Child Discipline: It’s About the Golden Rule, Not Blackness

Whether Katherine Jackson was right or wrong about the way black parents used to discipline their children, contemporary parents must find a nonviolent way to correct bad behavior.

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After years of speculation, one of the claims that the late icon Michael Jackson made about his family was confirmed. Katherine Jackson, the Jackson-family matriarch, told her estranged husband, Joe Jackson, that he may as well tell the truth: that like most black families — back in the day, anyway — of course he beat his children to get them to fall in line. He used a “strap.”

That revelation, shared with Oprah Winfrey on her popular talk show, has lit up the blogosphere. Many people have traveled down memory lane, recalling how they were disciplined as children, some swapping — well, even bragging about — stories of how heinous their injuries were, thanks to their parents’ weapon-supported rage. Old wounds have been reopened. Ancestral memory has been invoked. (Could it be that we hit because we were abused during slavery?)

While the Jacksons really weren’t so different from many other black families — and, dare I say, white families — some 30-plus years ago, our cultural temperament is different these days. Corporal punishment of any kind is widely frowned upon, and parents have been called up on charges for raising a hand or strap to their children.

The Jackson revelation reminded me of a day when my daughter was 3 (she’s now about to turn 7). She had done something woefully wrong, and I was trying to figure out how to get her to switch gears. I had learned that a few of my contemporaries who are moms pinch instead of spanking. A single pinch, I was told, could instantly turn a child’s attention away from a “bad” activity while also serving as a warning for future “bad” actions.

It worked. My daughter was startled by my not-so-hard pinch. She stopped what she was doing. I discovered, however, that over the next few weeks, whenever she did something that she knew was inappropriate, she pinched herself — hard — as a personal reprimand. I was mortified. Here was my precious angel inflicting pain on herself because she knew that she deserved punishment. And old soul that she is, she didn’t wait for me to inflict it upon her.

That’s when the light bulb turned on for me. It makes sense that children model their behavior after their parents’. If the woman she loves more than anyone else pinches her when she’s wrong, then she believes that she’s being a good girl in pinching herself when she knows she’s done a bad thing.