About this time two years ago, a group of parents at my son's Montessori school were precariously perched on their children's teensy chairs, trying to listen to a Better Parenting seminar while trying not to envision what they must have looked like to the person directly behind them. (So little chair, so much heinie.) The lecturer, a parent who is a clinical psychologist, was explaining that spanking is never, ever appropriate. "It just shows the child you have no control over the situation, " she said, in her soothing, well-modulated voice.
Post-lecture, over cookies and coffee, several black parents edged near each other and whispered, "I'm sorry, but I spank. I believe in spanking. This not-spanking thing is for white folks."
Or, in the eyes of our elders, overly assimilated black ones. This spring, I went back to my 25th college reunion. One morning I shared breakfast and small talk with a classmate's family from Chicago. "Your children are such nice kids," I told the husband, who'd stayed behind to drink coffee with me while his wife went off to see about arrangements for their 12-year-old daughter and 7-year-old son. The husband laughed. "Well then, that would be by the grace of God, because according to my parents, we don't discipline them nearly enough." He grew up in a working-class family on the South Side, and in his parents' view, he and my classmate, a computer engineer and a doctor, respectively, were leaving a little too much slack in the leash. There were, he admitted, some inter-household tensions from time to time over whose parenting philosophy was correct.
That led to a discussion on spanking -- we both do, when we think it's needed, but only with our hands, only on the butt, and never when we're furious with them -- and who does it and how much and so on. Our very scientific conclusion: We do it, "they" (meaning white folks) don't -- and the results, judging from the unchecked public tantrums we've seen many young white children employ, seem to speak for themselves.
Spanking is part of a long, historic continuum in our community. During slavery, a black person's pout or backtalk to the wrong person could not only get him whipped, it could get him sold -- or, if the transgression was deemed bad enough, maimed or killed. So black mothers and, by extension, the entire local community, had a vested interest in keeping their children alive and safe. Swift physical retribution for even minute transgressions tended to reinforce the rules, and adhering to the rules meant you were able to live to raise another generation -- who, in all probability, spanked, too, but not as hard as the previous one.
The annals of black comedy are rife with examples of strict parental discipline. Sinbad, Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and the late Robin Harris have all riffed howlingly funny on the subject of gettin' whupped. Cosby used to make audiences scream in delighted recognition when he went into his routine about The Belt that hung in his father's closet: how long it was. How thick it was. How big the metal buckle was. What it sounded like as it whistled through the air, accurately aiming, like a smart bomb made from the cow's outside, at his quivering buttocks. What it felt like when, on impact, his flesh was sucked through the holes.
He was exaggerating, of course. (Of course he was!) But he made his point: In general, black folks were definitely into physical discipline; it was what helped turn you into a citizen of the civilized world. In 1988, I had a brief conversation with Jesse Jackson when he was in town for the California presidential primary. His mother, Helen, had come along on the campaign bus, and I told him what a delightful lady I thought she was.
"Huh," he snorted, "you should have grown up with her. My Mama beat me so bad when I was little, I can still feel it." I laughed and suggested those whacks from his tiny, devoted mother might have made him the notable person he is today. He winked: "Probably didn't hurt."
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Recent studies suggest that all spanking is inappropriate -- that it's too often interpreted by the child as parental aggression, not loving correction. This is true especially if the child is older and more liable to resent parental authority. Dr. Murray A. Strauss, a sociologist at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, and the chief author of a recent spanking study, told the New York Times, "Society as a whole, not just children, could benefit from ending the system of violent child-rearing that goes under the euphemism of spanking." His study did note, however, that occasional spankings, when they were administered by parents who enjoyed an overall warm relationship to their children, caused no lasting harm.
Well, phew. My hard-headed second-grader still gets the odd smack on the butt now and again, but as he gets older, it's more effective if we shut off "Rugrats" or confiscate the Pocket Gameboy.
Curious, I queried my black friends with young children. "Do you spank -- and when?" The resounding reply: "Not much, but I do when I think it's necessary." The definitions of what's necessary might vary. Some spank when all other avenues -- lectures, timeouts, threats of taking away privileges -- fail. Others do it as a warning in specific circumstances: "If he's not listening, and he can hurt himself or others, I'd rather spank him than go to the emergency room," is the general gist. It seems as if they spend more time threatening to spank than actually spanking -- and they're vaguely guilty that they don't always carry out the threat. But these are parents in the middle to upper-middle class.
And class does make a difference, even though Strauss' study would indicate it doesn't. I live in an upper-middle-class neighborhood that is on the edge of the serious-business inner city -- the gilded ghetto, if you will. Like a lot of my neighbors who have committed to living here, we try to use the neighborhood services, which means I spend a lot of time standing in line at overcrowded banks and grocery stores, cruising in the local mall and hanging out at the nearby movie house. And there definitely is some spanking going on up in there, I can assure you. None of this "Shaunna, listen to Mommy or we're going to have to leave" business. More like "Shaunna! If I tell you again you're going to feel it, you hear me?" And Shaunna listens, too.
Like my classmate's husband, many working-class black folks were reared in highly authoritarian households where sparing the rod also indicated a kind of parental negligence: Giving you a little pain now was designed to spare you a whole lot of pain -- perhaps at the hands of someone else, who doesn't care about you the way your family does -- later.
A new study by Marjorie Linder Gunnoe, a developmental psychologist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., has revealed something different from previous studies, which found that race and class do not affect the decision whether or not to spank. According to Gunnoe's study, which tracked 1,110 children from 4 to 11 years old over a five-year period, spanking may be divided along racial lines. Gunnoe found that spanking increased antisocial behavior (lying, cheating and bullying) among white boys, but was correlated with a decrease in aggression among black boys. Her explanation: Spanking is not only tolerated, but endorsed by the black community. The culture expects that adults will be seen, and treated as, authority figures.
That's in sync with my daily observations. We teach our children to address adults via an honorific "Mr." or "Ms." -- "Aunt" or "Uncle" if they're close family friends. We don't spend a lot of time arguing about the unfairness of hierarchy. And when it's warranted, many of us spank.
Santa Monica, Calif., psychiatrist Robert L. Ross questions the frequent Biblical rationale cited by many black traditionalists. "Does the rod that they're advocating not sparing refer to an actual stick, or to the measure of the parent's authority?" he wonders. "Maybe we took the most literal translation because it was the most expedient."
Has he ever spanked any of this three sons, I ask.
"Never have," he admitted.
Was he ever spanked as a child?
"Are you kidding?! To say I was spanked was putting it mildly!"
And he did not turn out to be a serial killer. The scientific evidence is, at this point, too inconclusive to recommend spanking. But real life often works differently than the controlled environments of studies, and I've found that in some specific situations, if you apply it like Brylcream -- a little dab'll do ya -- spanking works.