening around and hits her head on a table. Tables and desks are right at forehead height for a two-year-old. The parent or caretaker rushes over and hugs the crying child. Immediately the caretaker turns to the table and shouts, “Bad table!” and smacks the table hard with his hand and encourages the child to hit and scold the table as well.

If you’re like me the first time I saw this parenting technique, you have a big “WTF?” thought bubble above your head.

The only possible positive effect of this behavior would be to distract the child away from thinking about her pain, which is a good idea for sure. But if you think about it for more than a second, you see that you’re teaching the child that:

  1. There are no accidents
  2. Some external agent is always to blame for your pain
  3. That external agent must be punished with violence

It’s exactly this kind of thinking that is responsible for some of the worst litigation, legislation, violence, and war that has plagued our species throughout history. The exact negation of each of these sentences is what makes (some of) us responsible, honorable, mature adults. The main goal of good parenting should be to teach the child to fight her innate tendencies to think like these sentences and to accept responsibility for her actions.

When you ask a caretaker who has just exhibited this behavior what he is trying to accomplish by hitting the inanimate object and what that teaches the child, he will invariably say that he’s never thought about it and “that’s just what everyone does in that situation”, and that yes, if you follow it to its logical conclusion, that is a bad thing to teach a child. I’ve talked to a few people about this, and they all say the same thing…and then keep right on doing it the next time their kid falls down.

This parenting technique seems pretty well ingrained in Spanish culture. I’ve seen my in-laws do it, the people at the grocery store, and parents in the playground. I can only assume that the daycare workers spend a good part of their day reprimanding inanimate objects. Thankfully, I’ve never seen my wife do it. Not that it matters, since my child has already learned the behavior and will often say “Bad!” and slap an object that she’s just carelessly bumped her head on.

Does this happen in other cultures? The only culture of toddlers and toddler parenting I know is the Spanish one. Do American parents exhibit this behavior?


I fully understand that I’m making a mountain of a mole hill here. The vast majority of baby and toddler parenting techniques make no difference in the long term development and maturity of the child. I’ve never seen an adult Spaniard shout at or hit an object that he’s bumped into, so the actual effects of this particular parenting behavior on the majority of children are most likely nil.

It does make me think, however… What behaviors do I exhibit that I do unthinkingly simply “because that’s the way everyone does it“, that, with a little thought, are clearly a bad idea?

  • erik

    Some insightful comments from a friend of mine who is too lazy to leave a comment here:

    [This behavior] could also reinforce the spatial relationship of the child to the object. So instead of just having incidental, accidental contact with the object, they learn how substantial it is and that they can deal with it deliberately as well.

  • paola

    Funny: I hadn’t thought about it, but now that you mention it I think it is common practice in Italy too. I’ve certainly seen my mum doing it a couple of times and it rings a faint bell in my own memory.
    If it is any comfort, I turned out ok 😉 (and here is where Simon will disagree, I expect).

  • marga

    Yes, you are making a mountain of a mole hill.

    I think you are getting all this from an “adult” point of view. You are analysing the situation, the facts, the consequences like an adult, and you arrive to the conclusion that:
    – shit, I mean accidents, happen
    – you are responsible for yourself
    – violence is never a good “idea”

    But we are talking about children. And they are wrong. To start with, they think their parents are the best thing ever!

    But then, again, what do you think of pigs, ducks, dogs, even Dora´s map! That can talk?
    What about kings, and princesses that are all beautiful and always happy? Are we teaching our children that everything’s is that easy and that great?

    People do whatever it takes to make a child stop crying and the truth is that I don´t think we people from Italy and Spain are that bad.

    Paola: I am sure you are completely great, despite whatever Simon could say!

    • erik

      Yes, of course. I’m looking at it from an adult perspective mainly because it’s fun to do so and makes for blog fodder.

      When watching Looney Tunes with Nora, I’ve noticed just how brutally violent it is, with bombs and point blank shotgun blasts in every episode. And looking at it from an adult perspective leads you only to unfounded horror. As usual, the best way to show the ridiculousness of a situation is through parody, which The Simpsons has done perfectly with Itchy and Scratchy.

      I certainly don’t think that Spanish or Italian parents are inferior than anyone else. It was just something I noticed and wanted to write about.

    • Yes, Paola is completely great and I never disagree with her, although I do slap her and say “Bad Paola!” when I bump into her.

  • Paul

    Your mother and I remember chastising various tables and chairs when you were young. I suspect parents have been employing this trick for many centuries. I did think that Ana’s biting fly on your Nora’s first pigtails video was the best example of this parenting trick that I have seen.

    • erik

      Yes, I, too, thought that maneuver was particularly clever.

  • Also, I’m surprised you didn’t link this back to your In Spanish It’s Not Your Fault post, which seems to me to cover similar ground.

    • erik

      Ooh, the thought had never occurred to me that the language structure might have something to do with it. The verbs for “hit” and “bump” aren’t conjugated in the passive voice like the examples in that other post. Thanks for the insight.

      • I wasn’t thinking about those verbs in particular, but more of a general “It’s not my fault, stupid inanimate objects!” kind of philosophy.

        • erik


          A side thought: I wonder if a physics professor has ever cited Newton’s Third Law to claim, “No, his face hit my fist, officer!” Depending on your reference frame, the table did hit the child’s forehead just as hard as the forehead hit the table! 🙂

          • Yeah, that’d stand up in court…

  • erik


    pole fight

  • Jimy

    “daycare workers spend a good part of their day reprimanding inanimate objects”…cracks me up!!
    I never agreed with this “Spanish” parenting technique either and still don’t agree with it. ( by the way, extends far down as Andalucia!!) Fortunately it only lasts through the toddler, bumping into things stage. What I really couldn’t handle was when strangers on the street asked if my kid was “mala”… “tiene cara de mala”. I never, ever said she was bad that’s something your kids should never here you say!
    It’s nice to read what you write and know that I’m not the only one out there thinking WTF??

    • erik

      Likewise! Thanks for chiming in.

    • Spaniard in America

      Jimy, When a Spaniard asks you “esta mala” it is not asking “es mala”. “Esta mala” means “is she sick?” “Tiene mala cara” means she looks sick. 

  • Yeah, that custom always cracks me up! Our kids have had plenty of tables, chairs and other random items smacked for them. I’m pretty sure it’s just a way of distracting them and getting them to stop crying and not really a “blame it on somebody or something else” philosophy or anything like that. And the violence? Well, you see that in all cultures. It’s like some lullabies and nursery rhymes. If you really think about them, you start to realize how horrible some of them really are. Like Rockabye Baby. How can we sing something that horrible to our kids? And what about The old woman who lived in a shoe? She ends up whipping her kids and sending them to bed. What are we teaching kids with that? That it’s okay to hit your kids if you’re frustrated? Nah, I don’t think so. I think all that stuff doesn’t really have much effect on how you think as an adult, it’s more important how you see your parents treat others. That does matter. So, go ahead slap the table, it’s okay. 😉

  • bawa

    I think it is a distracting technique, so that the child stops thinking about the pain and focuses on something else.
    In my part of Asia, what parents would do say to a small child if they fell over and hurt themselves, or bumped into something, ” Oh look, you have spilt the ant’s flour!” (to make bread). And there you go, looking for a tiny ant who you imagine to be carrying this sack of flour on its head to feed the family…

    • I love that! The idea of instilling guilt for wrecking a poor laborer’s day… Genius!

      Thank you for your insights into another culture, Bawa.

  • Elizabeth Fraser

    Just stumbled across your blog. sorry to say that I have observed that technique lots of times in the UK too. maybe a daft European thing…

  • Merinda Logie

    Interesting observation. I am an Australian married to a Basque Spaniard. He blames and externalises his pain all the time. I have been shocked for years at the pervasiveness of his projection. So this makes me think….