When I was a kid we used to play a game called “Hot Peas and Butter.” The rules were simple. Whoever was “it” had to hide a belt in the yard while four or five of us would wait nearby “on base.” After hiding the belt, the person who was “it” would holler, “Hot peas and butter, come and get your supper!” We would then come running and begin our frantic search for the belt. As we looked for the belt, we’d be given a nerve-racking account of who was “hot” (close to finding it) or “cold” (far away from finding it) until someone found it and tried their best to whip the rest of us before we ran screaming and laughing back to base.
Most likely created during slavery on some South Carolina plantation as a cruel joke, it evolved into a ghetto game for ruff neck kids (those of you who played know who you are). Looking back on it now, I see it as another cultural example of the thin line between laughter and tears that slices through African-American culture, and also as an unexpected outcome that spanking can have on children.
I was not surprised to read that a group of Duke University researchers who recently conducted a study of more than 2,500 toddlers enrolled in Head Start found that, for poor children as young as one, spanking is not only commonplace but promotes more aggressive behavior by age two. Poverty has a way of starving one’s emotional, intellectual, and even spiritual resources, creating short tempers and quick fuses among parents. Add race to the mix and it gets even more complicated.
For years, leading research has pointed to data that suggests spanking kids produces abusive and violent-prone adults. Even the American Academy of Pediatrics is noted for its stance against spanking. But for some African-Americans of various class levels, sparing the rod is still not an option and their kids aren’t always worse off because of it.
A study published in the May 2004 Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry showed that while white children who were spanked exhibit more aggressive behavior as young teens, African-American children who were spanked actually exhibit less aggressive behavior. While most studies suggest that black parents spank more than whites, class is a better determinate for who’s spanking who, when, why, and how often.
Ask some black folks to justify spanking and you’re likely to get a full range of reasons, from spanking being “preparation for life’s hardships” to it simply being the “old school” tradition. It’s a complex issue, but one thing most researchers agree on is that spanking is done more often when parents of all races are tired, stressed, hungry or depressed. And the impact of class, often layered within the prism of race, makes spanking take on different implications in different settings.
“I look over my shoulder before I discipline my son if I’m in public in my middle-class neighborhood – someone might try to call the cops and report me for child abuse or something,” said Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt, an African-American single mother of a four-year-old boy. “If I was in a different neighborhood, someone might come up the aisle and say, “Girl, if you didn’t get him, I was gonna do it for you!!”
Tsoi-A-Fatt says she only spanks as a last resort and likes that her son feels comfortable enough to tell her anything. “I’m convinced it’s because he’s not afraid of me and he can read disappointment and anger in my eyes, and that brings him to tears just as much as a spanking would,” she said.
I agree with research that indicates that black children have different cultural experiences that make spanking, as a last resort and with explanation, a viable option. But as the father of a two-year-old, my daughter is too young to understand the reasons for a spanking. And from everything I’ve learned, it won’t be spanking her in the future anyway. I believe there are better ways to discipline children built on reasoning, rewards, love, and trust.
Now all we have to do is come up with a game built upon these things and watch the kids come running.