Spare the Child: Spanking Harms Both Children and Caregivers

More Black millennial parents are rethinking corporal punishment

This story was first published in MindSite News, a nonprofit news organization devoted to mental health, and is republished with permission.

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Despite consistent evidence to the contrary, many U.S. adults, regardless of race, believe that spanking children is fine. Like my mother and hers before her, I grew up in an environment where I had to pick and prepare my own switch when my grandmother determined I’d gotten too out of hand. “It wasn’t abuse. We all turned out fine,” is the common refrain. But it turns out many adults who were hit are not okay – they just didn’t possess the language or freedom to say so. 

Like MindSite’s own co-founding editor Diana Hembree, who recalled the dangers of school paddling in a moving personal essay, I too attended an elementary school where such punishment was accepted as normal. As an older millennial, I was under the impression that corporal punishment in schools was phased out around the time I graduated 8th grade, but another MindSite News story shows that hitting children with boards is still permitted in 19 states. And the punishment is disproportionate: Black children are three times more likely to be paddled in today’s schools –something that a growing number of Black parents are determined to stop.

I often heard statements like, “It’s better I beat you in here than they kill you out there.” I always understood that to mean that a Black child had to respond with prompt obedience to their caregiver’s authority, lest they grow up to be wayward, then jailed or murdered at the hands of white police.

In all transparency, though, spanking in the home has long felt like a cultural imperative. I didn’t become a mother until my 30s, and even then, being clear about my decision to not hit or “spank” my child to the people who raised me felt almost antithetical to being Black. That’s unsurprising, considering what Black journalist, researcher, and child advocate Stacy Patton told Andscape in a 2017 interview following the release of her book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Won’t Save Black AmericaThe hardest part of writing it, she said, “was listening to the testimonies of people who talk about the pain they suffered during their own childhood, and how so many people couldn’t even talk about this because it was considered culturally taboo to do so: It’s [seen as] disrespectful to their mothers and other elders.”

In my own experience, I often heard statements like, “It’s better I beat you in here than they kill you out there.” I always understood that to mean that a Black child had to respond with prompt obedience to their caregiver’s authority, lest they grow up to be wayward, then jailed or murdered at the hands of white police. Once, in telling my 77-year-old uncle what I thought was a funny story about my 4-year-old daughter trying out the word ‘no,’ he turned to me and said, “It’s time for you to start beating her little ass.” I don’t agree with it as a solution, but it’s a strategy grounded in real experiences with white supremacy.

For Black Americans, all roads point back to slavery. It wasn’t that long ago. On my mother’s father’s side, I am only four generations from enslavement. The cultural imperatives that kept us alive 160 years ago are still present. 

Dr. Alvin F. Poussaint, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist, has long challenged those imperatives. “We have such damage in the black community, when you add to that parents beating their kids, it’s sending the message that violence is an OK way to solve problems,” he told CNN. 

The American Academy of Pediatrics cites voluminous research that spanking as discipline increases aggression, rage and hostility in children over time, is associated with anxiety and depression, and fails to teach them responsibility and self-control. It can break down the trust that children feel with their parents and strain the relationship. Moreover, more recent studies suggest physical punishment may harm normal child brain development, similar to that found in severe maltreatment, and contribute to violence against women later in life

Poussaint, who is Black, has conceded that his message about corporal punishment does not always go over well with Black parents and caregivers, but the younger generation appears to be listening. In 2014, a Reuters poll showed that 68% of parents across all demographics approved of spanking, but by 2020, that rate fell to 35%. And Blacks are no longer the group most likely to spank: Latinos now have the highest rates, followed by Blacks and whites.  

Stacy Patton explored Black attitudes toward physical punishment in an April 2020 article for the New York Times. In the article, Patton spoke with some Black pediatricians who see the fervent opposition of the American Association of Pediatrics to corporal punishment as an attack on African Americans. The fear of our children facing a justice system that disproportionately incarcerates Blacks, and worse, protects cops who kill unarmed Black people, has made it hard to change what we believe keeps us “safe.” But it’s time to take a big step.

In Spanked: How Hitting Our Children is Harming Ourselves, Christina L. Erickson, professor of social work and environmental studies at Augsburg University, presents more evidence to support an urgent end to what we politely call spanking, but which is really child abuse. She told the MinnPost that her “aha” moment came in a sudden burst of parenting frustration.

“It was a pretty normal moment,” Erickson said. “The girls were being age-appropriately naughty, fighting over a toy.” But on that day, the argument caused her stress level to soar and pushed her to a frightening limit. “I became really upset and angry – more so than I expected. I went into the room to hit them. And then I stopped myself.” 

Having grown up in a home where spanking was practiced, Erickson nearly reverted back to what she’d learned – and it caused her to consider how many other U.S. parents turn back to the practice as an acceptable disciplinary tool. Researching and writing the book prompted an internal shift in her perspective.

“I had a lot of evolution in my own thinking,” Erickson said. “Before, I was mired in the idea that spanking was a benign family discipline tactic that didn’t have big social impacts on a broader scale. But my research uncovered harms that were just too great to ignore.” 

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Courtney Wise

Courtney Wise

Courtney Wise Randolph is a native Detroiter and freelance writer. She is the host of COVID Diaries: Stories of Resilience, a 2020 project between WDET and Documenting Detroit which won an Edward R. Murrow Award for Excellence in Innovation.