It started as soon as we came through the sliding doors of the airport in Accra, Ghana. While we waited for his father to link up with us, my son began to play with a bigger boy we had run into a few times after getting off the plane. When the bigger boy ventured further away than I wanted my not-quite-two-year-old to go, I called him back. He took off running. After flying all night, chasing him was the last thing I wanted to do. When I moved in his direction, he began to shout. At that moment, someone should have unfurled a banner right below the “Akwaaba” (welcome) sign:
“WELCOME TO THE ‘TERRIBLE’ TWOS!”
The airport scene was just the beginning of sorrows. Over the course of the next month, my Darling Son threw fits and meltdowns like I had never seen. He yelled “no!” so angrily that even his older cousins told him to listen to his mom. While I struggled to manage his behavior, I also had to deal with the under-a-microscope feeling those scenes caused, as everyone, including my son’s paternal family, watched my complete failure to keep him calm and compliant.
My boyfriend’s adult nephew said to me, “In Africa, we believe in the ‘other hand.’ If they don’t listen when we talk, the ‘other hand’ is there to show them what we mean.” Another relative offered to beat him for me because he was crying so much while she cornrowed his hair.
In this society, we make some allowances for unruly toddlers because of their developmental stage. In Ghana, I felt like we were far out of the norm. I didn’t see (or hear) any other kids his age wailing and hollering, let alone openly resisting or disobeying their parents. Was that because I didn’t wear him enough as a baby? Was he feeling out of sorts because we were in an unfamiliar place surrounded by unfamiliar people? Was he experiencing a side effect from the antimalaria medicine? Or was I just a suck-ass disciplinarian and mom in general?
‘Spare the Rod’ Logic
Ghanaians, and many other Africans, regularly use corporal punishment to keep kids in line. I’ve heard of African teachers caning children who arrive late, give the wrong answers, or forget their fees, which seems extreme to me. A Ghanaian lady I know told me how she got in a lot of trouble for hitting her child when they were living in Europe, where some countries have outlawed spanking as a form of child abuse, although what she had done was considered normal in her culture.
For the most part though, Ghanaians’ pro-spanking philosophy is shared by most black people I know in the United States. I grew up getting whippings, beatings, spankings, etc., including pops upside the head for squirming too much while getting my hair pressed or braided. “Be quiet, or I’ll give you something to cry about,” is one of the signature phrases from my childhood. When I was in elementary school, one of our teachers still hit students on the hand with a ruler for various offenses, and my junior high school principal carried a paddle known as the “board of education,” which, allegedly, was not just for show.
As young adults, we joked about picking out switches and laughed at comedians who pointed out differences between the way black and white people raise their kids. Number one on the list was almost always “they let their kids run wild and talk to them any kind of way,” and if we tried that, our parents would “smack the black off us” or “knock us into next week.”
However, corporal punishment has become a controversial topic in our communities over the past few years, especially with celebrities like Adrian Peterson and Creflo Dollar finding themselves in hot water for hitting their kids. The “experts” say beatings and whippings actually teach kids that violence is an acceptable way to solve problems or get someone to do what you want. But every time a video surfaces of teens and ‘tweens cursing at or hitting their parents, plenty of social media commentators say, “This is what happens when you don’t beat your kids.”
Many black Christians swear by “spare the rod, spoil the child,” which is not an actual Bible verse although many people believe it is. On the other hand are activists like Stacey Patton, who has been very outspoken in her campaign to stop black parents from beating their kids. A lot of our people say, “I was spanked, and I turned out fine,” while others confess to needing therapy or battling aggression issues that they link to being hit, even in ways that most people wouldn’t consider child abuse.
Some are convinced black people spank their kids because of slavery, even though plenty of parents from different races also spank their kids. The free use of the “other hand” in Ghana and elsewhere in Africa also makes me question the slavery-spanking connection.
The somewhat common phrase, “I beat him (or her) so the police don’t” does reveal how fear influences black people’s use of corporal punishment vs. other races who don’t experience police brutality with nearly the same frequency as we do.
Nonviolent Home Training?
Personally, I have very mixed feelings about spankings. I feel some internal pressure to choose a side soon so I can be consistent in my quest to instill discipline in my little boy. Discipline is the key word. My higher self says the ultimate goals are to keep him safe, teach him sound values and expected behavior, and guide him towards exercising self-control and good decision-making. The goal is to raise someone who doesn’t have to be “beaten (or verbally abused) into submission.”
Everyone has a shadow side or “lower nature” too, including me. Mine desires control over my child and the respect of the community as a good parent. I don’t like feeling embarrassed because my child is acting out, even though that’s what kids do sometimes. I don’t like feeling judged even though I judge other people, including other parents, all the time. (There’s a real Bible verse for that!)
I also don’t like feeling disrespected, especially by a two-foot tall mini-me whom I feed, clothe, bathe, and shower with hugs, kisses, gifts, and interesting experiences. Right after my son was born, a good friend told me, “Get ready, because he is going to throw you all them looks you throw at people.” But I never imagined how angry it would make me to say “come here” 50-leven times and get one of those looks before he heads in the opposite direction. It feels like defiance and we surely cannot tolerate that, right?
I definitely don’t want to look up one day and have a five, ten, or fifteen year-old who is disobedient, destructive, or otherwise antisocial. When I was growing up, one of the worst things an adult could say about you is that you have no home training. “I know your momma raised you better than that” was a common assumption unless someone knew for sure that your parents weren’t “raising you right.” But is spanking the solution?
The moms in an online black positive parenting group I used to belong to would say absolutely not under any circumstances. Not at two or at twelve. They encouraged using redirection for little ones and age-appropriate reasoning for older children. They didn’t even believe in time-outs or restrictions most times though, which felt kind of extreme to me.
Anti-spankers say if spanking worked, you wouldn’t have to keep spanking, but one could also say if redirection worked, you wouldn’t have to repeat yourself a hundred million times… They say physical discipline are punitive instead of instructive and create division instead of restoration. Positive parenting proponents put the main responsibility for anticipating and preventing behavior problems on the parents and emphasize empathy, dialogue, and relationship-building over command and control style parenting.
That all sounds beautiful until none of it is working and you’re at your wits’ end. Or you’re sleep-deprived, anxious, overwhelmed, or you just don’t feel good and your patience is at an all-time low. Then those scripts from childhood and cultural conditioning kick in, and “the other hand” becomes both an easy shortcut and glaring evidence that we have lost control over our children and ourselves.
My shadow side and unconscious scripts are my greatest fears about using “the other hand.” I remember hearing the PSA’s and TV show guidance about not hitting your kids in anger or because you are embarrassed or frustrated. Those lines are so much easier to cross than they make it sound, especially if you’re already stressed, tired, irritated, under pressure, etc. You can find yourself doing things you said you’d never do and mimicking people from your childhood that you swore you’d never be like. (This applies to the things we say to our kids too, leaving invisible wounds that take even longer to heal.)
After all this thinking (some would say overthinking), I consider pain to be a valid tool for learning. The natural world is full of painful lessons from pricking your finger on a thorn to being attacked by a wild animal. Pain teaches us boundaries in very direct, visceral ways that are sometimes necessary. I believe it’s unrealistic to raise our kids to live in a world without painful lessons, punishments, and other negative consequences.
Overall, though, I interpret “spare the rod” very differently. I hope to use “these hands” as infrequently as possible. It’s like a strong medicine that may be necessary in rare circumstances but comes with heavy side effects that make it dangerous to overuse and easy to overdose. As much as I want a well-behaved child, I want even more to preserve my son’s self-esteem and sense of curiosity, his willingness to speak up and stand up for himself and others. I want him to trust me, to feel safe in his family and in the world, and to know he can tell me the truth and confide in me without fear that I’m going to “beat the shit out of him” for messing up like we all do. I want to handle his accidents and incidents without going overboard because of my own baggage. I’d rather focus on helping him learn from his mistakes and become wiser for the experience.
In my “other hand,” I seek to gather useful tricks and tools for raising a disciplined child as if hitting him were not an option. If that means sometimes I have to suffer embarrassing episodes, put in some extra work, or stand up to the perceived or actual judgment of onlookers, well, I’m grown, right?
I am thankful for these opportunities to continue identifying my own unhealed areas, character defects, and vulnerabilities so I can address and resolve them. When my flaws raise their ugly head, I hope to at least model accountability, apology, forgiveness, and self-acceptance for him, instead of burdening either of us with expecting perfection in exchange for unconditional love.
Wish me luck! I’m definitely going to need it 🙂