Like many with mothers in my mom’s generation, my older brother, younger sister and I were spanked more than once. The offenses were usually one or more of the big three: lying, cheating and stealing. My parents just did not stand for any of it, and there would be corporal punishment, by hand or by belt, if you disobeyed.
Once, my younger sister, about 8 at the time, got $5 as a gift. She wanted desperately to take it outside with her to play. My mother said no because she knew she could end up losing it. My sister took it out anyway—and, of course, she lost it. She came home without it and ended up getting a spanking for disobeying.
Now that my daughter, Emmy, is the same age my sister was at the time, I just can’t conceive of spanking her for losing $5. (Granted, that would be more like $11 today. But still … )
Emmy has never been spanked. I think I may have swatted her on the bottom for a serious electric-outlet or hot-radiator situation. But she’s never been spanked in the traditional sense of the word.
I can’t remember the infractions that earned me spankings. And I don’t remember them being often. But I do remember them. It was often a wait-until-your-father-gets-home situation where I had to wait in my room, frozen with fear, waiting to hear the door open. Then I’d hear my mother relay the crime to my dad, and up he would come to my room, take off his belt and spank me with it.
It’s really hard for me to write this. Especially since I’m giving this essay to my mom for her to read.
It is hard for me not to see spankings as abuse. I just can’t think of anything I ever did that was heinous enough to be beaten with a belt by my dad. Even if it happened only a handful of times, I don’t know if it should have happened at all.
I recently interviewed author and activist Kevin Powell. His memoir, The Education of Kevin Powell, had been published, and I asked him about the spankings he received from his mother that he recounts in the book. We talked about whether or not the spankings we got would be considered abuse today. We were both torn on the topic. But after the call was done, he contacted me again. He wanted me to know that he did not consider his mother’s spanking a form of child abuse.
In some ways, I feel the same way. I know kids who were abused by their parents. I knew kids who were underfed, ignored, cursed out, slapped in public or even spanked in front of the whole class. In my mind, that was abuse. What happened in our house was the same thing that happened in every house in my neighborhood.
I can’t judge my mother. Not one bit. She did the best she knew with the tools she was given. She parented the way most did in the ’70s and ’90s. But I’m curious to know now. What are her thoughts? Was it child abuse? Or just tradition? Or some combination of both?
First, to answer my daughter Aliya’s question: The spankings she and her siblings received were not child abuse.
Tradition and culture factored in my decision to spank. My parents believed in spanking, although I can probably count them on one hand (maybe two). And in my day, growing up in Newark, N.J., not only could your parents spank you, you could get spanked by other parents in your neighborhood!