Why Are We Beating Our Children? an Upsurge in Child Abuse Cases Raises New Questions

By Jones, Lisa C. | Ebony, March 1993 | Go to article overview

Why Are We Beating Our Children? an Upsurge in Child Abuse Cases Raises New Questions


Jones, Lisa C., Ebony


An upsurge in child abuse cases raises new questions

MANY Black adults can recall a parent, grandparent or guardian twisting a switch off a hickory, oak or maple tree and wrapping the bony rod around mischievous little legs after an occasional wrongdoing.

But in the light of a flurry of serious physical abuse reports that have surfaced in recent years--more than 500,000 in 1991 alone--corporal punishment, as it is called, may soon be grounded for good.

If a parent swats a child on the bottom, is that abuse? Is it a legitimate concern to question corporal punishment if it leaves scars? What factors have pushed physical abuse reports up 40 percent among Blacks, Whites and other racial groups since 1985? Black child care experts-and Black single mothers caught in a web of poverty, neglect and abuse-- point to a distinct correlation between corporal punishment and child abuse in the Black community.

"We've lost control," says Dr. Augustus Rodgers, a University of South Carolina social work professor and director of the National Black Family Summit, an annual forum that examines key issues affecting Black families. "[Corporal punishment] is not used as a means of disciplining anymore; its a behavior that is a result of some dynamics that are altogether different from traditional corporal punishment."

At one time, traditional corporal punishment, Dr. Rodgers and other experts say, was a corrective devise used among some Black families in the spirit of love, authority and respect. But now, a growing number of parents, who are finding it difficult to cope with the escalating pressures of poverty, unemployment, drug abuse and single parenthood, are lashing out at their children in fits of anger, rather than as an act of love.

"When we were whipped, it was on the butt with a switch or a belt, or across the knuckles with a pencil or a; ruler." Dr. Rodgers recalls of his own childhood. "You didn't find pegple whipping kids with sticks, burning them with cigarette butts or pushing them down' stairs," as he and other experts say they have seen evidence of in recent years.

But the use of authoritative and punitive styles of disciplining is not a new phenomenon among Blacks, says Dr. James P. Comer, a child psychiatrist at the Yale Child Study Center and co-author of the book, Raising Black Children. "During slavery and other repressive periods in this country, Blacks felt a need to control kids, hoping to prevent them from acting up or getting out of place," says Dr. Comer. This child-rearing practice has persisted over time, he says, to the extent that some Black parents still believe that they can "beat the badness out of their kids."

Although most child care professionals tend to discourage corporal punishment as a primary disciplining tool, many believe that the potential for harm is minimal when mild spankings are coupled with other forms of behavior modification techniques like talking, isolating children for short periods of time-out and using bargaining strategies for a desired behavior. The problem arises, they say, when stressed-out parents, burdened by desperate circumstances, lose control.

When these parents strike or paddle their children in a fit of rage, leaving welts, bruises and many times broken bones, they have stepped over the line of what most states would consider an acceptable use of corporal punishment and have entered into the zone of child abuse. And in extreme cases, child abuse is regarded as assault, punishable with up to 15 years in jail.

Yet many well-intentioned parents only get the crucial guidance they need after their children have been harmed. Charged with neglect last fall, 20-yearold Malisa Grady of Chicago temporarily lost custody of her two daughters after her former live-in fiance reportedly tripped and fell on Grady's youngest child, leaving the 10-month-old baby with a broken arm and a broken ankle. …

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