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!
If I was caught in the neighborhood acting ugly or disrespectful, my neighbors could exact a form of punishment, and once they told my parents, I could get further punishment.
Again, I don’t believe this was abuse. There was an “it takes a village” mentality in my community that doesn’t exist today.
Today my adult son has actually admitted on several occasions that even though he received very few beatings growing up, that form of punishment was the main catalyst that kept him from engaging in negative activities in the streets. That, plus a combination of love, respect and fear, led him to a successful career as a police officer.
I have 25 years as a high school English teacher, and I have had many conversations over the years with students who have expressed, sometimes comically, that they would not “act the fool.”
“My parents would kill me!” my students would often say. Not literally, of course, but the fear of physical punishment kept many of my students on a straight path.
I remember, when my older sister was 17, she told my father to “shut the hell up!” Now, keep in mind, this was in the 1960s. My dad slapped her face. She remembered the importance of respect, and that never happened again.
I know that my daughter doesn’t spank my granddaughter Emmy. And I respect that. But I do remember an incident when Emmy was about 4. Aliya had complained to me that Emmy was acting up: talking back, not listening and forgetting her respectful place. My daughter was beside herself because trying to reason with Emmy was not working.
The next time I babysat Emmy, I told her that I’d heard about her misbehavior. And I told her that if she continued that behavior, I was going to spank her butt. Emmy’s face said it all: She was horrified. I had no intention of spanking her, but I noticed that just the warning changed her behavior. In fairness, though, Aliya says she has been able to get the same results by sternly speaking to Emmy or limiting her playtime.
Reflecting on this topic, I must admit that I have evolved and grown over the years, and conclude that most of my children’s infractions could have been handled differently. There is a place for spankings—but not with a belt or other instruments. That’s one part of corporal punishment I simply can’t support today.
Today I believe that spanking should never be the first reaction to a misbehaving child. But I maintain that a child should have some level of fear of his or her parents. Whether that fear should result in spanking depends on the child, the infraction, prior warnings and potential for serious injuries, such as running in traffic or touching a hot stove. Yes, things are different now. But I stand by the idea that sometimes a spanking is warranted.
P.S.: My daughter, who is staunchly anti-spanking, told me recently that she “swatted” Emmy for dangerous behavior. Swatted? Hmmm. I looked up the word. The American Heritage College Dictionary defines swatting as “to deal a sharp blow or slap.” I know that didn’t happen. But maybe there are levels to spanking that even Aliya incorporates into her child-rearing, even though she says she doesn’t and won’t do it. Will Emmy grow up and say her mother never spanked her? Not if she remembers that “swat.”
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times best-seller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at her website. Rita Moore King, mother of three grown folks, is originally from Newark, N.J., and has made East Orange, N.J., her home for the last 40 years. Prior to her recent retirement as an English teacher at East Orange Campus High School, she advised the school’s book club for 12 years. Her goal is to publish her first children's book, A Fake Moon in a Real Sky, an idea inspired by her granddaughter Emmy.