Dr. Christina Edmondson, Your Black World
Seems like everybody has a story…like the one my college pal told me about “coming to” after saying something “crazy” to her mother. Then, there is the one I heard in the barber shop to floods of laughter as the barber recounted running for his life from his mother. She was hot on his heels with a slipper in one hand marked for his 7-year-old behind. Each story is laced with both laughter, shared communal experience, and a hidden discomfort, as some of these childhood tales walk a tight-rope of family loyalty and hidden childhood hurts. Black folks can certainly tell a story, and the colorful cringe-worthy way in which many of us talk about childhood “whoopings” is probably both alarming and incomprehensible to anti-spanking advocates. We often don’t think or care what they might say because after all “they don’t know nuthin’ about raising Black kids.” “Time out doesn’t work on our kids, knock out” we say, “now that will work!” With a bit of a giggle, I write those phrases representing sentiments shared with me by Black parents over the last several years. Seriously, I wonder what our discipline styles say about how we see our kids and inevitably ourselves.
Despite income and education, Black folks are more likely to “whoop” their kids and while there are some Obama-style parents (the Obama’s report no longer using corporal punishment), most Black folks are not giving it up. One reason is that it is effective, highly effective. Corporal punishment produces immediate compliance. Even the most staunch anti-spankings folks must admit that. The big issue is that long-term change in behavior is a much more complicated picture.
I heard a good friend and African American historian jokingly say, “everything goes back to slavery.” The long fingers of slavery still touch the psyche of Black America, and for some it has produced hesitant attachments and an overly critical image of their own children. Take for example the slave codes, a group of laws establishing the legal governance in which owners had over enslaved persons. Enslaved persons who broke these inhumane codes were subject to severe punishment. This punishment was almost always physical and, at its worst, lethal. While in no way am I proposing that some Black folks of today intentionally beat their kids like slaves (although as a therapist I have seen some pretty ugly stuff), I am suggesting without apology that the immovable resistance to try a multi-faceted approach to discipline and not just “whooping’em” is likely rooted here and in other baggage.
Something like childrearing is passed on from generation to generation. Most new parents have a running list of what they will not do like their parents. Some have been so bold to utter or at least think the phrase, “I’ll never treat my kids like you treated me.” This reactionary style of parenting without any skills to enhance or sustain it, ironically often leads parents right back to that which they formerly rejected. Despite family research not being on the side of spanking, over 25 countries banning corporal punishment, and there being proven methods of discipline without corporal punishment, loyalty and dare I say the love of the practice pervades. One reason is that for many discipline begins and ends at “whooping.” For too many persons (regardless of race) childrearing and correction MUST include physical consequences or it is not effective at changing unwanted behavior.
Some will read this and think “Hold up Dr. Edmondson, doesn’t the Bible say somewhere ‘spare the rod spoil the child?’” Well for starters that phrase is NOT found in the Bible. It actually comes from a 17th century love poem (The Hudibras) that has misled generations of folks into thinking that God requires that spanking be the only biblically-sanctioned form of disciplining children. Here is a clear New Testament imperative concerning parenting, Ephesians 6:4 reads “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (NIV).” Parents are instructed not to push their kids to a place of bitterness and resentment. Yes, parents have the authority to use reasonable corporal punishment, but training in the Lord requires demonstrating His character to them. Using a pseudo-religious justification for not having a full-system of discipline is both lazy and wrong. Spankings don’t change the heart of a person and overindulgence in it produces bitterness in that very heart. Christians, of all people, should never use the Bible to promote any behavior that is not saturated with grace but, I will leave those more trained in the scriptures to ruminate on these matters.
Research and common sense both indicate that the strongest parenting styles combine firm, consistent boundaries, high standards, with abounding and tangible love. This is best known as the authoritative style of parenting. This style of parenting produces the healthiest outcomes. I like to think of it as “Big Momma Parenting 101.” Her hugs are as firm as her boundaries. The warmth, attention, and concern invested into her children are without debate. She is no hypocrite and lives what she preaches. She shows children how they ought to behave in how she lives. She is respected because she is respectable.
So here is something to think about. Below are a few parenting self-evaluation questions to consider as you cultivate your parenting style:
1. Do I think that I am somehow “less Black” if I employ alternatives to hitting my child?
2. Do I believe if I “Spare the Rod,” I will inevitably “Spoil the Child?” If yes, do I also apply (and know) actual Scriptures related to childrearing as passionately?
3. Is “wearing them out” and/or “jacking them up” necessary to get respect and compliance in my home?
4. Do my children have legitimate reasons to struggle with respecting me?
5. Do I model for my children what I want to see from them?
6. How do I respond to correction in my own life?
7. Do I expect things from my child that are developmentally inappropriate?
Real talk about parents’ use of corporal punishment and subsequently how they were raised can cause a firestorm of defensiveness, justification, and insecurity. It is hard to separate a means of punishment from the enforcer. We can be loyal to our parents, family and community without having to continue ill-informed methods or suffer from an inability to even question their practices. Honoring our forbearers includes doing better when we know better.