Whipping, Beating, Spanking and Swatting Children – What Do These Words Mean Anyway?

“Words! What power they hold. Once they have rooted in your psyche, it is difficult to escape them. Words can shape the future of a child and destroy the existence of an adult.
― Vashti Quiroz-Vega

I am, to my surprise, agreeing, at least in part, with Charles Barkley. Charles is right when he says, southern blacks whip their children and a whole lot of black parents would have been jailed if the current child abuse laws had been in affect prior to the 1970s. But, Charles is dead wrong when he gives the impression that race and geographic location can be used to identify parents who are most likely to “whop” their children. So, I asked sixteen randomly selected blacks, Hispanics and white people “How did your parents discipline you?” Well, My belief was confirmed. All things being equal, white and Hispanic parents would have been jailed too because, like the black people, their children either experienced physical discipline, knew family members, school mates, friends or neighbors who had and knew, without a doubt that their parents and the other adults in their circle would not, as one woman said, “Hesitate to give me a tune-up if necessary.” They laughed, chuckled and/or smiled while describing “Tune-ups.” Some added without prompting, “My parents didn’t beat us (me).”

How a parent carries out his or her parental responsibility is influenced more by the parent’s culture of origin than by child protection laws and child development experts in spite of the fact that the negative impact of hitting children is discussed on Dr. Phil, The View and other popular shows; is written about in parenting and other everyday living magazines and is discussed during segments of the morning afternoon and evening news. According to Child Trends, a national research group, a study done in 2012 found “77 percent of men, and 65 percent of women 18 to 65 years old agreed that a child sometimes needs a “good hard spanking.” This proportion has declined modestly since 1986 among women, while approval among males, after declining in the early 1990s, remained steady since then.”

Parental corporal punishment, which is legal in all fifty states, is defined as hitting a child whether with an object or a hand, pinching, pulling ears – any action a parent takes that intentionally inflicts pain. The government has a ‘leave no stone unturned’ approach to protecting children from parents who might physical abuse them. This means a parent who hits a child on the back of the hand and leave no scars and one that hits child with a switch hard enough to draw blood could be arrested, separated from their child, charged with some level of child abuse and at a minimum, court-ordered to take parenting and anger management classes.

Here is the problem. What, some parents call parental responsibility, the government calls corporal punishment or in some instances, child abuse. So, what we have are expectations – legal and cultural –that are presumably driven by the same goals – to ensure that children are free from physical and psychological harm and as the people with whom I spoke said, “raise children who feel good about themselves, are “successful, law bidding and contributing members of society and are God-fearing, loving parents who raise their children right.” But as the Child Trends study shows, cultural expectations are honored more than legal expectations are feared. This is not good. It is not good because both allow for accusations and excuses. They allows the child welfare system to accuse groups of well-intended parents of physical child abuse and allows some not-so-well intended parents to use culture as an excuse for physically abusing their children.

Obviously we want and need a child welfare system that protects children. But, Duncan Lindsey, author of The Welfare of Children, has given us something to think about. The provocative title of chapter seven: Dealing with Child Abuse, The Red Herring of Child Welfare; offers the following: “It is not difficult to understand why agencies have a preoccupation with child abuse to the exclusion of everything else. Public outrage fanned by media coverage and horrifying incidents have tended to grossly misrepresent the dimensions of child abuse.” How we talk about how parents discipline their children is, in my opinion, one of those dimensions. And, we need to talk about it because (1) some parents believe physical punishment is a form of discipline while some child development experts say it is not discipline. It is just punishment. (2) We seem not to have an agreed upon understanding of what child abuse is and is not.

We need (even if we do not want to) to recognize and accept the role culture plays in the use of particular child-rearing practices. Educator Barbara Sizemore (“The Politics of Curriculum, Race and Class, Journal of Negro Education, winter 1990) paraphrases Sekou Toure’s definition of culture: “As the sum total of the artifacts—the history, language, literature, poetry, drama, art, music, philosophy, religion, science, ideas, constructed tools and objects—created by any group in its struggle for survival and autonomy.”

Robert LeVine (Child Rearing as Cultural Adaptation), said, “In no human population, under normal circumstances, are child-rearing practices an irrational or random set of activities; rather they form a part of a culturally organized system which evolved to meet people’s needs within their effective environment.”

The words of both Sizemore and Levine speak to why culture is important to parents and the impact it has on how a parent parents. Culture shapes beliefs and practices. But just as culture influences it is also influenced by the process of socialization. Socialization is not static. As we learn new skills, we expand our knowledge base, alters our perceptions and our values for better or worse depending upon your view and we change our way of thinking and being in the world. Herein lies my disagreement with Charles Barkley (and other sports figures) who attributed Adrian Petersen’s forceful discipline of his four-year old son solely to culture. Some parents follow “The proof is in the pudding “philosophy – that’s the way my parents raised me. Others reject the practices used by their parents. Most regardless of race, education and income, find the truth in the middle of these two extremes. They acculturate by retaining some things from their culture of origin and integrating those with what they learn (and like) from the larger society. And, people do this even when there are social and emotional consequences. That is why I believe so many parents are able to keep physical corporal punishment in their parenting tool kit knowing they will not use it as often or in the same way as their would-be-jailed parents.

It seems there is general agreement that culture is the centerpiece of parenting. But, when racial groups are compared in an attempt to determine what motivates parents to use physical discipline, the findings indicate that culture is the enemy of black children. Black parents (89%) possibly because they are “less educated and less affluent” use physical punishment more often than Hispanic (80%) and white parents (79%). They, according to Elizabeth Gershoff, University of Texas and other researchers also “use more violent methods against their children; are “invested in giving their children a beating;” and get rid of their anger and frustration by whipping their children.” And, black parents do this because “harsh whipping is a legacy left by the brutality of slavery.”

The numbers reported in research studies vary by a few percentage points but in every instance, black parents are reported to be the biggest users of what is termed corporal punishment and are therefore by implication, the ones who abuse their children most often. While I cannot knowledgeably challenge the statistical significance of the 89, 80 and 79 percent I can, based on what I know about human nature, ask, does the quote, “It is easy to believe someone if they tell you what you want to hear,” apply in this situation? I say with confidence, it does.

As a black woman, I am not shy about saying there are some self-absorbed black parents who could benefit from some parenting classes and few other unmentionable interventions because they use either physical punishment or the threat of it with the same frequency most of us use the pronouns “she”, “he” and “it.” But, I don’t believe for one moment, (even for the “less educated and less affluent,”) that this is less true for some parents of other races any more than I believe black people love fried chicken more than white people and white people love watermelon any less than black people. Is it possible that the difference in the numbers is because black parents are, more than other parents, willing to tell the whole truth about their parenting practices?

Concerns about the impact of parenting practices on the development of children are legitimate but the Adrian Petersons, Charles Barleys and others who generalize their valuable but limited childhood experiences to all or most black parents; and researchers who compare black parents with white parents and use their conclusions to influence policies and practices are perpetuating negative stereotypes. Some of you may accuse me of picking at linguistics straws. Maybe I am. But, I believe the words we use when talking about physical discipline by black parents (whipping and beating) and white parents (spanking and swatting) are an example of such stereotyping. Both require an adult to hit a child with the intention of inflicting pain and yet spanking and swatting is softer, more palatable than the words, “whipping” and “beating” which conjures up disturbing images – images so disturbing that some black people who want to distant their parents from such cruel behavior will say, “We (I) didn’t get whippings. We (I) got spanked.” Before anybody says it, this has nothing to do with “Trying to be white” or “denying your culture.” It has to do with what it means to whip someone and be whipped. Whipping and beating is what white slave masters and overseers did to black slaves. I do not have to give examples of the humiliation whipping and beating heaped upon slaves nor do I have to provide evidence of the satisfaction slave owners and overseers got when they beat and whipped slaves. But, I say without a speck of doubt that the feelings of most black children who get a whopping does not duplicate that of slaves and black parents are not, as they whoop their children saying as in 12 years of Slavery, “ I will have flesh and I will have all of it.”

There is nothing to prove white, Hispanic and Asian parents deliver physical punishment less “violently” than black parents so how can individuals and researchers say that with any degree of certainty? Well, they cannot unless they are comparing our understanding of and emotional reaction to the words – spanking/swatting and whipping/beating. Words as Vega says, do hold power. In this case, I think they hold power because they fit with the metanarrative – the story behind the story that images black men as violent and black women as angry and black parents as being “too hard” on their children. The effects of slavery are far reaching but even with that black people are not so emotionally, spiritually and intellectually delayed that we have not, cannot separate how they treat their children from how slave masters treated their ancestors. I know all of us are influence by our past, but I am not buying for one minute this notion that a 29-year old talented, highly successful, well-recognized man whose lifestyle is an indication of his ability and willingness to acculturate and assimilate to the norms of larger society is a victim of his culture and therefore on a day in May of 2014 beat his four year old son because a white slave owner beat his ancestors on a day in May of 1914.

Black parents suffered at the hands of slave masters and so did their children. But those scars were healed with love, a sense of community and a fervent belief that we would overcome. I get it that we are still overcoming. And, maybe there is no way of completely overcoming cruelties such as slavery, the holocaust or the abduction of girls at the hands of a Nigerian extremist. But, in spite of our history, it is irresponsible for researchers and individuals to suggest that black parents are hitting their children just because they are victim of the past. According to this thinking, their decisions are not value-based. Their reactive brain is on full throttle. They are suffering from ‘victim-mology,’ and therefore have little control over what they do to their children. Please! Do we have our share of Adrian Petersons? We surely do. In fact we have far too many. But so do white people and Asian people and Hispanic people and other ethnic group because people who abuse their children AP (Adrian Peterson) style do not come in any one color. And we cannot identify them by their education or location.

We are famous for saying the children are our future. This Peterson situation indicate that we either do not know what this means or these are just some words we borrow from a beautiful song. I am going to assume that neither of the above are true and make some recommendations to ensure that we do the best we can at all time to protect children from parents of all races who are either abusing their children or will be inspired to do so after seeing Adrian Peterson’s handiwork..

First the black people who are pretending like Adrian Peterson’s hand slipped need to stop. If they cannot say he abused his son without chocking, they need to not talk. The white people who are trying to explain why he did or did not abuse his son need to stop too. As is commonly said, “It is what it is.” Everybody I know, including me, keeps asking, “What could a four-year old child have possibly done to be beaten like that?”

All of us need to stop making comparisons based on race. It is divisive. We have no way of knowing how much we can trust the self-reported physical punishment data and yet we draw and make public our conclusions. And, since race and economic class so often determines who gets the harshest punishment, children who are not of color or poor are not likely to be protected from their abusive parents as quickly and severely as their less well-off counterparts. Guess there is a blessing in everything.

Take the starch out of the words used to differentiate physical punishment by race. The word spanking spoken by an abuser will feel like a beating to the child. The word beating spoken by a non-abusive parent will feel like whatever we think a spanking is. So, let us think of these words as homonyms – words that have more than one meaning.

We need to decide what child abuse is. Reportedly, Peterson admitted to bruising his son’s back, legs, hands, scrotum and buttock and we are still having this “did he, didn’t he” conversation. Parental corporal punishment is legal. Over 50% of parents across racial and economic lines say they exercise their legal right to physically punish their children. This mean clarity is urgent. Clarity provides greater opportunities to prevent child abuse through parent education and other social supports. Reasonable rather than reactive intervention strategies can be implemented when abuse is suspected. And parent, most of whom are not abusing their children will be, I suspect be more willing to talk openly about their parenting practices.

There are two sides to the parental corporal punishment debate. We can, based on a shared understanding of what child abuse is, create more opportunities where it is safe for parents to talk about their parenting values and style and how that relates to their fears and wishes for their children. We can help parents understand how to deal, without shame, with a hard-to-parent child. We can do more to support healthy parenting or we can let this become a red state blue state situation by trying to prove who is right and who is wrong and therefore miss a chance to expand our understanding of the dimensions of child abuse. Then, we can be assured that history will repeat itself. The next time an Adrian Peterson who make approximately $14,000,000 abuse a child, he can say as he walks out of the courtroom, “I am just glad this is over.” And, an Adrian Peterson who makes $31,300 a year can leave the courtroom in handcuffs on his way to jail for at least few years.

Power and money or the safety and protection of all children?

2 thoughts on “Whipping, Beating, Spanking and Swatting Children – What Do These Words Mean Anyway?

  1. This is so well written. I am not a parent but do appreciate the conversation needed regarding child abuse versus child discipline. Particularly like the connection (or lack there of) between slavery and child abuse. Well done!!

  2. Thanks for your comment Wilda. Black parents and their parenting practices are clearly not defined by slavery. To say that gives the “Master” far too much significance in our day-to-day lives..

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