Spanking, Race, and Class

Spanking, Race, and Class July 28, 2011

In the recent spanking debate here, one of the points that I’m not sure was really expanded upon was the idea of spanking being a preventative for real and substantial harm.  What makes spanking seem unreasonable to modern sensibilities is the very real sense that it appears to be disproportionate punishment.  The harms that can befall a child today for the most part find their source in malice.  While historically not always the case, when spanking is done today it is typically reserved for children under 8.  Children under 8 have diminished capacity or nearly no capacity at all to form malice.  Therefore when we examine spanking, we for the most part conceive of it as an arbitrary exercise of power.  This fairly closely models the anti-death penalty argument: if death is not necessary for the protection of society then the application of it by the State is not reflective of human dignity.

While their are spanking advocates that basically agree with my outline, there is another group that won’t and this is where we see divergence from the death penalty debate.  To the chagrin of sociologists, there is one demographic that has consistently and steadfastly defended spanking, African Americans.  To quote one article:

The lecturer, a parent who is a clinical psychologist, was explaining that spanking is never, ever appropriate. “It just shows the child you have no control over the situation, ” she said, in her soothing, well-modulated voice.

Post-lecture, over cookies and coffee, several black parents edged near each other and whispered, “I’m sorry, but I spank. I believe in spanking. This not-spanking thing is for white folks.”

The article in part mentions the history of racism in this country, and the need for African Americans to conform their behavior out of fear of reprisal from vigilante whites.  The theory was of course, better to be punished by someone that cared about your well being than to be seriously harmed by someone who didn’t.

No discussion of race should go unaccompanied by a discussion of class.  The pressures not to spank children are greater among upper class African Americans.  As another Salon article notes, not spanking originated as an upper class, progressive movement.  Of course one of the luxuries of being upper class is having abundant resources to be vigilant of your child’s behavior.  Today’s children are for the most part under the constant care and supervision of some adult.  Given that, there are simply not that many casual dangers a child of even lower middle class upbringing will encounter.  Whereas in previous generations a twelve-year-old providing temporary care for an infant would be common, today many parents have difficulty leaving their children with a 16-year-old babysitter.

While some fear can certainly be traced to irrationality, children very much are different today.  Having not had any appreciable responsibility growing up, most twelve-year-olds lack the competence to care for infants.  One common stereotype of a child that has never received corporal punishment is of a child who talks back and doesn’t behave.  However, the other common stereotype is of a child who grows into an incompetent adult.  A child whose only potential for harm was by someone else’s malice can very easily be a child who was thoroughly insulated from other potential harms.   The same society that looks askance at an 8-year-old being spanked is the same society that wonders if it should intervene if it sees an 8-year-old handling a steak knife.  A 10-year-old who can properly manipulate a paring knife is seen as shocking in today’s society.

From this we should recognize that to the extent there is a spanking debate in this country it is from a position of opulence.  Perhaps this isn’t necessarily a bad thing either.  We simply don’t live in a country where a 10-year-old boy would be asked to take it upon himself to direct traffic at an intersection with over 6 lanes of traffic.

While appreciating that, we also should recognize that spanking is really not an isolated debate.  It is rather held in a larger context about the formation of children into adults.  In a society that views any potential harm to children as unacceptable, it is necessarily going to follow that society will look to stop any potential people who cause harm to children, even if they be the child’s parents.  Understand that in other times and places, people have viewed the greatest harm that could happen to a child is to not be able to function as an adult.  Such societies often overlook particular harms to children if those children manage to become well functioning adults.

In the wake of the decade-old welfare reform in Wisconsin, more stories have appeared about children found home alone.  The linked story is on the very extreme end and did result in a referral to social services.  However, the broader issue is that many poor children are in situations that necessarily require them to have greater competence than children in wealthier settings.  The dangers faced by those children are most certainly not limited to those brought forth from the malice of others.  More fundamentally, the availability of an adult to intervene expeditiously is absent for significant periods of time.  Discipline can not simply be applied on an as needed basis, something those opposed to spanking usually treat as a given ability.  There are dangers that simply need to be understood and cannot be left idle with the assurance that the child will be caught before anything serious happens.  For example, being caught playing with matches or a lighter in a wealthier home would cause an examination by the parents of themselves for leaving a lighter or matches where they could be accessible to a child.  In a poorer family, a child may be expected to have minimal competence with a lighter and would be punished for acting irresponsible and endangering the family.  The cases are different and so it follows that what is deemed appropriate punishment is different.


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6 responses to “Spanking, Race, and Class”

  1. Fascinating. My reason for not spanking is that I don’t think it is necessary. I am able to achieve what I think spanking might achieve without it, so I don’t do it. Thank you for pointing out that such a situation is one of privilege.

    I have a friend (who I think will make a very fine bishop one day) who is from a very privileged background. His family is old British money. His Mom and sisters grew up in the family home in Canada, but he grew up all over the world (esp. Africa and the Middle East) with his Father who was a Canadian diplomat and international consultant. One day he shocked me by saying that he saw a young child cursing at its mother on the sidewalk in Toronto and his first instinct was to walk over to it and spank it. In the places where he grew up, not only did you spank your own kids – any adult could spank a child who was out of line!

    It is one thing for me to think that the people where he grew up lacked my specialized parenting resources and feel kind of sorry for them. It is quite another to think that those children were in far different circumstances than my own in terms of the kinds of things they need to be able to be trusted with at a young age.

  2. While this article is more compelling than some of the previous ones in this spanking debate, it does not follow that poor people or black people are justified in spanking their children in order to prepare them for a more difficult life. I think the answer lies in giving these parents the resources to better care for their children: A living wage, a safe place to live, etc.

    Here’s another way to look at the connection between class and spanking: Perhaps spanking in some way contributes to cyclical poverty and violence. It teaches a child to not trust authority figures and to use violence to solve problems. (Yes, spanking IS violence, or at least perceived by the child as violent, even if the adult is not intending to be violent.)

    There is no way to prove the causal connection between class and spanking. Does spanking lead to poverty, or does poverty lead to more spanking? Either way, I think we should work to stop both the cycle of poverty and the cycle of violence.

    • Excellent points, Kacy. We know that the lower income (minorities tend to be in the lower income) have high rates of domestic violence so I like that you point out that just because it is in use doesn’t mean it is a good thing.

  3. This is a really thoughtful piece, MZ. I agree with Brett, why spank when there are other more effective models out there? But, of course, that does presuppose that I (or some other adult) will be present. And for many families in this country, being present around one’s child IS a luxury.

  4. It is all too easy to grab onto the emotional response of spanking=abuse. While I am not a strong believer in spanking…I agree that my first impulse in hearing children cursing at their parents is “that kid needs a good spanking” I suspect that what I really am saying is more a commentary on the lack of discipline that is evident, than actually believing they need corporal punishment. However, sometimes I am not sure. I look at my 42 years of life. In my lifetime I have observed a clear slide of respect for parents and adults in general. When I was a kid, if I or any of my friends would have dared curse at our parents or another adult, we would have gotten spanked…or our mouths washed out with soap, or slapped across the face. I work as a therapist at a community mental health center. Prior to that I was a case manager for children with “mental illness” for 12 years. I saw many kids who not only didn’t get spanked, they didn’t get disciplined….and they suffered for it (and so did the parents and society as a whole) I am not convinced, when I look at kids now and compare them with the kids I grew up with that we are so much better off now with people afraid to use the occasional corporal punishment.
    The blog link listed by Kacy equates spanking to beating. Sorry, that’s somewhat over dramatic. I was spanked. I was never abused by my parents. I work with abused kids daily. There is a difference.

  5. M.Z.,

    Thanks adding your voice to this discussion. I’ve said most of what wanted to say in my own post, but, while I do think you’re right to point us in the direction of racial and class-based implications. I immediately thought of a parallel: guns. In poor Latino and Black—and rural white, too—cultures, owning a gun is “normal.” As Kacy points out, while it may be important to realize, there is a lot that does not follow from it. And the preventative aspect of punishment in general and spanking in particular cannot be understated, in my view.


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