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.