By Jazelle Hunt
WASHINGTON (NNPA) – As the NFL’s 2014 season warms up, Minnesota Vikings running back, Adrian Peterson, prepares to face charges of reckless or negligent injury to a child. A week prior, news surfaced that he had spanked his 4-year-old son with a switch, resulting in major bruises and lacerations on his legs, thighs, and scrotum.
When the news broke, NBA’s Charles Barkley happened to be a guest on an NFL sportscasting show, where he explained, “Whipping – we do that all the time. Every Black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”
Mainstream news coverage of the charges have been defining what a switch is for their audiences, a fact that highlights the wide racial divide in child rearing. But even Black parents and scholars are beginning to publicly question whether corporal punishment—spankings, beatings, whoopings, whatever you want to call it – is the best way to discipline children.
Commentary sprouted up earlier this month from Black thinkers such as Brittney Cooper, professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, who writes for online publication, Salon.com:
“Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that the loving intent and sincerity behind these violent modes of discipline makes them no less violent, no more acceptable,” said Brittney Cooper, a professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University, who writes for online publication, Salon.com. “ Some of our ideas about discipline are unproductive, dangerous and wrong. It’s time we had courage to say that.”
In a New York Times op-ed, Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson called the cultural belief that spankings build character “a sad and bleak justification for the continuation of the practice.”
Times columnist Charles Blow said, “When we promulgate the notion that our success is directly measurable to the violence visited on our bodies as children, we reinforce a societal supposition that pain is an instrument of love, and establish a false binary between the streets and the strap.”
At the end of his conversation, Barkley conceded that, “maybe we need to rethink it.”
Nowadays, the issue of physical punishment as part of child rearing brings heavy debate, both in social and academic spheres. Some believe that hitting children amounts to good parenting, some even citing the Bible.
Some point to Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”
Proverbs 23:13 says, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with a rod, he will not die.”
As a Pew study showed, “…African Americans stand out as the most religiously committed racial or ethnic group in the nation.”
Even those who believe in not sparing the rod, think there should be limits.
“I think that children need to be spanked,” says communications entrepreneur, Leris Bernard. “I’m not saying that welts on a 3-year old is okay, but sometimes it just takes one little pop.”
Generally, research finds that corporal punishment is at best, ineffective in the long term, and at worst, abusive and detrimental. It is legal in all 50 states. In 31 states, however, it is illegal for schools to administer corporal punishment; the other 19 explicitly allow schools this authority.
“There’s a more gentle and productive way to discipline children,” says Yvette Harris, professor of psychology at Miami University and co-author of The African American Child: Development and Challenges. “I’m not a supporter of the physical ‘switch method’ [Peterson] used. Children get so caught up in the physical pain of the discipline that they really forget what they need to do to change their behavior.”
Bernard asserts that children are looking for boundaries, and those boundaries can be better established with spanking as opposed to words a child may not believe or understand.
“You can’t negotiate with a child with limited reasoning skills,” Bernard says. “They’re trying to find boundaries and learn is this a ‘no-no,’ a ‘no-maybe,’ a ‘no, not right now,’ or a ‘no, normally yes, but I’m in a bad mood.’ Basically, kids need to know where the line is, and a little smack puts an ‘X’ on the spot.”
Physical discipline has several roots in the Black community. There’s respect for elders, which inherently means that children are not equal to adults.
Some who object to spanking links the practice to slavery.
“I wish I could tell you that it originated in slavery, but there’s a part of me that has to say that not all African American parents resorted to that form of discipline,” Harris says, adding that it is more likely that Black parenting mirrors the social peak of corporal punishment from the 1940s through the 1960s.
“When I think of the context of slavery…I can’t speak to parenting strategies among slaves because there’s not a lot of historical data on that,” Harris stated.
And there’s also the argument that Black children cannot afford the luxury of carelessness and disobedience in a society that considers Blacks a threat.
But Harris says that message can be conveyed without using pain and fear.
“You don’t want to instill fear in African American children. I think African American parents do a great job raising their children. We have to walk them through issues of race, that’s our reality,” she says. She also points out that the world offers up many teachable moments on the subject.
“But you want to do it in a self-affirming way – a way that gives them power in their lives. Resorting to corporal punishment is not the way to do that.”
For all the data and scholarship that links childhood spankings to less-than stellar adulthood outcomes, experiential data can’t be ignored. For every person who was spanked and became a poorly adjusted adult, there’s another with bittersweet memories of belts and hairbrushes who maintains great relationships with their parents and well-adjusted lives. It begs the question: Is there a ‘right’ way to incorporate physical discipline or consequences that is both effective and harmless?
The professional consensus seems to be that one could strike a balance—but one could also be more effective without inflicting pain.
Harris recommends treating children with equal respect and including them in the discipline process. This plays out in different ways at different ages. For toddlers and young children who can’t reason yet, stern explanation of expectations coupled with repetitive, consistent consequences is enough. By middle school, children can be included in a more “democratic” way – parents lay down the boundaries, and the punishments (often in the form of revoked privileges) can be negotiated and agreed upon.
“It sounds weird but it makes for a more healthy child. If they’re part of the discipline process, they already know what they’ve done wrong and what the consequences are,” Harris says.
Harris says our past plays a role in how we view corporal punishment.
“I think maybe it’s something African Americans hear and sort of struggle with. Because we feel that if [spanking] worked for us, it should work for our children but that’s not necessarily the case,” she says. “The ecology of raising children today is quite different than it was when [Peterson] was a child, and definitely different from when I was a child.”