Steven Holmes: Some are making it seem that spanking is a treasured icon of black culture
He says it's time to recognize that spanking doesn't accomplish anything
Studies show spanking affects health, schoolwork and can lead to depression, he says
Holmes: Rather than tolerating corporal punishment, we need to start condemning it
Editor’s Note: Steven A. Holmes covered race for eight years at The New York Times and was part of the team that won a Pulitzer Prize for the newspaper’s 2000 “How Race is Lived in America” series. He is now an executive director in CNN’s Office of Standards and Practices. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
To hear some folks tell it, in the wake of NFL star Adrian Peterson’s child abuse arrest, giving your child a good whuppin’ is one of the treasured icons of black culture, as revered an activity as playing bid whist, eating fried catfish at a backyard barbecue or doing The Cupid Shuffle at a wedding reception.
“You know, when I was a kid, parents whupped you,” actress Whoopi Goldberg said on “The View” the other day. “They hit you. They took a switch to you. They kicked your behind, and that was that.”
“I’m from the South,” former NBA player Charles Barkley said on Sunday, reacting to former NFL quarterback Boomer Esiason’s criticism of Peterson. “I understand Boomer’s rage and anger … but he’s a white guy, and I’m a black guy. I don’t know where he’s from; I’m from the South. Whipping – we do that all the time.”
“I was spanked,” former NBA player Greg Anthony said on CNN this week, “and I turned out OK.”
Anthony, Goldberg and Sir Charles are hardly outliers. Corporal punishment is deeply ingrained in black culture, as it is in many other groups. A 2012 national study by Child Trends found that 74% of black women and 90% of black men agreed with the statement that it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a “good, hard spanking.” On the whole, those levels were slightly higher than for any other racial or ethnic group.
But can we, as black people, stop waxing nostalgically – and defensively – about this particular child-rearing practice and ask ourselves some tough questions? Is it actually harming our children? Is it hurting our community? There is plenty of evidence that the answer to both those questions is yes.
The negative effects on children of any race are undeniable. Study after study has showed that spanking inhibits the learning process, causing children to do less well in school. It leads to anger, depression, violence and alcohol and drug abuse. It breeds hostility toward authority, undermines trust between parent and child and spawns other antisocial behaviors. And it doesn’t just stop with the psychological.
A 2013 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics found that children who received harsh physical punishment were more likely as adults to suffer from cardiovascular disease and obesity. What is really important is that researchers found these outcomes among children who were “pushed, grabbed, shoved, slapped or hit” by their parents or other adults living in the house. In other words, children who were subjected to what most people consider normal physical discipline, not children who were victims of child abuse, not children who were “whupped” with switches or belts.
What is less spoken about is how much spanking and other tough punishment of children harms the community. Studies have showed that physical punishment is associated with legions of sullen, angry, violence-prone boys – and don’t forget, black boys are more likely to be spanked than black girls – who menace their communities and beat their wives and girlfriends and, of course, their children.
“I think we have to ask ourselves (the) question, because anger is also at the bottom of a lot of the rage and the violence and the killing,” Harvard psychologist Alvin Poussaint said at a panel discussion on black men a few years back, referring to both physical and psychological abuse inflicted on black boys. “It’s a lot easier to pull the trigger if you are enraged.”
It is not hard to imagine many of these damaged kids growing up to be irresponsible adults, fathering children out of wedlock and then leaving them to be raised by poorly educated, stressed-out single mothers who too often resort to the spank or the slap to keep their kids in line. So the cycle is sadly repeated and repeated and repeated.
No one is arguing that spanking and engaging in other kinds of physical punishment, including all those that stop short of outright abuse, are the sole reasons that many children turn out badly. Researchers say that it merely increases the likelihood of bad outcomes. But with so much stacked against black people – and black boys in particular – why up the odds of producing dysfunctional youth?
“With so many other nonviolent means of disciplining your child available to you, why would you choose one that has the potential of doing long-term damage?” asks Tracie O. Afifi, an associate professor in the Department of Community Health Science at the University of Manitoba who has studied the impact of physical punishment on children.
In the face of the strong evidence of the harm spanking can bring to our children and our communities, there is no scientific evidence that spanking brings any long-term benefit to children. None. What studies tell us is that spanking will stop children from engaging in inappropriate behavior in the short term. In the longer term, it merely teaches children to fear their parents and not to get caught. Lacking solid evidence in support of their view, black defenders of spanking fall back on a few well-worn rationales, such as:
• We need toughen our children up to handle the mean streets of the ghetto: This was a defense Peterson gave. “Deep in my heart, I have always believed I could have been one of those kids that was lost in the streets without the discipline instilled in me by my parents and other relatives.” This may have been true for Peterson. But what also could be true is that the streets may not have been so mean if they were not populated by so many kids who are angry at the world because, among other things, they were spanked.
• Habit and personal experience: Like treasured family heirlooms, spanking has been handed down from generation to generation without much thought or much looking at what the real results are.
“I was spanked, and I turned out all right” is a mantra repeated not only by Anthony but by thousands of black parents throughout the years. He may have fared pretty well. But has anybody asked the thousands of black men languishing in Attica or San Quentin – or on death row or strung out on drugs or contemplating suicide – whether they were spanked and whether they turned out all right?
“You would be hard-pressed to go into a prison and find someone who hasn’t been spanked or physically abused in some way,” Afifi said. “It’s just about 100%.”
• Why pick on black people? Since, according to Child Trends, 77% of all men and 65% of all women approve of spanking, black people have plenty of company in our defense of corporal punishment. But using that as a defense is akin to a child defending his or her bad behavior with the lame excuse, “everybody does it.” Besides, not everybody does. Only 47% of Asian-American men and 12% of Asian-American women approve of spanking their children. How are those kids turning out? Since Asian-Americans have the highest median household income and the highest levels of education of any group in the country, I’d say that sparing the rod hasn’t hurt them too much.
Don’t get me wrong. Spanking is nowhere near the only source of the problems confronting black people. We have some of the toughest hurdles to overcome than any other racial or ethnic group in the United States. Poor schools, lack of economic opportunities and persistent racism plague us every day. Fighting them takes enormous amounts of energy, creativity, drive and unity.
Wouldn’t we be better equipped as a group to deal with these issues over time if we produced stronger, better-adjusted, healthier children? One step in that direction is to simply stop laying our hands on them in anger.
So what to do? Well, one thing we shouldn’t do is start arresting parents for spanking as part of some well-meaning “zero tolerance” policy. If anything, the War on Drugs has taught us that when the criminal justice system gets involved, black people are disproportionally punished.
Instead, the solution has to come from within the black community itself. Rather than tolerating or even celebrating corporal punishment, we need to start tactfully condemning it.
Perhaps the next time someone starts rhapsodizing about how Grandma made him go outside, get a switch and pick the leaves off of it in preparation for a “whuppin’,” the proper response might be, “You know, brother, Grandma was wrong. She loved you. She meant well. But she was wrong.”