Why Black People Should Stop Spanking Their Kids
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Spankings, whuppings, beat downs—whatever you call them, author Stacey Patton says it needs to stop.
I’ve recently come to a realization that I’m still a little uncomfortable admitting. I’ve been told that making this choice will result in an automatic, do-not-pass-go, go-straight-to-Portland revoking of one’s Black card.
But, ok, here it goes:
I don’t plan on hitting my kids.
No popping, no smacking, no whupping, no “stop crying, before I give you something to cry about”-ing, nothing.
Maybe this admission will be like those old tweets that come back to haunt politicians and celebrities once I have a misbehaving toddler glaring defiantly at me, but I really don’t think I can do it. And a big reason for that is journalist, author, and child advocate Stacey Patton’s haunting new book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won't Save Black America.
Spare the Kids revisits a familiar argument: Corporal punishment has negative effects on children and shouldn’t be practiced. But Patton—who has a very personal connection to the topic as someone who was placed in foster care due to physical abuse—goes even further, making a damning case for why the practice is especially damaging in the Black community.
According to her very convincing arguments, corporal punishment reinforces racist stereotypes (that Black bodies can only learn through violence) and generations of trauma.
“This comes from a place of love,” Patton says of her book and child advocacy work. “This isn't about shaming my people, this isn't about moralizing. It's about asking us to have the courage to redirect that rage and that anger and those hands back at the system, not at our children's bodies.”
While all races use corporal punishment (“between 70 and 80% of all Americans hit their children,” she writes), Black families face a harsher reality for the practice. Black children are three times more likely to die as a result of abuse by a parent. And whuppings can be another route into the system: In the past 10 years, 758,000 Black kids were placed in foster care because of “physical and other types of abuse and neglect.”
Brain scans prove that spankings—not to speak of harsher beatings—have long-term effects that can be passed down to future generations. Spare the Kids presents studies that show physical abuse can lead to irreversible, negative physiological changes—it’s even been linked to sending girls into early puberty! Experiencing physical abuse at a young age has also been connected to an increased likelihood of experiencing / perpetuating domestic violence, as well as drug and alcohol abuse.
Despite these hard-to-deny facts against using corporal punishment, the practice is still reinforced as a positive thing in our community through stand-up comedy, the pulpit, in our homes, and through Black talking heads.
I spoke to Patton to learn more about how Black people were first introduced to corporal punishment as a parenting tool and why she thinks fear doesn’t have a place in parenting.
What happens developmentally when children are whupped?
A lot of people will say there’s a difference between spanking or whupping a child. I say no, there is not. Children's bodies do not experience the pain differently because you call it by a different name.
[When] the parent hits a child, they see the crying [and then it] stops. But what they don't see hours later are the biochemical responses that they've initiated, that are still going on in the child's body. If you keep doing this over a time, you start to lay the foundation for some negative things to happen.
There’s been 50 years worth of science looking at spanking. Science has shown that when you hit a child, a child’s body experiences an overload of certain hormones like oxytocin [and] cortisol. Children's brains are developing, so when you subject it to stress—constant hollering, threatening, hitting—you can literally alter the physical architecture of the child's brain. Too much cortisol, too much oxytocin messes with their neural pathways. So you can lay the groundwork for low IQ, aggressive behavior, depression, drug and alcohol abuse...with girls you can trigger puberty to begin much [earlier]. Chronic stress—whether it's [to] humans or animals or plant life—sends a message to the body to hurry up and mature. Hurry up and mature so you can procreate. Have sex, because you might not be able to survive this stress that you're going through.
So you have kids who are being beaten who are developing much faster, and being sexual earlier. And then the parents are beating the kids for doing that when they laid the foundation for that when they were toddlers.
[Editor’s Note: Read an excerpt from Spare the Kids on how corporal punishment can lead to early onset puberty on MUTHA Magazine]
The damage is there. You [just] can't see it on the flesh. We're so used to looking at abuse as [physical] injury. I'm actually convinced that there's a lot of people who don't think abuse is abuse until a child is dead.
What were the studies on corporal punishment that stood out to you the most?
I went through the past 10 years of data from the annual child maltreatment report and tallied the Black fatalities. It's a rate that's three times higher [than other races].
Black people are using fear of the police—fear of their kids being killed—as a justification for beating their kids. But when you put that side by side with those numbers on the chart [below], a different story emerges—that Black children are more at risk for being killed by their own parents and caretakers than a cop.
But this is all part of the smog of racism. The devaluation and poverty and all of those things. These things supply the ingredients for those sorts of outcomes.
In your book, you point out that often, the first instances of abuse, humiliation, and fear Black children face are inflicted on them by their mothers. Seeing that type of criticism against Black moms made me cringe. Why do you think it's so hard to lay blame on Black women's doors?
Black women are the pillar of our communities. We put them on pedestals. [But] Black women [also] endure so many attacks from the white world. We’re blamed for producing defective, deviant children. All of these issues in our community are laid back at our wombs.
We’ve internalized some of that to the point where we believe that all the symptoms of structural inequality are the result of our reproductive choices. Our audacity to bear children. There’s an intuitive response to defend Black women from these attacks. In that process we look away at some of the things that we do that are damaging to each other, to Black men and to our children
We don’t talk about Black men’s pain in this culture. There's no space for that. We only talk about their pain when they're being killed. Even Black men sharing their stories about the abuse they endured at the hands of mothers, aunts, [and] grandmothers is somehow misogynistic. There's almost an intuitive response to defend Black women's brutality by saying it's mental illness or it’s poverty or it’s being a single mom or it’s patriarchy.
I'm not denying that some of those things are at play, but when I think back on my own childhood, I lived in a middle-class, suburban, two-parent home. They were church-going people. My adoptive mother was not being mistreated by my adoptive father; we were not poor, we were not struggling, there was no violence outside in our streets.
When she would strip me naked and whip me with extension cords, that was not patriarchy. That was not poverty. That was retribution and trauma being played out. And at some point, we have to take responsibility.
Why do you think we focus on our children instead of the institutions we’re trying to protect them from?
Our parenting is under a system that's always threatening our lives. When you fear for your own life and you fear for your children's life, it's very easy to misconstrue cruelty for love and protection. Part of it is internalized racism. Part of it is trying to save our lives. Part of it is fear—there’s probably a fear that if African-Americans really, really rose up and took radical measures, we’d be wiped out.
When you have that kind of trauma, and that sense of powerlessness, you take it out on the most vulnerable among you rather than the people who are subjecting you to all of this insanity. It’s much easier to whup a child than it is to strike back against massa.
How did corporal punishment became a hallmark of Black parenting?
You have to go back 2,000 years of European history to answer that. You have to look at the ways Europeans treated their children. They were absolutely sadistic to their kids!
[Interrupts] I'm sorry, that chapter offended me so much! And that line when you said Black people have only had the opportunity to be parents for 150 years? It brought me to tears.
And factor in Jim Crow, it's less than that. In the past 50 years there’s been a retrenchment: mass incarceration, state violence... We’ve never had a break. Imagine what Black parenting would look like without the specter of white violence. Imagine what it would look like without all of that fear. Without all of these traps everywhere. We’ve never had that opportunity.
But you have to go back 2,000 years and look at the sadistic ways in which Europeans treated their own children. Europeans didn't start regarding their own children as children—as unique from adults—until about the 16th Century. And this was about the same time they start their colonization schemes. They're like, "Wait a minute. Our children are children and these Africans are children. We have to remove our own kids from such uncomfortable proximity to Africans." So they begin to treat their own children a little better because they start to imagine them as future adults, whereas Black people are not regarded in that sense.
So Black children and Black adults have always occupied the same vulnerable place, and their bodies have always been ready sites for violence. That's why you got Tamir Rice who was imagined as a 20 year old man, killed instantly for playing with a toy gun. John Crawford, a grown man, [holds] a toy gun in a Walmart and he gets killed. There's no difference.
Here's the other thing. I have people who always argue, "Well, we brought whupping children from Africa." First of all, there's no evidence that kind of ritualistic violence existed [before colonization]. But … a lot of these [captives] hadn't finished childhood themselves, and they never parented. If it had been true that … white people didn't interfere with parenting practices, then maybe you could make that argument. But that's not what happened. White folks taught us how to whip our children, period.
On the plantation, they kept this going for centuries and created [an] illusive type of Black parenting. The only real power slave masters, overseers and, continuing today, this society has ever really afforded Black parents is the power to break and beat their kids just enough so they don't grow up to destroy the white supremacist system.
Why do we think of fear as the ultimate discipline tool?
You want your child to respect and love and trust you, not fear you. Because when you create this space of fear, you set the child up for keeping secrets. You drive delinquency underground where they end up getting caught in some other way.
I want to have children some day; I don't want my children to fear me. You get people who say, "I'm not my child's friend." Of course you should be your child's friend. That doesn't mean that you're both on the same level—your job is to teach and guide and love this kid—but I want to be friends with my kid. Our children have to deal with so much meanness already in the world, so much fear when they leave our home, so many traps, so many people who regard them as disposable. Our homes should be the one space where there is no fear, where there is someone who is friendly and loving and kind and caring, and who respects their bodily integrity. Why should we assist the larger world in that devaluation?
For me it's a way for people to not look at the structural realities that are happening in our communities. The impact of deindustrialization on families, the impact of mass incarcerations on the Black family, the removal of men as fathers and breadwinners. The divestment from public schools. All of these overt systemic issues that are impacting our communities and screwing up our kids' behaviors. We don't make these connections—instead we just say all these problems today that we had are because these kids aren't being whupped enough.
They're saying they're so bad and ravishing our communities even though crime is going down. Millennials are much more spiritual, they're smoking less, they're drinking less... Just look at any article that compares millennials to Baby Boomers, who jacked everything up for us. So all of this “kids today” argument is just bunk! They're just saying it to exert the right to assault children.
No other group of people do we ask, “Well, what do I do instead of hitting my boss, or my wife, or my best friend who acts up?”
I find that adults are a lot more complex and irritating and deviant than children, yet we figure out how to navigate our frustrations with those people. Why? Because they can hit us back. But with kids it’s like, “Oh my god! It's so hard to not hit them.” I don't get that.
It's not that parents lack love. I know they love their kids. But what they lack is the emotional maturity to see their children as people who are separate from themselves.
What do you think of Patton's argument? Tell us in the comments!
Anthonia Akitunde is the founder of mater mea.