When the arrest of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson for hitting his son with a “switch” first made headlines, former NBA star Charles Barkley said “spanking” or “whipping” our kids was a southern black tradition. Whipping children is neither traditional among “southern black parents,” nor is it limited to that group. I should know. As a Jewish kid from Long Island I was regularly “whipped” by my mom. Not spanked; that sounds too benign. Throughout my childhood, I was hit and slapped —sometimes with a belt, sometimes with her hand, sometimes with whatever was in arms’ reach.
There were times I was afraid to come home because I knew what awaited me. Other times I would be in my room afraid for my mom to come home for the same reason. Most of the time the beatings did not leave a physical mark, although sometimes there were welts, scrapes, etc.
The real scars were to my psyche. As a child nobody wanted to hang with a kid who was compensating for a of lack of self-confidence half the time and crying at the drop of the hat the other half.
Sometimes I joke that my Mom had the “quickest hand in the East.” There were times you couldn’t see her hand move but all of a sudden four finger marks would appear on my face, first white, then quickly reddening. To this day (I am 57 years old) when in a verbal disagreement, my mind begins to brace for the smack which thankfully no longer comes.
Bill Cosby used to have a routine about his father’s belt. In the middle of the night there was always the scary dad one room over, who threatened to “come in with the belt” if young Bill didn’t keep quiet. Cosby would add:
We had never seen the belt, but we had heard about it. The belt was nine feet long, eight feet wide, and it had hooks on it, and it would rip the meat off your body if it ever hit you.
Although I am a huge Bill Cosby fan, that was a routine of his I never laughed at; it hit too close to home. While Mom’s belt never “ripped meat off” my body, it did leave marks.
Mom’s beatings became a family joke. She had three sisters and they used to keep their kids in line by threatening to send them to live in my house for a weekend.
The beatings destroyed my self-confidence, something I still grapple with as an adult. Sometimes simple criticism is taken as an attack and certainly tracks back to my youth. My sometimes-explosive temper may also be an unintended consequence of the days I was afraid to express myself in fear of a beatdown.
In her later years my mother, of blessed memory, said if she had to do it all over she would have done it differently — she said didn’t know better. I am sure that is true. Despite all the beatings, I loved my mom very much and knew she loved me more than anything in the world. That does not excuse or condone what she did — it just is.
Charles Barkley isn’t totally wrong. While not limited to southern blacks, many parents “whip” their kids because it is all they know. That is neither an excuse nor a rationale for Adrian Peterson’s actions.
Suspending Adrian Peterson from playing football may make NFL advertisers and sports reporters-turned social commentators feel good, but it won’t help his kids. Neither will sending him to jail. As my mom and Charles Barkley both said, he doesn’t know any better. And the only way to fix that is to teach him a different way. Uf that doesn’t work, well, then try the economic and or legal measures.
When I entered parenthood 24 years ago, the promise made to myself was to “break the chain.” I would never “beat” my kids,” and except for the one time I slapped my daughter on the hand because she picked up a piece of glass at the playground and put it in her mouth, I kept that promise. The hand slap was followed by an hour of crying (she cried only for five minutes — I cried for an hour). But my daughter never picked up a piece of glass again, and I never hit her on the hand or elsewhere ever again.
I “broke the chain” of child beating because of my suffering. But not everyone learns that way. If Adrian Peterson’s punishment is simply the feel-good NFL suspension, he will learn nothing, and the beatings will continue. “It just is.”
Cross-posted at The Lid