I was raised by people who didn’t like to repeat themselves.
If a child was told to do something—wash the dishes, finish your dinner, or even shut the screen door lest the flies get in—you did not ask questions.
There was no excuse for leaving the lights on, drinking the last of the milk, sleeping in church, or interrupting “grown folk” when they were heavy in conversation.
“A child should stay in a child’s place,” I was often reminded.
Sassing was the language of the insane. And no rational mind would be caught outside after the streetlights came on or disrespecting anyone—whether it be a teacher, a neighbor or a stranger on the street— lest you catch the bad end of a good strap or anything else my elders could lay their hands on.
And Lord, don’t let yourself pout or cry within earshot or eyesight. Such displays of emotion were answered with, “Shut up before I give you something to cry for!”
You simply did as you were told, joyfully and submissively. We were required to say “yes, sir” and “yes, ma’am,” then go about the business of speedily completing the task at hand.
We weren’t taught to think, but to behave. We weren’t taught to be creative or to become innovators who questioned the status quo. We were, instead, taught to “mind” when faced with authority—whether that authority was right or wrong. That left little room for dreaming or, by extension, pursuing entrepreneurship as a way to break the chains of generational poverty.
We were taught that the answer to most of life’s challenges was violence.
My mother, aunts, uncles, and even older cousins were always on hand to swiftly mete out discipline. In fact, anyone—including my schoolteachers and every neighbor on our street—had explicit permission to dole out physical punishment for any detectable transgression. Thus, I learned to be crafty in my ways. Watching an older cousin get whipped with a toy wooden arrow from an amusement park until it broke and she bled was enough for me.
The people giving out this discipline were good people, country folk who understood the dangers that awaited their black children out in the world. What they did, they said, they did out of love.
“Don’t embarrass me in front of these white people,” was a lesson I learned from my mother and passed down to my own children.
The “hard headed” boys in our family caught the brunt of it all. But the girls were specifically and uniquely told to carry themselves like “ladies.” We dressed modestly, never went bare-legged to church and our skirts always stretched below our knees. Our sexuality was closely guarded, as we entered our teens years, lest any of us become pregnant and wind up in a welfare line.
Never weighing more than 90 pounds and ringing in at under 5 feet tall, I escaped most of the fury. I also suppose, being the youngest child in my generation and some seven years or better behind the others, that I was spared the most devastating blows. By the time they got to me, I guess they were just tired.
The rules, however, never changed. I was reminded of that the day a phone bill came in from Southwestern Bell, showing long-distance charges from several calls I placed to my “boyfriend” who lived two hours away in Columbia, Missouri. Back then, when I was a teenager, such calls were tallied and priced by the minute. As my Aunt Gerry scanned page after page of charges, my Uncle Ross took off his belt and called me in from the porch. I wept as I climbed the stairs to their bedroom and began to wail as he closed the door behind us.
He beat me until my “high yellow” skin swelled.
It did not matter than Kenny was the kind of young man one would want to see their daughter or niece with. Then studying pre-law at the University of Missouri, he remains one of my closest, oldest, and dearest friends. But my relationship with him, now spanning over 30 years, cost me the whipping of my life. The welts and bruises lasted for weeks. The trauma never subsided.
I was reminded of my upbringing in East St. Louis and later in St. Louis County, when I saw a South Georgia mother repeatedly punching her daughter on a YouTube video. She, too, had been caught commiserating with a boy. The girl known only as “Nia” also posted photos on Facebook that her mother found sexually suggestive.
It was nothing short of a beating. As I watched the child cower and cry, never once fighting back, I knew there would be throngs of people standing in support of her mother. My Facebook pages are often filled with people lamenting the notion that we cannot “beat the hell out of our kids” when they “need it.”
Four minutes in, Nia’s mother faced the camera—held without irony by another of her children who she’d instructed to follow the flogging—flipped and styled her hair and urged people to make the video “viral.”
For the record, black people are no more prone to abuse their children than other races or ethnicities. But, I must admit that I had a deep cultural connection with what happened on the tape.
She said she did not want people to think she was a bad mother. She wanted us to know that she cared about her children.
I do not doubt that for a moment. I do not doubt that she loves her child and wants to protect her. Apparently she was unafraid of any response from child services or law enforcement. I do not doubt that she sees physical discipline as a method to maintain health and balance in her home.
Children who face physical violence at home are far more likely to engage in deceitful behavior. They are more likely to encounter the criminal justice system, drop out of school, use illicit drugs and become pregnant as teenagers. Whether looking for love or out of a sense of rebellion, children who endure abuse often seek out unhealthy lifestyles—especially when their sexuality is penalized.
Women who endure violence as girls, as I did, are more likely to be victims of domestic violence. That was my own experience. As a young woman, I didn’t think a man loved me if he didn’t hit me.
When challenged, some parents will often point to Scripture. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” the saying goes. Proverbs 13:24 reads: “Those who spare the rod, hate their children, but the one who loves their child disciplines them diligently.”
Ignoring the 23rd Psalm, which says, “Your rod and your staff comfort me,” they miss what the metaphorical “rod” really refers to. In biblical terms, the rod was used when corralling sheep to keep them on the desired path—not to prod, poke or flog.
There are many who disagree with that interpretation but we need only look to the vicious legacy of slavery. As a rule, people of African descent did not rip limbs from trees to beat their children. We learned that from slave owners who waved the Bible around to justify their violence on our bodies.
Children aren’t property and you have no more right (or moral authority) to punch your child than you do a stranger on the street.
I know something about bad, immature choices that can sometimes open unfortunate pathways to the criminal justice system or worse. I remember hanging with the “wrong crowd” myself as I came of age and being snatched off a corner by the nape of my neck. My brother Donnie was once attacked with a broomstick for hanging out with boys my mother did not approve of. She was desperate and would have done anything to save our lives.
The rigors of raising daughters and sons is not lost on me. I know what that desperation feels like. I know firsthand about the diminishing options when the only thing standing between your child and the streets is you. But, as the mother of now grown children and now grandchildren, I question a culture that encourages beating children into submission. My kids got by on extra chores, early curfews and fewer extracurricular activities with their friends. In the rare cases that I actually raised my hand, I remember the fear in their eyes.
And I regret every moment.
My children are thoughtful and engaged people—an Ivy League educated schoolteacher who is expecting her first son, a budding architect, and a political science major (and mother of a 3-year-old daughter) who wants to be a lawyer someday. They are law-abiding, socially conscious and out meeting the world on their own terms.
I was swift with discipline and sometimes, I admit, too much. I made at least my share of mistakes but did just enough of the right things, too, and they came through. I count myself lucky among the lucky.
“This hurts me more than it hurts you,” my late Uncle Ross would say as he pulled off his leather belt and wrapped the buckle around his meaty fist.
My mother once shot a man for abusing me. Her then-fiancé put me in a bath of scalding hot water, leaving scars I can still see and feel some 40 years later. Like I said, she would do anything for us.
But I wonder now, with jail cells and graveyards packed with people who faced similar discipline—my brothers among them—if it had the societal payoff we intended. The data tells another story. Children who are subjected to corporal punishment are no more likely to refrain from bad behavior than those who are not. In fact, it more often has the opposite impact as they seek out ever craftier ways to cloak unwanted conduct.
No matter what you believe about corporal punishment, the mother in that video went too far. In fact, she simply increased the likelihood that her daughter will be more secretive the next time around and, as was the case with me, that she won’t find safe harbor in her mother’s arms. I grew distrustful of authority, no matter what form it took and, in time, I built a family outside of my own.
I have to wonder what the response might have been if that mother in the video had been kicking a dog rather than punching her daughter on a live stream. I wonder if it would have turned, snarling, and bitten her or tucked that anger inside until it bit someone else.
When we replace love and encouragement with physical violence, we are teaching our children to do the same. Those lessons are best left outside, under the streetlights.