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Corporal punishment common across race and culture


Most parents – baby boomers or Gen Xers, black or white – can remember a paddling administered by their parents or some other adult.

And yet, unlike Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who set off a firestorm of controversy over corporal punishment after being indicted by a Texas grand jury for beating his 4-year-old son with a tree branch, few say they’ve resorted to physical punishment when dispensing discipline to their own children.

The Vikings announced last week that Peterson had been barred from all team activities.

If the NFL’s struggle to deal with the public criticism reveals anything about society, it is this: we are a nervous lot when it comes to parenting our children.

According to a 2013 study by Columbia University, 57 percent of mothers and 40 percent of fathers gave spankings when their children were age three, and 52 percent of mothers and 33 percent of fathers spanked their five year olds. Disadvantaged families represented a large share of the survey group but the results are consistent with other studies.

Most of us either continue to parent pretty much the way our own parents did — as Peterson has confessed to doing — or we disliked the way we were raised so much we’re the exact opposite.

Even the parenting experts can’t seem to agree.

Some say there are times when corporal punishment is appropriate. Others say never. Some contend African-Americans use it as a form of discipline more often than whites, while some say neither race nor culture comes into play.

“I do believe that there is a cultural component, however, no matter the culture, corporal punishment can easily turn into child abuse,” said Donna Tonrey, director of La Salle University’s marriage and family therapy program in Philadelphia.

“If one crosses the line, it does not mean that the person will see it as child abuse. Corporal punishment, used as suggested, would never leave any hint of an injury,” she said.

Tonrey said, for instance, if a child attempts to touch a hot stove, a slap on the hand can be effective. If a child attempts to run into the street, a spanking on the tush can be effective.

“These are examples of making sure the parent is getting the child’s attention,” she said. “Spanking out of anger is a problem. However, spanking to instruct can be effective.”

As more details emerge about the Peterson case, Jay Scott Fitter, a licensed marriage and family therapist and author of “Respect Your Children: A Practical Guide to Effective Parenting” said there is opportunity to contemplate the generational cycle of abuse, and how parents can learn the difference between harmful punishment and constructive discipline.

“Discipline is one of the defining elements of parenting; whether used sparingly or liberally, it’s fundamental to the parent-child dynamic,” Fitter said. “In its most basic form, discipline is a matter of choices and consequences. The parents explain their expectations for the child. If the child ignores these rules or expectations, there are consequences.”

Through discipline, Fitter said, children are taught to become responsible, honest, kind, sharing people. However, if you punish your child instead of disciplining him, the end result will not be the same.

“Parents who spank or swat their children often believe that it’s not going to hurt them,” Fitter said. “But a recent study found that after such parents were exposed to findings showing the negative effects on children of corporal punishment, a significant number changed their opinion.”

Dr. Robert Epstein, Senior Research Psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology and Professor of Psychology at the University of the South Pacific, offered a decidedly different view.

“Corporal punishment is abusive when it’s overused or severe, but there are a few situations in which it can conceivably be used legitimately,” Epstein said. “A slap on the bottom might be appropriate for a child who has hurt another child, for example, or for a child who runs out into the street.”

Cleve Gaddis, a real estate owner and father of four daughters ages 17, 15, 14 and 12, said he received many swats on his rear end while growing up.

So too, did Sabrina King of Union City.

“My mother did not play,” said King, a single mother of a 17-year-old daughter. “She could give you a look and you knew that she meant business.”

Both parents said, however, they eschew corporal punishment as a form of discipline.

“As a father of all girls, it’s easy for me to be against physical punishment because I don’t want to hurt my girls and because it doesn’t take physical punishment to get their attention when they’ve done something wrong,” said Gaddis, of Johns Creek. “My wife and I discipline our daughters by taking away some of life’s niceties like cell phones and cars or the freedom to spend time with friends. Fortunately for us, we don’t have to do this very often.”

King said she subscribes to “positive reinforcement.” For instance, once when her daugther failed to do her chores, she wasn’t allowed to attend her school’s football game.

“The following week she not only completed her house chores but she even did mine,” King said.

But is corporal punishment cultural as Tonrey suggested? And does it occur more often in black families than white ones as Michael Eric Dyson, professor of sociology at Georgetown University and MSNBC political analyst, suggested in a Wednesday New York Times editorial. Is it strictly a Southern phenomenon?

Epstein contends it “definitely” is and is “evident given that the 31 states that have banned corporal punishment in schools are all in the north and west.”

“Having traveled the world I do see corporal punishment as more American and even more rooted in the South,” said Fred Nix, a 44-year-old divorced father of two from Atlanta. “I do not see it as a white or black issue at all in my opinion.”

Indeed, according to Charles Gallagher, who studies race and ethnicity and is chairman of La Salle’s sociology department, the difference in the numbers of black and white Americans who use corporal punishment is only 10 percent. Eighty percent of Hispanic parents and 73 percent of Asian parents spank their children.

“The majority of whites and blacks either support or would engage in corporal punishment,” Gallagher said. “Why these groups engage in this behavior is to some degree a matter of culture. As a boy who was often disciplined by the hand or a wooden spoon these measures reflected a white, working class, first generation, immigrant Catholic way to teach a “seen and not heard” and “spare the rod” philosophy where respect to adults should never be crossed. Among black scholars what is suggested is a cultural jump from the whippings of blacks by Southern plantation overseers as a form of total social control to parents using the hickory switch today because they are terrified that any flippant response from their black son could result in his death at the hands of whites.”

Epstein, former editor-in-chief of Psychology Today, said the bottom line is that there are dozens of non-aversive alternatives to corporal punishment.

“It’s shame that parents aren’t more knowledgeable about such techniques,” he said.



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