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To spank or not to spank? Why this African American mom will choose not to

Family columnist Tanika Davis writes about the choice not to spank her son, even when she's tempted to do so.
Family columnist Tanika Davis writes about the choice not to spank her son, even when she's tempted to do so. (Tanika Davis / HANDOUT)

Back in 2014, when my boys were 4 and my baby girl 2, my parents came to our house for breakfast. After stuffing ourselves with pancakes and cinnamon apples, we sat around the table discussing an NFL scandal involving a football player who “disciplined” his 4-year-old by beating him with a switch until he tore the skin and left marks that were visible three days later. This conversation (about child abuse, let’s be clear) turned into a debate about spanking versus not spanking.

My parents, from an older generation, believed spankings were one tool in a parent’s arsenal of discipline choices — to be used fairly and sparingly when the transgression rose to the occasion.

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My husband and I believed in respecting a child’s personhood, and that it was hypocritical to teach children not to hit when we, ourselves, him them. We also didn’t believe that spankings work. They make children fearful, yes, but not of the thing parents hope. In fact, we believed, they only served to make them fear you.

We don’t want our children to fear us, we argued. We want them to love, respect and trust us. And that won’t happen if they think we will hurt them.

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As Murphy’s Law would have it, to make the conversation less hypothetical, one of my sons decided to play barber shop. While the adults were debating, and ignoring the kids, he found a pair of scissors and cut two huge chunks out of the side and back of my 2-year-old’s hair.

I was almost in tears, combing through her hair with fine little curls coming out in bunches into my hand.

Confession: I wanted to spank my son. I identified with that parental urge to make him understand his crime, and instill in him a fear of repercussions that would make him never, ever do that again.

But we didn’t spank him. Instead, we made him go to his room and lie down — separated from us, his grandparents and the cinnamon apples. He stayed there for three-and-a-half hours (he fell asleep).

If I had not just been arguing with my parents about the belief that we could raise our children to be well-behaved, respectful and good decision-makers without spanking them, would I have chosen that way of punishing him? I think I would. I hope I would. He was 4 years old, after all.

But now comes confession No. 2: In the years since, we have spanked him — twice. And his brother and sister, once, respectively.

Confronted with outright defiance and disrespect (not just a little hair-snipping), we have four times chosen spanking as discipline. And I guess, technically, the spankings “worked,” in that the offenses that prompted them have never happened again. But each time we’ve spanked, I have regrets, remorse. It just doesn’t feel right.

Each time I’ve chosen that route, it feels like I have stooped to it, given in to a lower, childlike form of influencing, misused my size and power to bend someone smaller to my will. It leaves me feeling icky.

So about a year ago, we decided to recommit ourselves to not spanking our children. All the reasons we listed when we were debating with my parents five years ago still apply, maybe even more now that they're older – it’s hypocritical; it ignores their humanity; it teaches them to solve conflicts with aggression – and we’re more determined than ever to remember those reasons, even in the most trying of moments.

And recently, we read about another excellent reason to keep our hands to ourselves that reaffirmed our decision.

In an August New York Times article discussing a divide along racial lines between pediatricians when it comes to spanking, one researcher said: “Kids of color in this country are not treated the same. They experience exponentially more criticism, discrimination and violence. So we have to parent differently.”

That line stuck with us in a significant way. Parents of African American children often say they spank to prepare their children for a harsh world, but that seems backwards/counterintuitive to me. Instead, we know the researcher is right. As parents of little black children, we have an even greater obligation to spare the rod.

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They need to know: The world can be a mighty hurtful place, particularly for those of us walking around in brown skin. But we — their parents, their guides and first friends — we won’t be the ones to do the hurting.

Tanika Davis is a former Baltimore Sun reporter who works in communications at Constellation. She and her husband have twin 9-year-old sons, a 7-year-old daughter, a perpetually messy house and rapidly appearing gray hairs. She also needs a nap. She can be reached at tanikawhite@gmail.com. Her column appears monthly.

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