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.
Witness the young man who was killed thanks to a random act of violence just this past weekend. The story goes that two teenage girls got into a fight at an overcrowded house party. Four young men wanted to jump in but didn't because they had made a covenant never to hit a girl (likely thanks to their moms and dads who said that such behavior was unacceptable). And so — all fired up — together they vowed to beat up the next boy who came along, whoever he was. They did. They beat up an 18-year-old with a bright future until he lost his life.
I wonder who beats them at home right now. Or even just who beats the ringleader.
I keep going back to the adage "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." As far as parenting goes, I'm searching for the subtle interactions with my child that can allow us to grow through challenging moments without loss of control, violent actions or even prolonged raised voices. I get that this isn't easy to do. But I feel that it's essential. If we as parents discover ways to teach our children without demeaning them, yelling at them or hitting them, we create space to empower them to learn how to amend an error with penalty but without violence.
I put this into practice recently. My nearly 7-year-old daughter is often defiant these days. (I believe it's common for her age group.) I ask her to do something, and she takes her good time getting it done. I give her a task to complete, and 20 minutes later nothing has happened. I got super frustrated the other day when she was not doing what I had clearly told her to do. I raised my voice. She dug in her heels. Nobody won.
Later in the day, with a clear head, I said to her that I didn't like how we had communicated earlier. I told her that I didn't like it when we yell at each other or don't listen. I suggested that we agree that both of us would speak more gently and listen more attentively the following day. We happily agreed.
No, I can't imagine my mother having done this. When she felt that my sisters and I had dealt her the last straw, she would line us up and spank us — lightly but with tremendous drama — using her signature gold lamé slipper. (Never mind that the gold slipper never inflicted real pain. It was a psychological weapon.)
But I am not my mother. I do share many of her beliefs, though, including that I don't want my daughter going to school or anywhere else yelling at people or otherwise pushing her weight around. I want her to emulate great, loving, supportive and inclusive behavior from her mother — and her father, my husband — during the most trying times. And so I have a lot of work to do. Let's all do the work necessary to learn and master nonviolent communication. It creates the space for love to live and grow.
Harriette Cole is the president and creative director of Harriette Cole Media. She is a life stylist, a best-selling author and a nationally syndicated advice columnist. She is a contributing editor to The Root.