“Beloved and beaten.” African American children — past and present — are loved fiercely, and disciplined that way, too.
This authoritative style of African American parenting is too often passed along generationally — and uncritically.
When Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted on allegations of child abuse, he admitted to using the disciplinary methods passed down by his father.
“I have always believed that the way my parents disciplined me has a great deal to do with the success I have enjoyed as a man,” Peterson said in a statement.
Among those coming to Peterson’s defense was NBA Hall of Famer Charles Barkley. On the CBS pregame show The NFL Today, Barkley recalled childhood beatings. “I’ve had many welts on my legs,” he said. “Whipping — we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”
Comedian D. L. Hughley tweeted something similar: “Who knew that was illegal, cuz my mama would b in jail!”
Hughley’s right: Jail would be the appropriate punishment for flogging a child and causing him excessive bodily harm — in the name of discipline.
While black people don’t have a monopoly on beating children, we do have unique reasons for choosing it as a style of discipline.
Using corporal punishment on our black children is rooted in the violent history of American slavery. Having enslaved parents beat their own children was a prophylactic method to protect children from hasher beatings they would otherwise get from white slavers.
The “switch” has become an African American institution, both feared and revered. Sadly, this savage tool that was once used to break the back of my ancestors finds its marks on too many black children’s bodies today.
In a tussle over a toy, Peterson’s 4-year-old pushed his brother off a video game. Peterson reacted by shoveling leaves in his son’s mouth from the “switch” made from the tree branch he used to lash him, pants down. His son sustained lacerations and wounds to his scrotumn, back, legs, ankle, hands, and buttocks, requiring medical attention.
“My goal is always to teach my son right from wrong and that’s what I tried to do that day,”Peterson stated in his defense.
But too little progress has been made in peacefully teaching right from wrong, because in order for affirmative,non-violent child discipline methods in my culture to take root, the destructive variety needs to uprooted. Changing a cultural mindset about discipline is a Herculean effort. The internalized violence many of us in the African American community are unconsciously passing on to future generations is doing as much harm to our children as is the ongoing toll of racism and discrimination that they confront.
But like Peterson, some black parents still see physical discipline as their duty, and research reveals that 89 percent of African Americans use corporal punishment with their children.
We’re not helped in the religious community by our own teachings. Proverbs 13:24: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” The hackneyed phrase, “spare the rod, spoil the child,” is the too-often cited response among African American ministers, both young and old, to the question of children and discipline.
Consider the 2012 incident with Atlanta megachurch minister Creflo Dollar. When his 15-year-old daughter called 911 because he choked and slapped her, Rev. Dollar was detained in jail for only a few hours. He was released after the local NAACP releasingthe following statement:
“The parents are in a dilemma whether to forgo disciplining their children or to leave it up to law enforcement. Should we be apathetic, lax or indifferent and let the courts send our unruly children to jail or should we as parents do our duty and appropriately discipline our children?”
Such examples feed the racist notion that black children respond best to physical punishment. The Journal of Clinical Child Psychology reported in 2002 that the authoritative style black parents use on their children was more effective.
Black parents already have an uphill battle in raising our children, who contend with a myriad of obstacles to their success: a higher school drop-out rate; teen pregnancies; gang violence; juvenile detention; racial profiling; being shot by police — to name a few.
Parenting is hard, and trying to figure the appropriate punishment gains nothing with the force of violence. Especially because it was done in the days of slavery, and in spite of the fact that it was done to us as children, it needs to stop.
The challenge to our community is to break free from a shackle of our past and find a peaceful, and more effective, way to guide and discipline our most beloved, our most precious – our children.