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Domestic CP - September 1998

Washington Post, 13 September 1998

A Good Whuppin'?

Many Who Survived Childhood Spankings Now Endorse Them, Renewing Debate Over A Peculiar Institution

By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer


She remembers the sting of the switch beating out the rhythm of her father's words against her bare legs. She prayed that the sentence would be short because with each word, with each syllable, the stick whipped the air and fell.

I (WHACK!) told (WHACK!) you (WHACK!) to (WHACK!) stay (WHACK!) in (WHACK!) the (WHACK!) yard! (WHACK!)

The stings swelled into welts that she nursed along with deeper hurts.

If I told you once, I told you a million times. When I tell you something, you better listen to me. Now stop all that cryin'. Stop! Do you want some more? Well, you better stop all that cryin'.

TuSheena Watson came of age in the 1970s, in a house where there was no debate about whether beatings were fair. The whuppin's were promised and always came. The infraction and its connection to the punishment were clear. Her father and mother never heard of such things as a "timeout." There was no talking, no talking back, no questioning authority and no analyzing disobedience. Going to your room meant nothing, because she had no room of her own. The beatings were plain and sufficient, and today the memories of them are seared in her mind, but "they were a good thing," she now declares as the parent of two children.

"My mother and my daddy would beat us, all 10 of us. The switch, they would pull the leaves off. You are crying before they come to you. And they used to give the neighborhood permission to whip you. They would whip you, then tell you to shut up. 'Shut up before I give you something to cry for.' You already did. You just beat me to death, now you're going to tell me to shut up. How can I shut up?"

She is living it again, sitting in a job-training classroom in Prince George's County. Hair pulled back from her face, clad in T-shirt and jeans, she looks young. Back in New Jersey she was the baby girl of the family, but now, at 32, she is on the other side of the switch. She knows the trials of controlling her daughters. She swears by spanking.


Go outside and pick me a switch. And don't pick a small one either.

That command, for many, is part of being black in America - part of a cultural tradition that sought to steel black children for the world, forge their characters, help prepare them for the pure meanness that waited out there, just because of the color of their skin. Many black parents who whipped felt more was at stake if they did not scourge their children.

Don't get it wrong. The wielding of the switch and the belt and the wooden spoon is not a practice unique to black people. Most races spank their children, especially Southern whites who are fundamentalist Christians. But the stories of beatings done in the name of love, beatings that were endured by many - not all - black parents, are like a familiar song. There are some bad associations with slavery. There are some good associations with survival.

Many black parents see what is happening now - the dope, the guns, the gangs - and they wonder what went wrong. When they came up, it didn't matter what socioeconomic class, a whuppin' was a whuppin' - and it seemed that adults were in control. Now, old people are locked in their houses even in the middle of the day, scared to go outside, scared of the young boys up the street. When did the old people, who would switch you all the way home if you did wrong, fold up their chairs and go inside? Maybe when the whuppin's stopped, the control stopped.

There was a ritual to whuppin's, and many of that generation talk with a kind of bravado about this rite of passage to adulthood. They tell tales of out-of-body experiences, of spiritual epiphanies, of praying to God, of the art of tearful fakery, of agonizing defiance against belts, of loyalty among siblings and not breaking rank, of the time so bad a parent broke a switch on a child's soft flesh. And they speak always of the wrong they committed and why they deserved it.

Spankings make up neighborhood legends and family folklore, comical and sincere. They connect folks, haunt them, set them up to wrestle over what they will do with their own children.

The questions are clear, the answers are not. Will the tradition continue? Will the law allow it? Should it continue? At what cost?


Proverbs 20:30: "The blueness of a wound cleanses away evil."

The old people in the neighborhood used to say: "The police department finishes raising other people's kids." Another way of saying: If you don't raise your kids right, you'll lose them to the street corner.

As the debate rages across the country over whether to spank - as some Christian groups advocate the Bible-sanctioned striking of children, as the American Psychological Association releases its limited blessings on spankings, and more books and chapters are published - conversations in beauty shops, churches, living rooms and around kitchen tables start to sound like this:

"Kids these days just don't know how good they got it. ... I remember my daddy's belt. ... Look at them acting up. ... They could use a good whuppin'."

"It is a cultural thing," says Russell Adams, chairman of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Howard University. "There is almost a masochistic celebration that it happened, that it was good for me. They say it like an ordeal righteously survived. You get this kind of amen to the old days."


You know this is gonna hurt me more than it hurts you ...

The whuppin' ritual has certain theatrical elements.

First, the anticipation: "Oooooh, you gonna git it! Wait until your father gets home."

Then, the interrogation: "Did you do that? No? Well, you are lying because so and so said they saw you."

Then there is the recital of the law of the house, the neighborhood, the universe: "Now you know better. How many times did I tell you not to ... ?"

The next stage is the laying on of hands: In some families, the child is held, often producing a hopping dance around the pole that is the parent. In other families, the command is to freeze.

"You were supposed to stand there with your hands raised up in the air," Adams recalls. "We called that the crucifixion position."

The next thing is the art of the preemptive wail, often followed by: "I haven't hit you yet!" Or: "Quit all that crying." Or: "I'm going to give you something to really cry about."

Cunning children always learn fast how much noise to make to receive mercy.

Adams: "There is always the outcry, 'Mama, you are killing me!' The crying is supposed to be a sign you got to me. You almost try to make the whipper feel wrong."


The debate on spanking escalated in the late 1970s as a number of states outlawed corporal punishment in public schools. Some states still allow, and even encourage, corporal punishment in schools, including Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama and Kentucky. A number of private and parochial schools also continue to spank.

In the past decade, advocates for spanking seem to have gained ground among parents - although earlier this year the American Academy of Pediatrics declared that spanking was "no more effective" than other forms of discipline and that corporal punishment has "negative consequences." Conversely, the American Psychological Association, which has opposed corporal punishment in schools since 1974, recently decided not to condemn spanking in every circumstance.

Some academics believe that the history of spanking among blacks can be directly tied to slavery. Adams, the Howard professor, argues that whippings - as an act of brutal control by white owners - spread into the black culture on these shores.

"There is not a record in African culture of the kind of body attack that whipping represents," he says. "The maintenance of order by physical coercion is rare in Africa."

The custom may be connected to a desire by some blacks to be like the majority culture: "We have imitations, just as we have imitations with hot combs, from those who wanted to look Caucasian. I grew up at a time when people wore clothespins on their noses to make them smaller. We would go to the movies to see Hopalong Cassidy and come back and compress our lips to make them smaller."

Blacks and others who endorse spankings might be suppressing or rationalizing their pain, some psychologists suggest.


(c) Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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