This Will Hurt Me More Than It Hurts You.

Over at Ta-Nehisi’s there’s a really great series of posts where he is exploring the evolution of his relationship with his son Samori, and by extension, exploring his feelings about his relationship with his own father and parenting in general.

Unsurprisingly the issue of spanking and physical punishment came up. TNC discussed the reasons why black parents may punish their kids more (both physically and otherwise):

For black folks, I think it simply is the perception–rightly or wrongly–that black people (class aside) who commit transgressions are subject to higher price. This goes for everything from schoolwork, to chores, to relationships with the opposite sex. I think all parents worry about the costs of their kids bad behavior. But I think black parents carry an extra layer of worry, a sense that mistakes that other kids–especially boys–can write off as the “folly of youth” actually carry dire consequences for our kids

In addition, there was also an examination of the decline in the willingness to employ physical repercussions as a form of discipline as each successive generation rethinks and scales back on it, but also as our fear for our children decreases with the changing society and culture.
I think along with discussing the context within which parents deliver punishment, it’s worth taking some time to think about how children perceive it. When I was an undergraduate I was he only black student out of 20 in a graduate level seminar on developmental psychology focusing on the area of moral development. There was a lot of talk in that class about cultural relativism and my fellow students usually willing to chalk up differences in value systems to differences in culture. That is, until we got to the matter of spanking. Once the professor offered up corporal punishment for discussion the room blew up. All the other students, who were chiefly upper middle class whites, were up in arms about how their parents never hit them and how horrible and demeaning spanking is and that it has no utility beyond teaching a child that physical force is the only way to control someone’s behavior. I usually avoided it, but on this occasion I felt compelled to pull the race (and culture) card and talk about my own upbringing in St. Vincent and typical disciplinary tactics in Caribbean homes, one of which is spanking.

As in the homes of most people I knew, physical punishment was not a topic up for discussion. I was taught to accept it as a natural consequence of repeated wrongdoing and ignoring previous verbal reprimands. But along with the immutable fact of spanking, it was not just an action but had an accompanying philosophy. After each beating my parents would ask me about what I had done, cross-examining me to insure I knew exactly why I had been punished in that manner and what I should not do again. The lecture often concluded with, “I don’t punish you to hurt you. I do it because I love you and I want to see you do the right things. Now give me a hug.” Sniffling and hiccuping I would (sometimes begrudgeingly) embrace them.

When I brought this up my professor finally jumped in noting that the context in which punishment is given and received is very important and quoted from a study that I wish I had asked him for. The basic gist was this: in a comparison of black children and white children and their perceptions of physical punishment, black children were more likely to see such punishment as an expression of parental care and concern which mitigated their feelings of distress or trauma concerning it. In urban environments where there were high stakes for lack of parental control and misbehavior this effect was particularly strong. The possibility of children getting lured into criminal behaviors such as theft or drug dealing or simply the greater dangers posed by them being in the street rather than in the house made it necessary to go to greater lengths make them comply with their parents.

Even when we were very young, I’m sure many of us knew this and when we got older were able to articulate it. If your parents loved you, they yanked you back from the precipice…oftentimes physically. If they didn’t, they let you rip and run the streets. We all knew someone, a classmate, a neighbour, somebody who didn’t have anyone looking out for them. A kid who in patois parlance “look like they got no owner”. They weren’t even necessarily poor kids, it could just as equally be a really privileged kid with too many freedoms. I remember in high school talking about those people, the ones whose parents seemed not to care.

Now, I’m not stumping for spanking, far from it. But I think this notion is part of the reason for the respect and admiration that TNC managed to retain for his father and why in the long run despite not liking him for a while, he still loved his father. Because he knew his father loved him. Because, despite what may have been flawed methods he at least attempted to parent him, which is more than a lot of kids got.

  • Zesi

    I, too, believe there is a cultural difference.

    This is an interesting abstract—basically, when they compared black, white, and Latino parents and the effectiveness of spanking on kids less than 2—it was statistically significant in a negative way for the white children once they got into school, but not the black and Latino ones.

  • TheMindFrame

    The cultural differences can be seen even when the parents are not around. One of the first things I realized when I started teaching five years ago was the difference in the way that which black, white, latino and asian students reacted to teachers and their role as authority figures. For the white children I worked with, my role as a teacher automatically carried a certain level of authority already built in. For my other students, I was the teacher, but my authority had to be earned. It wasn’t enough to stand in front of the blackboard, if I was going to be in charge, if I was going to command authority, I was going to have to prove I knew how to use it. For most of those kids, hearing me raise my voice, or hardening my words a little when I was trying to get them to behave a certain way, meant I was serious about what I was saying. A lot of the white kids just recoiled and I became the scary black teacher. So yes, culture has something to do with it, socio-economic status might influence it as well, but as people dig into their preconceptions it becomes harder to understand the complexity of it all.

  • It is interesting that many of us associate corporal punishment with something from our cultural background. There is historical research that suggests that our ancestors “learned” spanking as a strategy from certain religious traditions of slave masters, and that it was not a big part of many African cultures from which we had roots.

    Much corporal punishment many of us experienced was actually quite severe, yet we retell fondly stories of being sent out to get the just-right switch from a tree, or being beat with shoes or extension chords. And of course, there are those of us who bemoan the loss of physically violent hazing in our Greek letter organizations…

    This issue is one that we as Blacks need to examine truthfully and fully, without resorting to nostalgia. Our parents, grandparents and others loved us in spite of spanking us, not because of it.

  • quadmoniker

    My parents and grandparents spanked the hell out of me, but I actually believed my mom when she said it her her more than it did us. She’d give us ample warning and slap a belt against the walls in an effort to scare us before it hit our bottoms.

    If it’s a cultural phenomenon, I’d say it has more to do with class than with race. But I’d also point out that times have just changed. I think a lot of it has to do with an increasing awareness about childhood development coupled with an increasing awareness of what middle-class people do with their homes. I think a lot of the difference has to do with the fact that our parents did what they did 30 years ago.

    • I also think it’s a class thing, because there was spanking and slapping and yelling in a lot of the working-class white homes I grew up in and around. It was punishment for acting out, and especially, IIRC, for getting in trouble outside the home, which speaks to the other theme in this comments thread about representing your family outside the home, etc.

  • I wonder, too, if for American blacks, it’s not also in part just internalized self-consciousness about being judged, especially in public. Not just the rational “this kid needs to stay inside the lines” thing but a more knee-jerk anxiety. I know that I’m always harshest with PK when I feel like Other People are thinking “I can’t believe that woman lets her kid behave that way,” even about things that wouldn’t bother me too much if it was just the two of us.

    And I definitely think that now that he’s nine, I wish I’d been firmer with the “nos” about some things, b/c he gets in trouble at school–again, things that I wasn’t firm about because they don’t bother me, but that it turns out really get other people all exercised about thinking he’s a Kid on the Verge. Of course, I feel pretty confident that I can keep him on this side of that line, no matter what his behavior is, simply by virtue of being educated and relatively affluent, but it’s very easy to imagine that being more socially insecure would make me a lot more tense about his behavior.

    • Alisa

      I can’t speak for American blacks as a monolith but from what I have observed while living abroad and what I know living here I definitely think this is part of it. I don’t know why I didn’t consider that too. When a kid is acting up in public here there’s a lot of censure directed at the parent and we are very aware of the judgement. I remember when I was younger my mom would fix me with a look and say in this low ominous tone, “If you embarrass me, I will embarrass you.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say my mom put the fear of god in me or whatever with that kind of thing, but I definitely knew what the boundaries were and I knew better than to think she wouldn’t let the hammer fall just because other people were around.

      Way after my parents stopped spanking me and I was a teenager/adolescent moving about the public sphere as an individual my mom was still preoccupied with the idea of people judging her parenting skills based on things I did. She would admonish “It isn’t just about what you want to do. When people see you they see an extension of me.” St. Vincent is tiny so it’s easy to see what she’s talking about but I’m not sure how it would function in a bigger society. Maybe it’s the usual thing of one black person’s actions is assumed to be representative of all black people, so there are personal concerns wrapped up with larger racial ones?