Troubles in Interracial Talk about Discipline: An Examination of African American Child Rearing Narratives

Article excerpt

During the course of a five-year study of social service delivery, at an agency which will be referred to as Midwest Agency,(1) it was found that when social workers, who identified themselves as "white" discussed child rearing issues with parents, who identified themselves as "black," there were significant differences in parents' and social workers' attitudes toward physical punishment. African American parents frequently expressed a strong preference for physical discipline. This preference also dominated discussions of child rearing by a group of elders from the African American community who

volunteered to act as mentors to parents at the agency.

The preference for physical discipline in the African American community is significant within the context of contemporary social service delivery, as it has become a matter of social work policy to treat physical punishment as a dis-preferred method of disciplining children. Legally, physical punishment is not considered child abuse per se. However, in practice, social workers often treat commitment to physical punishment as evidence of a lack of appropriate parenting skills (Cox, 1998:72; Hines and Boyd-Franklin, 1982:104; Korbin, 1980:8; Siegel, 1994:90; Straus, 1971).

It has been argued that the confusion of African American child rearing techniques with abuse is at least partially responsible for the fact that African American children are grossly over represented in the foster care system across the United States (Pinderhughes, 1991:599; Everett, et al., 1991:2).)While they make up only 15% of the population African American children comprise approximately 27% of the reported cases of abuse (Hampton, 1991:221). Furthermore, as they progress through the system their over representation increases. Currently about 50% of the 250,000 children in foster care are African American (Hill, 1987). This means that while only 9% of the white children reported for abuse ends up in foster care, 24% of the African American children reported for abuse ends up in foster care. If we take into account that African American children are reported at a rate almost double their representation in the population in the first place, the result is that African American children are being removed from their families at a rate that is almost five times higher than that of white children.(2) The literature also indicates that, in addition to coming into care more _frequently, African American children remain in care longer and may receive fewer desirable placements than white children (Chestang, 1980; Close, 1983:13; Hill, 1989:47; Shyne, 1979:32; Stehno, 1982:40).

This paper argues that the African American preference for physical discipline not only leads to a higher rate of reported cases of abuse, and thus a higher rate of initial contact with social services than white families, but that the cultural nature of the African American preference for physical discipline results in an unwillingness on the part of African American parents to alter their parenting styles. African American parents who believe in the validity of their own parenting styles, a belief supported by most members of their own community, will not welcome the claims of white social workers that they are abusing their children. In our data African American parents repeatedly tell their social workers that they will continue to use physical discipline. We believe that it is this adherence to a set of traditional cultural values with regard to child rearing that is resulting in the current high rate of interference by social service agencies with African American families and children (Dodson, 1983; Everett, et al., 1991:3; Franklin and Franklin, 1985:208; Hines and Boyd-Franklin, 1982:104, 1996:74; Korbin, 1980:8; Williams, 1990:172).

Parents who were served by Midwest Agency were primarily from urban African American families mandated by the court to participate in an intensive program of social service intervention and training because of allegations of child abuse and/or neglect. …