Thursday, September 8, 2011

Slippers, Switches and Belts: Understanding Black Folks loyalty to and love of Corporal Punishment

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.


  1. During the times of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow many African Americans used corporal punishment because they were afraid of what would happen if their children were "caught" by Whites doing something wrong. Many of us still loosely hold on to that parenting style because the thought behind it still holds true. For instance, have you seen the ABC special "What would you do?" During one episode they set up in a New York park and hired three young actors to pretend they were stealing a bike. The park visitors watched the White male steal the bike. Several men helped the White female steal the bike. They surrounded and called the police on the African American male as he attempted to steal the bike. Despite our advances and accomplishments, racisms is alive and kicking, just look at how they treat the President. That is why I occasionally spank my children. If they fear my response when they are tempted to do wrong they will most likely not do it. I’m relying on my own experience when I say that fear and proper instruction will keep them out of jail and possibly the grave.

  2. Once again, when Africans Americans start their history in slavery we just don't seem to get the picture. We did not learn corporal punishment from Europeans; we gave it to the world. Corporal punishment was the mode of life in Africa before colonization and continues today. Europeans introduced the paradigm of time out--bottom line. We can question their motives for doing so given the blaring contradictions present in their use of force. Force is OK for the police to beat, and kick, and punch (with brute male strength) a teenager in Houston Texas (you know, the one of many examples caught on tape). But a smack by a parent who disciplines a child because of their lack of discretion is abuse. Come on know. And please believe this "time-out" approach will continue to play right in to the traps that they have set up for our African American Youth. Of course if you whoop your child to the point of maiming, then you need help. But I frankly don't remember getting a slave beating from my parents, and for the most part, when a whooping occurred I was deserving of it. I agree that whooping shouldn’t be the only form of discipline used. But let's be real, our children are at risk. And we have to staunchly resist self-destructive behavior because we love them, and our efforts are intended to keep them on the straight and narrow. The oppressor uses force, and there has never been any kid gloves for African American children. So we must try to thwart the oppressor's heavy handed intervention early by checking our children. At the end of the day I realize that this approach isn't going to end the targeting of Black Youth, but it can help diminished their chances of being gunned down in the streets by some racist ass police officer. Also, let’s remember that African American history did not start in slavery. While this is a big influence of present day scenario we have a history that is documented as early as 2 million years ago. So our mode of living, although not perfect, is sustainable. This doesn’t mean that we automatically accept all procedures of the past, but we definitely should be weary of European methods. For haven’t you learned by now that their current methods are unsustainable.

  3. I am glad you wrote this article because it needs to be talked about more.... my male friends talked about the whoopings they received from their parents and plan to be raised the same way..... also the big part of time-out is the lesson, although a lot of people see it as a "weak" punishment, i don't think people understand how difficult it is for children to give up their "power" and actually stay in time out.... they actually have to think about what caused them to be stuck sitting there and it makes them think about the consequences of their actions, especially if the parent clearly explains the reason they are in time out.... i think that is more likely to keep people out of jail than a spanking.... also spanking can also result out of anger that your kids aren't doing what they should be doing a.k.a. normal kid behavior, which is why parents who use physical punishment are the ones who are most likely charged with abuse.... add other outside stressors and people end up taking out their frustrations on their children

  4. @Nat Turner Chronicles. You've started out all wrong as to who was punishing whom. As for whooping children. There are laws against it. Don't let adults hit children. They should be jailed! African Americans are mentally destroyed in every possible way and without proper nurturing and education the masses are lost. We won't recover from any of this and those who have found happiness in this sordid world are less fortunate than they think...Good luck!

  5. Daddio Speaks....there needs to be some form of 'control' in the household. My childhood was abuse to the inth power but I chose not to do that. I did choose to discipline my children and corporal punishment was chosen as the tool. I just distributed it different than my parents did. That running around after the child, swatting to hit whatever was available, is not the way. I chose to have the child stand face to the wall, with their behind out and striking according to thier age. If done right and early, that child will see that as he/she gets older, they increase. Annd it does hurt the parent more than it hurts the child....if you truly love that child.Discipline must start when that child leaves the hospital. Not the physical aspect but letting the infant know who's in charge.
    I believe it's the parents right to do this. Or do you think it should be OK for the authorities to do whatever they want to do in the prisons, where the parent isn't inside to watch 24/7? Get my book, A Guide for Mothers who have to be Fathers...
    Greg Daffin...

  6. My wife is weary of spanking. I am not. When she is fed up with the ineffectiveness of her Dr.Phil approach I am called in like a star reliever for the Yankees. I am always the bad guy but so what someone has to do it. There was a day where I was at the barber shop with my family. I was talking to a friend when I heard my wife calling (screaming) my son's name. He was not paying attention and was about to run right into traffic. He ignored my wife's calls but as soon as I noticed what was happening I yelled his name except he knew that he could not ignore me. He is alive and well today in college. I understand that there is a thin line between spanking and abuse and that spanking should not be a first resort but I have found it to be a powerful but last resort. Life is messy and you cannot always negotiate with a child.

  7. Passage Proverbs 13:24:

    24He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.
    We can try other methods but if all else fails then a spanking may take place.

  8. I think that we don't talk about how our parents loved us enough. It's kind of hard to make that sound funny in conversations, unless you're actually funny ;)

  9. Not sure I wholly understand - 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.

    As literal as I typically am, spare the rod spoil the child is more than likely an abbreviated version of Proverbs 13:24

    I certainly believe in spanking/corporal punishment NOT Abuse. I was spanked, I spanked my daughter and we are fine citizens. I see some bad behind kids in public and I just wonder what the outcome will be at age 14 and 15 for those tyrants. Are these the children that murder their parents for now beginning to say No, when they should have said and enforced it at age 2? Just my two cents.

  10. There is a difference between spanking and abuse, let's get that straight!! Most that were spanked in a responsible manner and I was one grew to be responsible people, bottom line. Time out is a joke and does nothing to discipline kids. If we do not spank our kids the cops will do it. If we do not spank our kids to teach right from wrong the they will be subjected to penal punishment or even capital punishment, but that's what they want. How many Black kids kill their parents in respect to White kids killing theirs?? Because White kids do not fear a strong reprisal. They just think they will get TIME OUT, but not in the way that their mentality is used to!!!

  11. These kids grow up to be abusive people. Kids taught to "hit" first and ask questions later is what is wrong with our society. We dont even know how to have civil conversation when we dont agree with something. Yes i was spanked when I was child and most times it was not fair. My grandmother beat me with switch because we were playing hide and seek ... and to this day I dont know why. My parents had asked me not to stop and play on the way home from school, well I did that once to often and got a whipping. I could understand that, but I could not understand what my grandma did.I loved my parents and I wanted their approval on my good behavior ... as I think most kids do.

  12. I remember my Mother saying; "You'll get whipped somewhere. Be it here, outside on the streets, or in a jail cell. If I don't do my job as a parent, you will get an altogether different whipping. I would rather you get that whipping in love, from me." I believe that. I would rather spank my child in love, than have them grow up, rude and defiant, and someone else "beat" them. I have a nice ruler to pop their hands, and that usually gets them in check. I use "consequences and actions" with my older children, and hope that what I have instilled in them, stays. Last, but certainly not least, I pray to God everyday to protect my babies. The world is a harsh place, and they need someone higher than me.

  13. It is wrong to use violence against children. It is immoral. Hitting children is abuse, it is not different from abuse. Do your children hit you when you do something wrong? I think not. It's about power. You can use other effective methods to motivate your children to do what you want them to. When people say using violence is "effective", they are just looking at the short term. They are ignoring the long-term psychological effects of physical abuse. White people used violence during slavery because it was an effective way to force people to do what they wanted. Violence and intimadtion are not the answer, it stores up a whole heap of problems in the long term.

  14. I really appreciate the part of the article that says we can honour our families, communities and ancestors - and that part of that is knowing when (and how) to do better.

  15. By intentionally inflicting pain on those smaller than us we teach several lessons, the most important one being: inflicting pain on someone we disagree with is an appropriate option. Our children apparently learn that lesson well, as interpersonal violence (not to mention murder) is higher among African-Americans than among any other group. Hurting smaller beings who can't reciprocate also speaks to issues of power symmetrics, reinforcing the imperialistic notion that the strong have a "right" to dictate to the weak; i.,e, the US has a "right" to invade countries with whom we differ and "whoop" them into shape.

  16. As a general rule I don't think corporal punishment is necessary in most cases and past a certain age, definitely not. Whatever form of discipline a parent chooses to employ it must be consistent, bottom line and no pun intended.

    You cannot reason with a two-year old about to run out into the street or in the throes of a temper tantrum. A seven-year-old should know better. Persistent misbehavior after talking to and time out than some corporal punishment is warranted.

  17. To the dad who makes his children face the wall and bend over, that has to be one of the most disturbing things i've heard in this sort of dialogue. That's so incredibly humiliating to a child. Children might be hard to manage at tuimes but they're human beings. How would any of us feel if an authority figure who had compete rights over us treated us that way? We claim that we're protecting our kid from being victimized by white authorities later by teaching them to submit to us. Isn't that incredibly hypocritical? So if we humiliate and cause them pain first, it's ok? Parents should not be the lesser of two evils. They should be a source of support, guidance and firm, but tender, love. Instead of looking to one verse in Proverbs, why not look to Christ who is decidedly the Being we're supposed to emulate if we hold Christian beliefs? Clearly, because He's the one who's the most difficult to emulate, and it's easier to justify taking out our own frustrations on kids and pointing to one verse from the OT that we've been misinterpreting all this time in the first place. not to mention that in terms of translation, I've read that the word "rod" in this case means in boundaries...teaching them about ranges of behavior that will bring about certain results.
    How has corporal punishment helped the Black community? Are we really doing so well that we can claim success? And do we really believe that the Black kids who are shooting, causing harm, going to jail aren't also being spanked (hit) or worse by their parents? Their issue is not that they're getting time outs and that's why they're getting into trouble.

    The person who stated that time outs aren't exactly easy for children has it right. We have to educate ourselves collectively about what is developmentally appropriate for children in all their stages.

    We're basically reinforcing the idea that avoidance is the only way to success and safety, which is doing them a huge disservice. We're never going to do better en masse until we take the time and use the energy to learn how to deal with kids we're having trouble with, learn that immediate compliance might not be the ideal mode of helping a child modify his/her behavior, and instead guide our kids, forgiving them when they're in bad moods, petulant, break something, disrespectful, whatever. Teach them how to manage their emotions and actions as they're able at any given age, and instill in them the idea that not only are their bodies not objects for *anyone* to touch in a harmful way (this is critical), but that there are other ways to deal with racism later on when they're profiled by the police, etc. Give them tools to use their emotional intelligence and intellectual intelligence to handle and transform their situations, not conform out of pure fear. Populations might survive if they learn to live under the radar but they won't thrive.
    There are other ways. Other populations are thriving without using corporal punishment. And how sick is it to think that because our kids are already victimized by racism, it necessitates victimizing them further so they'll "act right"?