Sparing the Rod

A black comedian riffs on the subject of parenthood on BET's late-night laughfest, ComicView:

"You wanna know the difference between black parents and white parents?" he begins. "In public, white kids...embarrass they parents. Black parents..."

The 99% black audience chuckles with anticipation.

"... embarrass they kids."

While the audience erupts with knowing laughter, the comedian demonstrates the stereotypical white child screaming, "Mother, I hate you!" at the permissive white mother; versus the loud, no-nonsense way the stereotypical black mother corrals her kids with threats ("Girl, I'll knock you into next week") and a ready backhand (or shoe).

The comedian offered this as a universal truth: Black parents don't play. Black parents don't believe in "time out." Black parents spank their kids.

Except some of us don't.

That's it. That's my dirty little secret. I'm a black mother who doesn't spank her kids.

But don't you understand? For as long as black folks have been in this country, we have had to keep our kids in line, by any means necessary. For us, it was a matter of life and death.

"Was" being the operative word here. Gone are the days when whining and complaining or disobedience could get a child's entire escaping family captured, sent back to the plantation, whipped, hobbled, or killed. Gone are the days when whistling at a white woman (or even being falsely accused of it) would get a 14-year-old black boy lynched and his unrepentant murderers found not guilty, and then bragging about the crime in a national magazine. (See Till, Emmett.)

Now you'll never hear me say that black folks have completely overcome. Racism and discrimination may no longer wear white sheets, or wield fire hoses and dogs, but they are still alive and kicking. But in 2006, I'll be damned if "know your place," and "don't piss off white folks" are among the life lessons I instill in my daughters, much less spank them to drive the message home.

That said, the reality is that black children are often scrutinized more closely than white children. A black kindergarten boy is labeled "unruly, threatening" by his teacher. Meanwhile, his white counterpart is "spirited, rambunctious." Baggy jeans, hoodies, and "bling-bling" are "gangsta" attire when wore by black kids; when white kids wear them, it's stylish rebellion. Black adults are also held to higher standards. Many feel compelled to work twice as hard as their white counterparts just to make the same progress professionally. And then there are those "helpful" sales clerks trailing behind us in stores because we might try and steal something. Guilty until proven innocent.

So, as the conventional wisdom goes, we -- and our children -- must be on our best behavior. But even accepting this reality, I don't believe that spanking is necessary or necessarily effective.

These kids nowadays? They call 9-1-1 or Child Protective Services on a parent who tries to spank them. That's why so many of them end up in jail, on drugs, or can't keep a job.

I seriously doubt black kids are making such calls en masse. To blame criminal behavior and unemployment on parents not spanking is illogical as well as inaccurate. It also gives a free pass to the systemic injustices and neglect that contribute to what ails us a community.

"But aren't you afraid she'll end up in prison?"
Contrary to the ComicView comedian's riff, "to spank or not to spank" does not fall neatly along color lines . The above is a direct quote from a friend, Sue (not her real name), who is white. Sue's oldest child is the same age as Taylor. We bonded as first-time moms, and became friends in spite of our different parenting styles, including my decision not to spank Taylor. Sue asked what I thought about "Spare the rod, spoil the child," which many consider a biblical mandate to spank. I shared Christian attachment parenting guru Dr. William Sears' observation that the "rod" is akin to a shepherd's staff, which is used to prod and guide sheep for their protection, not to hit them. But Sue remained skeptical.

When Taylor and Sue's child were both eighteen months old, Sue said to me, "They're into everything at this age! Surely you've spanked her by now." I hadn't, and said so.

"But aren't you afraid she'll end up in prison?"


"Well, if she doesn't learn to obey you, then she won't learn to obey laws..."

"And end up in prison? You know, I bet that a lot of people sitting in prison right now were spanked as kids. I'm not saying that they are in prison because they were spanked, but clearly spanking is not an effective crime deterrent. If Taylor ended up in prison, I would wonder where I went wrong as a parent, but I wouldn't question my decision not to spank."

I pointed out to Sue that she wrongly equated lack of spanking in our family with lack of discipline. I don't spank, but I'm not a permissive parent either. In our family, there are age-appropriate boundaries, rules, consequences, and most importantly, consistency. And yet, I don't subscribe to any formula for parenting success. No one is guaranteed law-abiding offspring, whether you spank or not.

In settings where my children are the only ones present who have never been spanked, they have behaved as well if not better than the other children. They also have their Moments, as all kids do, spanked or not. So if I'm going to get the same results spanking as not, why spank? Other than self-defense or to protect others, hitting another person just doesn't feel right to me.

As long as you don't spank out of anger, it's fine.

Well, then maybe I am a spanker after all. I'm just not a practicing spanker because the only time I ever get the urge to spank my kids is when I'm angry.

But weren't you spanked as a child? And didn't you turn out just fine?

Fine? I turned out fabulous! But so have plenty of people who were never spanked.

Some friends and I get downright nostalgic at times, laughing about "whuppings" past, about that bygone era when grandmothers sent you out to the backyard to get your own switch (a tiny, thin branch stripped of its leaves) for her to keep handy for when you misbehaved.

I don't fault my mother or grandmother for spanking me, and I don't challenge parents I know for choosing spanking as a form of discipline. When questioned, I explain that it's simply not an option with my kids. I have been criticized by some friends and family members for this decision, accused of negligent parenting or the dreaded "acting like white folks." Black people I don't even know look at me like I'm Sistah from Another Planet when I utter a firm "no" to my hysterical two-year-old and discipline her in public without spanking.

Have my kids ever embarrassed me in public? On occasion, but fortunately, the goal of my parenting is not to save face. It is to raise two confident, compassionate, productive, socially-conscious -- and yes, law-abiding -- young women. So maybe my parenting style is not the stuff comedian's punch-lines are made of, but it works for me and mine.

-Deesha Philyaw, @DesshaPhilyaw

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