Content warning: spanking, physical punishment, parenting
When it comes to parenting, there is perhaps no concept more divisive than the use of spanking as a form of punishment. From conversations with my peers, I have heard a wide variety of opinions on the matter, from what classifies as spanking to whether or not corporal punishment should be administered to children at all. Based on my experiences, those who were spanked as children view the act as an entirely normal part of childhood and even commend their parents use of corporal punishment, while those who were not spanked cannot imagine why someone would put their hands on their child in order to teach a lesson.
Personally, I am of the latter group; however, I have grown to understand the complexities surrounding the issue and the cultural differences that contribute to the divisiveness of this child-rearing practice. While I was in highschool, my child development teacher told her students that spanking was never appropriate, and that while it may be a short-term solution to behavior problems in children, it caused negative externalizing behaviors later in their lives. Today, I received a very different interpretation from my professor who teaches “Psychology of the Black Experience.” He spoke of his father spanking him as natural and beneficial to his upbringing, and many students agreed.
In his class, we discussed the prevalence of punitive methods such as physical punishment and its relation to race, as typically they are more common among black families than white families (Lorber, O’Leary, & Smith qtd. in Belgrave & Addison 159). There are many theories seeking to explain this phenomenon, many rooted in practices carried out during slavery. For instance, it was necessary for African American parents to use corporal punishment as a survival strategy, for if their children instead acted out in front of the white slaveholder the consequences would be far more drastic (Belgrave & Addison 160). Some African American scholars argue that today corporal punishment can be controlled, appropriate, and useful in teaching children how to survive within a racist society (K. Thomas & Dettlaff qtd. in Belgrave & Addison 160). Interestingly, a study published in 2004 showed that “[p]hysical discipline does not seem to be correlated with externalizing problem behaviors such as aggression and acting out for African American children as is the case with White children (Lansford, Deater-Deckard, & Dodge qtd. in Belgrave and Addison 160). The researchers found ethnic differences in the long term effects of physical punishment: for African American children, physical punishment meant less externalizing problems later in life, while for white children, physical punishment meant more externalizing problems in adulthood.
It is important to acknowledge that these are generalizations and hold no universal truth, yet learning about how physical punishment prevalence is related to race gave me the realization that spanking is not a simple controversy and needs to be approached sensitively. While I do believe that the line between spanking and abuse can be thin, as some definitions of “spanking” can vary (such as introducing the use of a belt), it is important to at least acknowledge that the use of corporal punishment is a complex issue.
What are your thoughts on the use physical punishment and spanking in order to teach children? Why do you think the study previously mentioned showed that the long-term effects of spanking are different for those of different racial backgrounds? What do you define as spanking?
Belgrave, Faye Z., and Kevin W. Allison. African American Psychology: From Africa to America. Third ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2014. Print.