disciplining black kids

Long before Adrian Peterson’s story hit the news, my hubby and I have been wrestling with the whole to spank or not to spank argument. Both of us grew up with parents who believed whole-heartedly in the doctrine of “spare the rod, spoil the child.” (Although the use of Proverbs 13:24 as a support for corporal punishment is a gross misinterpretation of scripture).

I’m fairly certain that if, years ago, you asked either of us whether or not we would use spanking to discipline our child, our answers would have been an unequivocal yes.

Now, we are not so sure.

Check it: We have a feisty, sassy mouthed three-year-old who, of course, hasn’t quite mastered the art of listening. Obedience is very much a challenge for us.

In fact, we’ve thankfully just exited a phase of Ms. K’s that I credit as the catalyst for us re-thinking where we stand on this issue. In short, our baby girl loved to hit. When she was frustrated, it was nothing for her to swing her tiny hand at us or anyone else. Our own childhood experience, and dare I say instinct, told us that the best way to respond to our child’s refusal to obey our “Stop” and “No” was to give her a little pop on the bottom to redirect her behavior.

But early on, this occurred to me: How does hitting her teach her not to hit? The simple answer is, it doesn’t. You can’t teach a child not to hit by hitting them, the same way you can’t teach a shoplifter not to steal by stealing from them. The whole “show them how it feels” argument is flimsy. Most people don’t learn that way and, bottom line, it doesn’t make sense.

But I find the issue to be more complicated than that. See, I understand the stressed out, overwhelmed, one-minute-from-a-breakdown mom who finds herself echoing her own mother: “You got one more time to…” In that moment, nothing makes sense. Not the heat rising on the inside, not the pretty little girl who has just thrown her doll at you, and not the very rational truth that spanking is not a good idea.

So I get it. Some may not. Some may be quick to judge. Some may be ready to throw you under the bus and run you over. But I don’t want to do that.

(Sidebar: I am not talking to YOU, Mom and Dad, who are whipping your children with extension cords and switches because they spilled some milk on your precious hardwood floors or because they look like their father/mother or because YOU had a bad day or because you are intoxicated. YOU, I judge. Severely.)

But there’s another group of parents out there. A group that is wrestling with all this. A group that knows there is a better way but doesn’t know how to find their way to that path. A group that grew up being spanked and is struggling with detaching from what they’ve always known because…and here’s the rub…the spankings, in our mind, worked.

It. Worked.

But I guess the real question is, WHAT exactly worked?

See the spankings and whoopins we got as children did exactly what they were designed to do: redirect our behavior. I suppose that’s why so many people use the “look how I turned out” argument to support spanking. There were clear results: I did something wrong, I was spanked, and I didn’t do that thing again.

But I think we should look deeper. Let’s really look at how we turned out.

From a behavioral standpoint, spankings made it clear to us what not to do. At least what not to do when no one who mattered was looking. So, in a sense, the behavior modification was temporary and maintained only by the fear we had of “getting in trouble.”

So when the fear was gone…either because we’d built up immunity to the pain from spankings or because we grew up… so went the modified behavior for the most part.

Yes, spanking offers simple behavioral modification. But behavior modification does not build character and wholeness—which is what I would say most parents want for their children. It is character and wholeness that truly prevents us from “doing wrong.” It seems to me that, the question of the violence of it aside, spanking just begets obedience for obedience sake. A child who does something wrong and is spanked for it has nothing of substance holding the changed behavior in place. Even if a parent tries to talk to the child about their behavior afterward, I suspect their words will be drowned out about the sadness, anger, frustration, and pain that came from the spanking. I mean, I can’t tell you a word my parents said before, while, or after they spanked me. At all. Can you?

Yeah, I didn’t think so.

So, in a sense, spanking doesn’t address the most important and sustaining factor in a child’s understanding of what’s right and wrong: the state of the little one’s heart.

The good people I know who believe in spanking as one of many forms of discipline do so because they believe it’s a remedy for disobedience. They believe that punishment (and even the threat of it) somehow makes people obedient. And I will concede that it does. For a moment. Maybe even for a long season. Yet, what it doesn’t do is make them care. It doesn’t turn their hearts toward what is right. It doesn’t develop what I call remorse muscles. It doesn’t build integrity. It corrects the behavior but it doesn’t correct what motivated the behavior.

Here’s what I’m learning: the true remedy for disobedience is repentance. As parents, we have to foster character-building—developing children with repentant hearts. Nurturing children who learn boundaries and how to obey, not because they are threatened with physical harm, but because they clearly understand the great spiritual devastation that comes with doing the wrong thing.

And that is a story that’s as old as the Bible itself: The Old Testament reveals how God spent millennias allowing punishment to befall the children of Israel because of their disobedience. And yet, they continued to turn away from Him—from what was right. They’d serve for a while, then forget the lessons of the Father. It was Jesus’ love and grace and sacrifice that changed the game. It was His lessons of love and our continued opportunity for repentance that made things right between man and God.

Given the recent news, I’ve observed so many people reminiscing about the “good ole days” when parents spanked their children. I don’t know if those were the real good ole days. How about we return to the days when simply disappointing your parents was devastating? Remember when that was a thing? I want my child to have the internal character to recognize her wrongs. I want the lessons I teach her to change her person and not just her behavior. When she is wrong, I will discipline her, whether that’s by removing her privileges or isolating her for a short amount of time. But I want to do these things because I want her heart to be pricked and her spirit agitated so that her character muscles will be stronger—not because I want her to fear me.

And I’m sorry, I don’t know if spankings accomplish this.

So as Hubby and I navigate this new world and continue to have the conversations around what is appropriate discipline in our home, there is one thing I know for sure: I’m so grateful that God is shifting our own hearts in this area. Yes, mom, I think we’ve become those “new-fangled” parents you joke about.

Wait…this girl done wrote on my wall?! Y’all pray that a sister can hold true to all this new revelation. 🙂

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This post is the latest in Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts’ “Faith & Motherhood” series.

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Tracey Michae'l

Tracey Michae'l is a writer and educator based out of the Philadelphia area. She is a wife to William and a mother to a beautiful two-year old little girl. You can find her on the web at www.traceymlewis.com.


  1. “Behaviour modification does not build character”. THAT my sister is truth right there.

  2. I read this and found it really interesting:

    “Consider, though, that Jesus said, “You will know them by their fruit.” (Matthew 7:16) referring to how we will recognize his children. And what is the fruit of the Spirit? Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Goodness. Gentleness. Faithfulness. Self-control. What’s missing? Nothing. God’s Word is perfect. And yet obedience is not included as a fruit of the Spirit. It is not mentioned as a measure of love for God or evidence of a relationship with God. That certainly doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want us to listen to his wise counsel and remain within the safe boundaries he’s shared with us. What it does mean is that it’s a heart issue, not an obedience issue, and he wants our trust and thoughtful, considered cooperation, not our fear driven, mindless obedience.

    Did you know, in fact, that the word obey doesn’t even appear in the original texts of the Bible? When the English translators of the King James version of the Bible encountered the Hebrew words hupakouo/hupakoe and shema/lishmoa they discovered that there wasn’t an exact English equivalent, so they chose the word hearken in their translations which subsequently became an archaic term and was later changed to obey. So, what exactly do the original words in the Bible mean?

    Hupakouo/hupakoe – to hear from above; to listen for; to lend an ear to.
    Shama/lishmoa – to understand, to internalize, to ponder, to reflect upon.

    And, in the negative form, rather then the word disobedience in the original texts, there is…
    Parakouo – to close one’s ears to; to ignore.
    The same mistranslation also occurs from the original Greek texts of the New Testament where peitho and peitharcheo are translated into respectively, obey and disobey but actually mean…
    Peitho – to be persuaded; to be moved; to respond.
    Peitharcheo – to remain un persuaded; to be unmoved by; to be unresponsive to.

    Taken together, the meaning of what is now translated obey in the original text of the Bible is more accurately read ‘listen to, thoughtfully consider, and respond to.’ That is a far, far different meaning then the ‘instant obedience’ often held up as the epitome of Christian faith and evidence of love for God and, by extension, the goal of so called ‘Biblical parenting.’

    Jesus, the Gentle Parent: Gentle Christian Parenting by L.R. Knost

  3. This is a great piece. We people of color need to hear and read things like this. We need to do better and break the cycles of so many generational curses that we have. It’s not just hollering in church about breaking curses…we need to do better in how we feed ourselves and our families, how we speak to our kids, how we discipline our kids etc etc.

  4. I watched the show and I so wanted to like it but I was very disappointed. The writers and producers should be commended for attempting to break down old stereotypes and portraying people of color in a positive light, and I guess they achieved that on some levels. However, once again I found myself smh at some of the coded/hidden messages about masculinity and gender. I’ll just use two examples from the premiere: When Anderson’s character finds out that his son is trying out for field hockey, in his disgust he says “isn’t that girls game?” Really? Reinforcing the gendirization of sport is not a positive message for any ethnicity. It reeks of antiquated views of what sports are appropriate based solely on gender. No, I don’t want my daughter limited to ice skating nor my son to feel he has to prove his masculinity by displaying aggression on the basketball court of football field.

    Lastly, I was disturbed at the end of the show when the son revealed that the ONLY reason he was trying out for field hockey was to be able to get in with the in crowd so he could “grab a boob”. Anderson’s character was relieved (as well as the grandfather figure played by Fishburne). So it’s OK to sexualize and degrade women but not ok to play a sport you deem inappropriate for a “real man”? Where is the lesson of treating our black women with respect and honor, that should have been the real teaching moment.

    I get why we as people of color are so hungry for positive betrayals and representation on t.v. But just because you depict a middle-class family with two working professional parents does not make “Cosby”. I expected better and was woefully disappointed. I also didn’t think it was funny :-/

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