The jury’s still out on whether ABC sitcom Black-ish has what it takes to ultimately break into the pantheon of all-time-great black televison shows. I love the show, but I’m not sure it’ll be able to keep up the pace it’s on now over multiple seasons.
And while Wednesday night’s episode about the parental dilemma around spanking kids might never achieve the status of The Cosby Show’s pilot—with its classic “regular people” scene between Cliff and Theo—my hat’s off to Black-ish’s creators for threading the needle and finding a way to deal with corporal punishment in a way that was balanced, culturally relevant, funny and ultimately came down with the right answer: that there are far better ways to discipline kids than by whupping them.
How do I know? Because studies show that physically disciplining kids yields short-run compliance but doesn’t serve much purpose for kids’ long-term development. And lest you think that I’m speaking from a lack of experience with the subject matter, please rest assured that I caught the occasional “strapping” back in my day.
Which is the point—and that’s what made this Black-ish episode so outstanding. The multigenerational cast made it possible to acknowledge that getting whupped was a completely normal occurrence for a previous generation (and we turned out OK), but it’s a tradition whose time has come and gone.
Here’s what happened (spoiler alert): The youngest son, Jack (Miles Brown), thinks he’s hilarious, hiding from Mom (Tracee Ellis Ross) in a department store until she loses her composure out of sheer panic and terror. Time for Jack to get spanked—but Mom wants Dad (Anthony Anderson) to do the deed. Then, in true television-comedy fashion, madcap family high jinks ensue.
Pops, the live-in granddad played by Laurence Fishburne, was sort of fiendishly animated when he bequeathed a vintage 2-foot section of Hot Wheels track—his whupping weapon of choice—to Dad, his son, like a treasured heirloom.
By contrast, Jack’s siblings were almost dazed by the prospect of their brother getting punished in a manner that seems—and really is—completely out of step with their bougie 21st-century upbringing.
And Dad and Mom were stuck wrestling with the question of what would scar their son for life more—punishment that’s too severe, or not severe enough.
Add in a few lines, like big brother Dre (Marcus Scribner) telling Jack that the other kids were selling him out, explaining, “we created an algorithm to reduce collateral damage”; a low-key reference to catching “the itis” at the workplace; and a montage of Dad trying to pick out exactly the right polo shirt for a whupping after looking at the wifebeater he has on and realizing, “I can’t wear this.”
The episode was pretty entertaining (if you missed it, you can catch it here) and—here’s the key—took on spanking without making anyone out to be the bad guy. Dad had no residual bitterness that Pops had beat him as a kid, but in the end he got his point across to Jack with a stern talking-to. Sure, the episode’s ending was a little too pat—one earnest speech from Dad never set anyone up for life—but hey, it’s TV.
It’s too bad that, apparently, a decision was made not to air the show a few weeks ago when we were having the national “to whup or not to whup” debate after NFL star Adrian Peterson was arrested for beating his 4-year-old son with a switch, because not only was the episode fairly prescient, bringing up a subject that’s a particularly thorny one—particularly for black parents—but I think it actually could have helped defuse certain misconceptions about whuppings.
In the middle of that polo-shirt sequence, Dad asks himself the question that, I think, most responsible parents ask themselves: “This is the right thing to do … right?” It’s not an easy one to answer, and what came across was genuine sympathy for parents struggling with figuring out how to do the right thing by their kids.
Bottom line, there’s got to be a way to phase out whupping as a go-to parenting technique without stigmatizing previous generations who opted for the switch.
And I think Black-ish just showed us the comedic blueprint for how we do it.
David Swerdlick is an associate editor at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.