Recently, a study found that spanking has a negative effect on toddlers, particularly those from low-income households. Precious, the new movie by Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey, is the story of a black teen mother who survives physical and sexual abuse from her parents. While the movie strikes a chord with those who were victims of abuse in their childhood, it also reminds us of the prevalence of beatings as a child-rearing tool in the African-American community, a practice which hearkens back to the days of slavery.
As Dr. William H. Grier and Dr. Price M. Cobbs remind us in their book, Black Rage, black folks learned to beat their children from slavery. The book cautions:
“Beating in child-rearing actually has its psychological roots in slavery and even yet black parents will feel that, just as they have suffered beatings as children, so it is right that their children be so treated. This kind of physical subjugation of the weak forges early in the mind of the child a link with the past and, as he learns the details of history, with slavery per se.”
Of course, slaves were personal property and were supposed to be obedient. And slave masters could do with them as they pleased, without repercussions, including beating them. These masters could justify the harsh and brutal treatment by pointing to Bible passages such as Ephesians 6:5, which reads, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters with deep respect and fear. Serve them sincerely as you would serve Christ.” Further, Exodus 21:20-21 states that, “When a man strikes his male or female slave with a rod so hard that the slave dies under his hand, he shall be punished. If, however, the slave survives for a day or two, he is not to be punished, since the slave is his own property.”
For the ancestors of today’s African-Americans, the physical violence of slavery — including whipping, beating and other acts — served to humiliate them, break them, and keep them in control. And even after slavery up until today, many black parents have disciplined their children by giving them a “whoopin” or a beating every now and then, some more often than others. Everyone has heard the story about the child whose grandmother directed him or her to go to the backyard and select a “switch”, a branch or stick from a tree that the grandmother would use to whip the child. In fact, many black people experienced the switch scenario firsthand. That was the traditional way that many children were raised. Spare the rod and spoil the child, they said.
African-Americans are by no means the only people who inflict corporal punishment on their children. Moreover, not every physical touching of a child by a parent is considered abuse. But there is a fine line between discipline and abuse, to be sure. So, why should we experiment with the boundaries of violence against our own flesh and blood?
Adherents to the old school may decry the new so-called “political correctness” that instructs parents to give their children a “time out” rather than the back of the hand. But how many of us have seen an out-of-control parent beat his or her child in the supermarket aisle and conclude that there must be a better way?
As a society, we experience much violence and trauma in our lives. Children experience that trauma. Adults have more stresses than ever as they try to make ends meet and pay the bills with a shrinking paycheck, perhaps even a second job. With less money, no spare time, and more stress with few outlets, parents raise their children under a great deal of pressure. Feeling powerless, sometimes parents will take out their frustration on whomever is available, including a spouse or a child. Then, children are struck simply because they are there. These children later grow up to abuse their own children, and the vicious cycle continues.
The good old days were not always so good, and some practices are better left in the past. After all, slavery, spousal abuse, and even lynching were once acceptable. Today’s children do not need more violence. Rather, they need love, support and encouragement from their parents. Children need structure, boundaries and guidance, and a community that will nurture them. Let’s throw away the switches.