She would look at you with those eyes.
That's how my mom shut down all kinds of kid shenanigans -- "The Look" all but screamed, "If you don't stop it right now, I'm going to (insert indictable child abuse offense here)." The mere threat of bodily harm made me straighten up and fly right; Bettye had to beat my behind one time only for me to know she wasn't to be played with. Shoot, even kids who weren't her kids knew that when Deaconess Millner gave you "The Look" you best get back on the good foot, lest she take you down into the church basement for a little talking to that maybe involved little talking and a lot more hand movement than you'd care to experience.
"The Look" was no joke.
I tried looking at my kids that way. They laughed at me.
Tried spanking them both, too. Mari looked at me with a fear in her eyes I never want to see again; truly, I'd rather be respected than feared by my eldest daughter. When Lila got her butt smacked, she damn near giggled in my face. Or maybe she cried. Then went right back to what she was doing, like my hand never connected with the fatty part of her leg. Which is the equivalent, in my book, of giggling in my face.
Basically, I decided pretty early on that the childrearing techniques that worked for Bettye don't necessarily work for me. My mom and dad raised two children in the era of stable factory gigs, good health benefits, and New Edition; child services would doggone near high-five the ‘rents for tapping that butt. Today, Nick and I are parents competing with Lil' Wayne and Nicki Minaj lyrics. Working from home and hustling to keep the checks coming. And trying hard to raise up smart, well-behaved, conscious children, sans the beat downs -- despite the odds. And without child services breathing down our necks.
But this is something I have a hard time saying aloud around most black folks. Copping to time-outs and punishments that involve something other than hitting generally earns Nick and I the distinction of "trying to act white." Because really, if we were following black folk tradition, we'd be wearing our kids out for the tiniest of infractions. At least this is what all-too-many black parents suggest whenever discussions about discipline come up. My friend Stacy Patton, author of That Mean Old Yesterday, a book about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her adoptive parents, put it best in a story she wrote for The Defenders Online, in which she laid out some sobering statistics showing black children suffer and die from abuse at disproportionate rates from white and Latino children:
Rather than speaking out against all forms of physical abuse, we celebrate and promote spanking, "popping," "whupping," and "beating" and even affirm the violence as a distinctly African-American cultural tradition.
Both the silence and the righteous defense of spanking that takes place in churches, beauty salons, barbershops, black radio airwaves, popular films, the blogosphere, and now FaceBook and YouTube, all contribute to the alarming rates of child abuse in our communities. There is a cultural specificity, and even a perverse embrace of child violence, that contributes to the problem in black communities.
I readily raise my hand and admit that I used to give Mari and Lila the straight ice grill when they'd cut up in front of other black folks -- you know, to make it seem like I was capable of laying the smackdown. But more recently, I've been copping to time-outs and talking-to's as my go-to form of discipline, no matter the ridicule from spanking moms. Just last week, in support of Child Abuse Prevention Month, I posted on my FaceBook page a link to a piece I penned for another site, titled, The Subtle Art of Disciplining, and I had to defend myself amidst a firestorm of negative comments. Though a few of my personal friends agreed that hitting wasn't the answer, the majority of black moms who commented proudly extolled the virtues of hitting -- one mom even bragged about slapping her daughter in the face when she got out of pocket -- and gave all kinds of justifications for beating up on their kids. One particularly boisterous "FaceBook friend" claimed hitting was "more effective" than any other discipline and that it kept her daughter from getting pregnant, hooked on drugs, off the streets and out of general trouble.
Honestly, what she said hurt me to my heart. Because no child deserves to be slapped in the face, and no matter what you say to rationalize it, I'm not ever going to agree that hitting is the most effective punishment. I used to watch my brother get his ass whooped on the regular, but that didn't stop him from doing whatever the hell he wanted to. In fact, after awhile, he'd just get in trouble, take his beat down, and then repeat the bad behavior. The only kid kept in line by the hitting was me, and that was because I was scared of getting what my brother got. Like seriously? Whenever my mom physically punished my brother, I would have Precious-type nightmares that no little kid should ever have about her mother -- and I wasn't even the one being hit.
I simply did not -- and do not -- want this for my babies. Nick and I feel that as parents, we can get our kids to respect our authority and behave without using physical violence against them. This was a conscious decision. And we studied and read and sought out advice on how to discipline our children effectively, so that we could get it (reasonably) right. And you know what? It's working for us. Our son Mazi made it to 17 without going to jail, being on the streets, doing or selling drugs, becoming a teen parent, or failing out of school. In fact, he's a straight-A honor student on his way to a prestigious university on scholarship. And he didn't get hit. He had to write a few 10-page well-researched papers as punishment for some transgressions, but slapping, whipping, beating, and punching never factored into our discipline equation.
Even crazier, the "time-outs" and "talking tos" work with the little nutty, tough one -- Lila. To wit: One day while I was packing Lila's backpack, I discovered that in addition to trying to smuggle her Nintendo DS to school, she'd swiped an entire pack of Now & Laters from my private candy stash. Had it all up in the front pocket, like it was hers.
Now please understand, playing with my Now & Laters is like playing with my emotions.
But I didn't trip. When I was little, that would have been grounds for a sound butt whooping, but all my Lila got from me was a firm, "You know you're not supposed to take your games to school, and you didn't ask to have any of my candy, which means you stole it from me. So now you don't get to take snack to school, and you don't get to play your DS for three days. Now eat your cereal."
Well you would have thought I'd skinned her with a foot-long switch; the tears were flowing like The Nile down into her Cinnamon Toast Crunch. But when girlfriend realized I was unmoved by the drama and unbowed from my punishment pronouncement, she shut up the noise, ate her cereal, accepted her fate, and, as we walked hand-in-hand to the bus stop, she apologized for ganking my stuff.
And just like that, the drama was over. No cowhide needed to be swung. No shoes needed to be flicked. Nobody had to go out and fetch a branch off the tree. I didn't have to mean mug or even raise my voice in anger (my one crutch -- I'm really trying to work on the yelling, y'all, honest!). She got a simple punishment. And it was over.
If only it could be this easy every time.
Something tells me deep down in my gut area that it won't be.
But I'll keep my hands to myself anyway.
Our children deserve this much.