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.