Before I started school, as a child of two working parents, I was usually taken care of by my grandmother. My days consisted of watching PBS on TV—we didn’t have cable—and tagging along with my grandmother when she had to go places.
On one of these days, when I was four years old, my grandmother wanted me to come to the store with her. However, I was in the middle of watching Clifford, so my grandmother offered me a bribe so that I would come peacefully.
“I’ll give you a Mento when we come back,” she told me. I promptly got up, turned off the TV and walked outside to get into the car.
When we got outside, my grandma saw our next door neighbor outside and began talking to her. I got bored and decided to wait for my grandmother in the car. I climbed into the driver’s seat, and began pretending to drive. After a few minutes, I noticed a stick next to the driver’s seat. Naturally, I pushed the stick forward. To my surprise, the car began to move and began rolling into the street. My grandma noticed, and began running after the car. By the time she reached the car, the car was already in the middle of the street. She climbed in, and backed the car back into the driveway.
As my grandma pulled me out of the car, I asked her if I could have a Mento. She looked at me with disbelief and asked me why I thought I deserved one.
I answered, “You said I could have one when we were back, and now we’re back.” My grandma looked at me with disbelief, pulled off her shoe, and spanked me.
This is the most memorable spanking I have ever received, but certainly not the only one. My experience with spanking runs the gamut. I have been spanked for lying, for fighting with my brothers, for crying, and simply for making the job of taking care of me more difficult. I have been spanked by my mother, father, and grandmother when they have seen fit. I have been spanked with hands, shoes, and belts. I have been spanked with all my clothes on and with nothing on.
“Stop crying before I give you something to cry about” has become a permanent part of my vocabulary,” and I have been threatened with spankings more times than I can count. Despite all of this, I believe spanking has had a positive effect on my development into who I am today.
The first time I met anyone who had never been spanked was middle school, when I began attending an elite private school in New York City called Horace Mann. At Horace Mann, my experiences with being spanked were out of the ordinary, and only shared by other minority students at the school. I associated the lack of punishment that my peers had received in their childhood with the feelings of entitlement I encountered at the school.
I remember once in eighth grade, one girl complained to one of her friends, “My dad better buy me the new iPhone… my Blackberry is already going out of style.” I still had a flip phone, and it was the first phone I had in my life. Often I thought to myself, “They sure could’ve used some spankings as a child.” I could not understand any reason someone wouldn’t spank their child, aside from being bad parents.
Never had I ever questioned spanking as “something that just has to be done” until an incident last year.
This past Monday was the first time Adrian Peterson was allowed to play an NFL game in over a year. For those that don’t know, Adrian Peterson is considered one of the best running backs of all time and is certain to go to the Hall of Fame when he retires. However, he was suspended for all of last season due to charges of child abuse that he occurred after he spanked his child with a branch so hard that his four-year-old son was left with numerous marks on his back, butt, and legs.
What followed was endless commentary on the merits of spanking, and almost all of it was negative. For the first time, I was exposed to the reasons why some parents don’t spank their children.
Health professionals are in near universal agreement that spanking damages children, and that the long-term damages it can cause offset any possible advantages.
Elizabeth Gershoff, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan, concluded that physical punishment can lead to children developing increased aggression, antisocial behavior, and mental health problems. Despite this, about 70 percent of parents in the United States support spanking and about 80 percent of children in the United States have been spanked.
The United States is unique among developed countries, as it is one of developed countries in the world to still support spanking as an acceptable form of punishment. In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a directive calling physical punishment “legalized violence against children” that should be eliminated in all settings. This directive was supported by 192 countries, with only the United States and Somalia refusing to support it.
At least 30 countries have already banned spanking or physical punishment of any kind. Although the majority of Americans still support spankings, spanking has steadily become less socially acceptable in America, with one state, Delaware, even banning spankings by defining child abuse as any punishment that causes physical pain. What began as a movement among elite progressives is now very much part of the larger consciousness of America.
So why do the majority of Americans—including me—believe that support spanking as a valid form of punishment?
For one, the vast majority of those who were spanked as children believe that it positively impacted their lives. Some 86 percent of adults that were spanked believed that it is appropriate punishment. This means spanking is not just the result of a cycle of violence—as some people, who often compare spanking to domestic abuse, claim—but instead because most believe that spanking has had a genuinely positive affect on them.
Belief in the value of spankings is especially prevalent among African-Americans, lower-class families, conservatives, and Christians.
African-Americans support spankings at a higher rate than any group in the country. I believe this stems mostly from fear. African-Americans have a unique history in America—one marked by discrimination and violence. Up to the 1960s, lynching of African-Americans was a common practice that had no repercussions. This was only 50 years ago, meaning that many of our parents were growing up in a time when lynching was commonplace. Today, we are living in an era of mass incarceration, where one in three black men can expect to go to prison, blacks are disproportionately arrested for the same crimes, and sentenced longer for the same offenses.
Critics of spankings often argue that spankings are harmful because they cause fear of authority. However, in a world where a black woman can be arrested simply for exercising her constitutional rights and then later found dead in her jail cell, can you blame black parents for encouraging immediate obedience rather than engagement with authority?
The mantra used by African-Americans to defend spankings is often a variation of “my belt hurts a lot less than the white man’s bullet.”
Lower-class families also have a similar reason to use spanking as punishment. Children from lower-class families face more risk on a daily basis than those of upper-class families.
From dealing with local gangs, to the fact that lower-class children are at higher risk of dropping out, lower-class children face more immediate dangers than other children.
This makes it impossible for parents to allow them to explore and learn from their mistakes, but instead force them to demand immediate obedience. In addition, lower-class families use spankings as their punishment of choice because they don’t have any other option. There are no phones or cars or allowance to take away.
Instead, the only form of punishment available to these parents is spanking.
Conservatives spank, primarily because their focus is on building character in their children, which includes developing respect for authority. Conservatives place a much higher emphasis on respecting authority than liberals, who instead emphasize questioning authority—especially when it does not seem to be administering justice.
In addition, conservatives are more likely to believe in the traditional family unit. In the traditional family unit, the family is a hierarchical system. The father is the head of the family, and ultimately orders come from him. Disobedience is not tolerated because the family, like any other organization, one in which orders are meant to be obeyed.
This explains why it is a common trend among liberal parents to go by first names with their children, but this is non-existent among conservatives. Liberal parents want to create an environment where they are seen as peers and confidants in order to build trust and openness, while conservatives believe that a strict environment will better build character.
Christians have a very unique reason to discipline their children that is based in the Bible. The Bible contains verses that say things such as “he that spares his rod hates his son,” “foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him,” and “withhold not correction from the child: for if you beat him with the rod, he shall not die; thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shall deliver his soul from hell.”
These verses are very clear about the benefits of physical punishment, leading many Christians to believe that the right to spank comes from the Bible.
Obviously, often people come from families that are a combination of these four groups. Personally, I came from a Christian, socially conservative, lower-middle class African-American family.
While many might think some of these reasons for why people spank are more valid than others, there are clearly several ideological and practical reasons to use spanking as a disciplinary method.
The several reasons why parents spank their children boils down to one thing: asserting authority in order to ensure compliance.
A study conducted on Swedish crime rates since spanking was banned in 1979 show that children born after spanking was banned are actually much more violent than those that were born before the spanking ban. The researchers believed that parent’s inability to use any form of physical discipline undermined parental authority in such a way that they were unable to teach their children values such as respect for others. This is why it is problematic when parents try to appear to be peers to their children.
While it does foster openness and trust, it also fails to establish the necessary parent-child dynamics. When these parents tell their children to do something, it is the same as when a friend tells us to do something. It is not a command, but rather a suggestion or belief that the child can choose to agree with or ignore.
However, it is also clear where spanking can become problematic. If parents are trying to assert their authority, then what is to stop them from getting out of control if they feel their authority is undermined?
This is when child abuse usually occurs: parents act out of anger and strike their children repeatedly—not to teach them a lesson, but instead because they perceived disobedience as an affront to their authority.
What is problematic about studies on corporal punishment is that they do not distinguish between punishment that was appropriate and punishment that was abuse, and punishment that was deserved and punishment that was not deserved.
Therefore, the conclusions that researchers have made about children that are spanked are not necessarily applicable to those that were spanked “properly.”
“Obviously, parents are entitled to discipline their children as they see fit, except when that discipline exceeds what the community would say is reasonable,” Montgomery County Prosecutor Phil Grant said in regards to the Adrian Peterson case.
However, what is happening across America is that the definition of what is reasonable is changing. America’s view of spankings is changing out of what I believe to be good intentions, but also out of misinformation.
America seeks to equate all spanking with child abuse, but fails to recognize that there is a “proper” way to administer spankings. A child should never be spanked of anger, because this is hitting a child because you are angry, not because you love them.
In addition, it should be used as a last resort, not as a first resort– as it is too often used. Parents need to be taught to limit spankings and also how to spank their children so that child abuse can become a thing of the past. However, what America also needs to recognize is that being able to not spank is a luxury.
Some parents can allow their children to do whatever they please and know that their children are not in any real danger no matter what they choose to do. Personally, if there is a way that I can establish my authority over them without spanking my children, I will. I will only use spankings as a last resort and use them as infrequently as possible.
However, a large portion of America does not have this luxury. For these parents, their options are to find a way to make their children listen, or lose their children to gangs or prison.
Outlawing spankings cannot be the solution: while it will not affect parents who already spank their children, it will ensure that children that are already labeled “at risk” remain that way.
Featured photo-credit: Psychology Today