Corporal Punishment: When Love Hurts

“I brought you into this world and before the police get a hold of you, I will take you out.”

-A mother, speaking to her 13-year-old son

“I had a single parent, and hey, she had to discipline us. Yeah, I got hit by an ironing cord, but it made me a better person. It saved my life… she explained why she had to hit us, why she had to discipline us, why we had to be home at a certain time,” Villa said. “It just is not easy for black women in America.”

-Mr. Villa, an 83 year old elder

Dear Dr. Kane:

Raising kids is a challenge these days. Many parents feel they are “damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.”  On one hand, if those children had been caught breaking into that house by the police, the media and the members of the greater society would have questioned where the parents were at the time and blamed them for not disciplining their kids. On the other hand, attempts to discipline children vary in techniques and efficacy. Some, like corporal punishment, are viewed as effective, but abusive and detrimental to a child’s development.

We have a serious crime problem.  I can see that this woman is trying her best to keep her kids on the straight and narrow so they can grow up to be productive men.  I hope they drop the charges against her and she gets her kids back.  Maybe they can also help her get them counseling. What do you think?”

-Single Parent Mother, Seattle, WA


My Dear Readers,

There are many questions being asked whether we should physically discipline our children.  All 50 states have laws that allow corporal punishment, but its legality does not mean that it should be utilized.

Last week a woman we will call Ms. Spears, mother of three sons ages 13, 12 and 10, was arrested on charges for felony child abuse.  It happened when the mother witnessed her sons breaking into a neighbor’s home.

In disciplining her sons, she admitted to hitting them.  It is alleged by her eldest son that she used a RCA extension cord.  The eldest son is reported to have lacerations on his arms and marks on his leg, shoulder, back and stomach.  The other two boys reportedly had cuts and scratches on their arms and hands.

Ms. Spears was arrested on two counts of cruelty to juveniles.  She has no prior convictions and was released on a $1,000 bail that was posted by individuals who had read about the incident.  A lawyer has volunteered to take her case without pay.  The children have since been removed from the mother’s custody and placed in state foster care.

Ms. Spears feels that she has been victimized. She states:

“It’s been hell.  I never imagined that trying to be a good mother would end me up in jail with a criminal record like I’m a predator out to get my kids who I live for.  Everything I do is for my kids.”

To add more fuel to the firestorm, Ms. Nicholson, the neighbor whose home was the target of the break in, says that Ms. Spears should be commended and not punished for her actions:

“If it was me, I’m gonna beat you before I let the cops kill you.  I’m gonna do what I have to do.  I’m not going to let my children steal and kill and do all of that.  I’m not gonna let them fall to the streets.”

Several questions arise:

  • Is there a difference from a spanking, whipping and a beating?
  • Will such discipline prevent or reduce black male criminal behavior?
  • Can psychological trauma result from corporal punishment? If so why do black parent contribute to the trauma?
  • Should the mother face legal sanctions including removal of the children from her care?

What is the difference between a spanking and a beating?

 Spanking is defined as a type of corporal punishment involving the act of striking the buttocks of another person to cause physical pain.  It is usually done with an open hand.  More severe forms of spanking include the use of an implement such as a paddle or a belt, instead of a hand.

Beating is defined as a punishment or assault in which the victim is hit repeatedly and violently so as to hurt them usually with an implement such as a club or whip.  The objective of a beating may be to overcome a problem or take action to avoid difficult effects of an event or circumstance.

Will corporal punishment prevent or reduce black male criminal behavior?

It doesn’t appear so. Studies show that black parents are more likely to use corporal punishment than any other ethnic or racial group.  However, statistics on the incarceration of black males show that although African-Americans make up 12-13% of the national population, black males constitute 35% of jail inmates and 37% of prison inmates of the 2.2 million inmates in 2014.  Statistics by age group:

  • A black male born in 1991 has a 29% chance of spending time in prison at some point in his life.
  • One out of nine African American men will be in prison between the ages of 20 and 34.
  • Black males ages 30-34 have the highest crime rate of any race/ethnicity, gender and age combination.
  • In 2014, 6% of all black males ages 30 to 39 were in prison.
  • The lifetime chances of going to prison are 32.2% for Black males.
  • 1 in 3 black males will go to prison in their lifetime.

Can psychological trauma result from corporal punishment?  If so why do black parent contribute to the trauma?

Psychological trauma, in the form of complex trauma, has already impacted generations of African-American males.  Historically, the bodies of black males have been subjected to terror associated with racial control through centuries of slavery, lynching, sexual violence, surveillance, segregation, mass incarceration and police practices.

In cultural practice, Black parents in their actions are responding to a system that targets black males.  This is done through harsh physical punishment being meted out in a manner to protect their male children from the consequences of interactions with the police or incarceration by impressing upon them severe consequences for disobeying them—impressing upon them the critical importance of their message.  However, underlying all of this is the parental fear based on their experiences of suffering and random violence at the hands of white people.

 Concluding Remarks

“I’m from the South.  Whipping-we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”

-Charles Barkley, sports commenter/former NBA basketball player

Charles Barkley is correct. Corporal punishment is a reality in the African-American community.  In fact, many would state that spanking children has long been a badge of superiority and morality in black communities.  It has been viewed as a centerpiece of black identity, quality parenting and responsible citizenship.

There is no empirical evidence that corporal punishment prevents or reduces criminal behavior.  As a result, if we are to succeed in parenting, guiding and mentoring our children and adolescents we must want to find other means and methods in disciplining, and communicating our concerns that are effective in not only protecting those children from police contact, but protecting the wider society from their bad behavior.   While the intent of corporal punishment is to protect our children from the system, in doing so, we may be adding to their trauma as they are preparing themselves to live in a world that is hostile to both their race and in the case of African-American girls, their gender.

Should Ms. Spears face legal sanctions, including the removal of her children from her care?

Yes.  The mother should face legal sanctions.  She may have meant well in her attempts to guide her children, however her actions resulted in physical lacerations, bruises and cuts on the physical areas of minor children. There is a possibility that those children now suffer psychological trauma, not only as a result of the physical wounding, but also due to them being removed from their home.

Instead of holding to the role of being victimized by a harsh and careless police department and child welfare system, the mother must want to understand the role she played that led to her children’s physical and emotional condition and their removal from her care.  Saying “I beat them to save them from themselves” is not acceptable.

If the mother is not held accountable to her actions, the children may be placed at risk again.  Furthermore, this may send a message to others that places other children at risk.  The mother should not be incarcerated, but she should be provided with counseling, mentoring for her children and community supervision. This woman should not be criminalized for using the wrong method to protect her sons from a system that historically has targeted black males.

This mother must learn, as we all must learn, to live with fear and not in fear.  We must learn to hold our fear while teaching our children how to strive and thrive in a world that may be hostile to them.

Until the next crossroads… the journey continues.

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