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A White Man Struggles with Black Wife’s Family Over Spanking

                                 What do you do when you and your spouse clash over whether to spank the children…and the conflict is rooted in black and white?

A father wrote to me recently with a very real dilemma. He is White, married to a Black woman. They have a young son. Problem is, this husband and father is at odds with his wife and her family.  He writes:

“Thanks for the website. I’m a white male married to a black woman; her family is heavily religious and very much believes in hitting children. We don’t hit our son but it’s a struggle at times to have to push back on their various paradigms concerning children and adults.

When my wife was pregnant, I had an argument with my wife’s sister when she insisted that she had the right to hit my son if he was under her watch (needless to say, I don’t leave him with her).

Recently, my wife’s mother tried to be very forceful with me, announcing that she was going to start hitting my son because otherwise it would confuse the other grandchildren whom she hits (I had to show her a side of me that made her realize that was not a good idea). I consistently see various adults in the family apply their hitting less for discipline and more for petty and angry responses to children in their care.

My wife feels intimidated by the family and, although she doesn’t hit our son, she doesn’t step in because there are many stronger personalities in her family. These dynamics go much deeper than a family thinking that physical punishment is ok. There’s black identity involved where yielding to these ideas smells like yielding to white culture (never mind the irony that some researchers suggest that the origins of both Christian faith and physical discipline in black families are in slavery as white masters pushed both onto them).”

The Black/White American divide over spanking is very real, as this concerned husband and father has expressed. He wrote to Spare the Kids in search of tools for coping with this huge cultural divide.

This is a popular topic. When I speak to mostly White audiences, the question always comes up: “What should I do when I see a Black person slapping their child in the grocery store, on the train/bus, other public spaces, or even in my own family?”

There is no quick or easy answer.

Few Black parents are going to react favorably to a White stranger chastising them publicly about anything having to do with their child. But the “culture clash” isn’t the only thing to consider. These days, parents (especially Black parents, it seems) can be arrested and locked up for hitting their children. I am not against this. But it’s not always an ideal situation. Nor is it necessarily a solution to have a parent in jail, particularly a single parent, which increases the chances of their child going into foster care. And a situation that perhaps could have been addressed in a more constructive way ends up feeding two more bodies into the prison-industrial system.

Still, I will always put the protection and well-being of the child first and foremost. No child who is beaten or abused in any way should be forced to remain with their abuser(s).

When I am asked this question in a public presentation, I suggest that that the concerned White person should calmly, gently, with a soft voice, approach the parent and say something that conveys a sense of understanding and empathy such as, “It can be really stressful to deal with a child who’s not doing what you want them to do. Is there anything I can do to help?”

Of course I warn them to expect the Black parent to react with suspicion, if not hostility. Most would perceive even the most well-meaning White stranger as trying to get in their business and tell them how to raise their child at best, or someone who would and could turn them into the authorities at worst.

There is no simple, perfect, fix-it-all answer.

As for the father who wrote seeking advice about how to navigate the issue of spanking with his wife and in-laws, I commend him for taking a stand. Since his son isn’t getting spanked, his efforts have been successful so far. And even if his wife doesn’t oppose her family on the topic, her behavior speaks volumes and proves that people are teachable when it comes to corporal punishment!

I would advise him to calmly, quietly articulate his position when needed, and to avoid any attempts by his in-laws to goad or bait him into a debate on the topic. He could take advantage of his Whiteness if the topic does come up and say, “Well I don’t know if it’s ‘a White thing,’ but spanking our son is not an option in our family. We use other methods of discipline, and appreciate your respecting our rule of no physical violence.”

His in-laws aren’t likely to agree, and he can’t control their behavior, but as long as he is consistent in his messages on this topic and communicates in a calm, assured manner, they are likely to respect him. They might still challenge him verbally, but he could always turn the tables and play the “are you trying to tell me how to raise my child?” card with them.

As our society grows more diverse, the issue of how to protect children in public spaces becomes even more complex. As laws become less tolerant of physical discipline, the legal risks to parents and their children intensify.

Readers, I’d like to hear from YOU on this one! Please weigh in with what you would tell this father. I look forward to your comments.  

8 comments on A White Man Struggles with Black Wife’s Family Over Spanking

  1. Becky says:

    I would tell him to be very firm with them. The physical dignity of his kids is not negotiable!

  2. Lisa says:

    If the children are never left in the care of the in-laws, then what is the issue? They are simply baiting him into an argument with nothing more than a hypothetical. Let them spout off; in the end he and his wife are still in the driver’s seat. The in-laws clearly have issues that run much deeper than the discipline of a baby that isn’t even born yet. Bottom line…taking care of his son, is NOT an entitlement. Once they come to that realization, they will respect his and his wife’s wishes if they want any one on one time with him. Words aren’t even necessary…speak w/actions in drawing a line deep in the sand that’s impossible to cross by not leaving their son in the care of her family. Simple as that… Easy for me to suggest because it is what my husband and I did/continue to do. He should never again waste his energy with arguing about something he and his wife have total control of.

  3. Cynthia says:

    I would take a firm stand with the in-laws and say,
    I thank you for your concern for how I choose to raise my son, it is duly noted. However I do not use hitting as a form of parenting. I would like for my child to get to know his grandparents and relatives,, however if you can’t respect my wife’s and my stance on the no hitting policy, then you will cause us to limit your access to your grandson. Just as you have your views on parenting, I have mine. Ultimately this is my son, and my guidelines stand. It is not for you to debate with me how I raise my son. Just as you wish to be respected and validated for your viewpoints on hitting your child when you parent them, I expect likewise. Bottom line, this is my son and not yours.

  4. K Charles says:

    This is a very interesting dilemna! While its far too easy to jump on the anti-biracial, multi-cultural bandwagon, it does spark some energy from those who were against these types of unions in the first place. It does depend on the individuals involved; their willingness to be open and receptive to differing opinions, traditions and values!
    It may be more important to protect the “safety” of the child first but it may underscore other benefits that in time may far outweigh physical chastisement! I believe within our culture there are many pros and cons on this issue that are very compelling in the rearing of children who are punished pgysically….. Moreover, the differences in race/culture certauinly can create not necessarily the most healthy enviroment for the child! I believe in compromise to the extent of the best for the child’s welfare but not independent of any differences that would injure them!! Its not as clearcut as many perceive it to be. The option of removing the in-laws from the child’s life may impact more devastatingly than being “properly” chastised when warranted by another family member……

  5. Meg says:

    Please don’t ever leave your son in the care of these people. This posting makes my blood boil. If my inlaws tried to debate with me how they were going to discipline MY child they would be cut off and dead to me.

    1. Diogo says:

      I’m so glad I found my sooutiln online.

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