Today, when I walked into the locker room at the Y after my exercise, I entered a tense scene. A Y staffer had just admonished a woman for spanking her daughter. The staffer said another woman in the locker room had been upset by the spanking and reported her to the staff. The little girl (who looked to be about five years old) was sniffling. Her mother was outraged that someone had reported her for disciplining her child and she loudly demanded of the woman who reported her.
"Are you telling me how I should discipline my child when she's misbehaving and talking back?"
The other woman quietly responded, "Perhaps you should not do it in a public place. There are other children here and they were upset by it."
"I have to punish her when she does something, not wait two hours and say, 'Now I'm going to punish you for what you did earlier.'"
The conversation went on in this vein for a couple of minutes. I did not get involved, although my heart was engaged. Why? Because the mother defending her actions was definitely not white; she wasn't African-American, but her skin was as brown as mine. The woman who reported her was white. I wanted to tell the brown woman that she did not have to explain herself to that nosy white woman who was undoubtedly acting out of her perceived white privilege and authority. Would she have reported a white woman for spanking her child, I asked myself indignantly.
After I gathered my things and left. I thought about my reaction.
My first thought was that I don't believe in disciplining children in front of others. I did spank my child when he was very young, largely because that's how I was reared, except that we got whippings with belts and switches. However, I never did it in front of anyone. I was interested in teaching him, not humiliating him.
Because I changed my mind about corporeal punishment a long time ago, my second thought was, "I'm not sure how I would have reacted if I had seen the mother hitting her child." By the time my son was a tall, sturdy six-year-old, it occurred to me that in order for my spankings to have any meaning, any force, I'd have to hit him really hard with something other than my hand. Once in a rage, I hit him with my umbrella. He looked so hurt by my anger that I was flooded with shame. It occurred to me that using physical force on a child is an attempt to break the child's spirit. That was not my intent. I wanted my son to reach his full potential, so I never hit him again. Instead, I figured out what meant the most to him and deprived him of that when I felt discipline was necessary. Fortunately, I was blessed with an extraordinary child who rarely required restraints, even as a teenager.
My next thought was that if I had seen the mother spanking her child and been disturbed by it, I would not have interfered unless I thought the child's limbs or life were in danger. Why? Because the relationship between a
parent and child is unique (even siblings have distinct relationships
with each parent) and it is built from birth forward, not on one
incident. I wouldn't think of telling someone else how to discipline
their child even if I knew all the details of their relationship, which
of course, you never do.
Finally, I did not witness the actual spanking, so I have no idea of the severity
of it, or how long it went on. I walked in just in time to receive a
lesson about my knee-jerk racist thoughts. My initial reaction was based solely on the skin color of the participants. Thankfully, I am conscious enough to check myself when I have racist thoughts, and more important, not to act on them.