My grandmother "Nana" was the dearest, sweetest, kindest and most loving woman I've ever known, a woman who raised her six children alone after being widowed at an early age. A fierce prayer warrior and strong woman of God, she was a Sunday-school superintendent and later a church mother.
And whenever she felt it necessary, Nana was deft with a strap across legs and hind parts. Following in her footsteps, my mother worked a mean slipper.
But they never went crazy or got out of hand, not like Joe Jackson and other parents accused of atrocities such as oiling their children before beating them with an ironing cord. No, with Ma and Nana, it was always just two or three licks and they were done. I shudder at the thought of children who, according to a self-identified social worker on The Root's Facebook page, were "beaten 'til they were blue," got beatings and had "rubbing alcohol poured on their wounds," were "hog-tied and then beaten," were told to "wet their bodies before a beating (so their skin will tear more)" or were "beaten on an almost daily basis."
Oprah Winfrey's recent interview of Joe and Katherine Jackson — particularly the admission that Joe beat his famous children with a strap, and Katherine's assertion "that's how blacks raised kids" — sparked a lively debate on social media threads about the issue of corporal punishment and black parenting. Many commenters seem to agree with Katherine, stating that corporal punishment is a part of black culture. Some say it's a vestige of slavery, a leftover ritual once used to break slaves' spirit and make them obedient.
Here's what I say to that: On Facebook, there's a group called "I Got Spankings When I Was Little and I Turned Out Alright." As of this writing, there are 692 members, including yours truly. And based on the photos, the overwhelming majority of members appear to be white. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised based on the word "spanking," which doesn't seem as common among black folks. Not to engage in a battle of semantics, but "spankings" do sound a lot less offensive than "beatings" and "whippings."
No matter what you call them, there's a line that shouldn't be crossed. It's like the line between drug use and drug abuse, or social drinker and sloppy drunk.
I believe in the Scripture "Spare the rod, spoil the child." But I also believe that reliance on the rod can ruin the child. Joe Jackson's defense that beatings kept his children out of jail is weak. The self-identified social worker on The Root's Facebook page said that hordes of individuals in jails or juvenile facilities endured excessive violence: "Many of the kids I have worked with in the juvenile justice system have experienced severe physical punishment, in addition to other problems, and it made them act out more, not less."
More spankings won't cure our urban ills, just as fewer spankings don't cause them. But if only it were that simple.
I've cringed while witnessing the verbal and emotional abuse that some parents heap on their children in public, imagining how those assaults might transform into physical violence behind closed doors. And goodness knows we see more than enough stories about crazed, demented parents and the horrific things they do to their offspring. But I would never take a cut-and-dried stance that corporal punishment is always inappropriate. Used properly and sparingly, it's a measure to teach discipline and correct behavior — not instill fear and exact retribution.
Admittedly, I talk a much better game than I live. My two daughters haven't received nearly the amount of "beatings, spankings, whippings, pops, etc." that my wife and I received for similar offenses. They move slower and talk back faster, question more and respect less than we would ever have dared. I asked my 14-year-old, Sierra, how many times I've spanked her. "Three times," she complained. My 11-year-old, Sequoia, would probably offer a similar response, though she might add the quick, single whacks I've applied to her bottom from time to time.
Yes, some parents definitely go overboard. If we're going to err on one side or the other, it's better to underdo it. And once children reach a certain age — around 12 or so, in my book — I believe that there are better, more effective methods of correcting them and disciplining them. But especially in children's formative years, corporal punishment should be in the parents' toolbox.
After all, I got spankings when I was little, and I turned out "alright."
Deron Snyder is a regular contributor to The Root. He can be reached at email@example.com.