To Spank Or Not To Spank?: Moms Discuss Discipline

Several states still allow paddling in their school districts, and many parents firmly argue that physical discipline of children is the best way to curb bad behavior. Some say it's a form of tough love, others call it child abuse. Mocha Mom Jolene Ivey is joined by pediatrician Dr. Marilyn Corder, author Stacey Patton and activist Paula Flow discuss the fine line between discipline and child abuse.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few Mocha Moms. We visit with members of this mother support group each week for their common sense and savvy parenting advice. Today, we want to talk about physical discipline. Spare the rod, spoil the child. Well, that was one of those sayings that many of us grew up with. Many parents just assumed that the best way, even the only way to ensure well-behaved kids was with a swat or two or three on the behind. In recent years that approach has been discredited. But nearly half the states, twenty-one, still allow some form of corporal punishment in the schools, while twenty-eight states plus the District of Columbia have banned the practice.

So because the school year has just started, we thought we'd invite our moms to talk about the pros and cons of corporal punishment, paddling at school and spanking at home. Joining us, our Mocha Moms co-founder Jolene Ivey. I'd like to welcome back Dr. Marilyn Corder. She's a pediatrician and an associate professor of pediatrics. She's our frequent guest on medical issues. Also joining us is Stacey Patton. She wrote a memoir about growing up in a foster home where spanking was frequent. And Paula Flowe, she's a teacher and she heads an advocacy group that opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools. Ladies, welcome, thank you all so much.

Ms. JOLENE IVEY (Co-Founder, Mocha Moms): Thanks Michel.

Dr. MARILYN CORDER (Associate Professor, Pediatrics): Thank you.

Ms STACEY PATTON (Writer): Thank you.

Ms. PAULA FLOWE (Teacher; Director, The Hitting Stops Here): Thank you.

MARTIN: Could I just go around quickly and just ask, were any of you spanked at home or paddled at school? Jolene, were you?

Ms. IVEY: I was both. I remember the occasional spanking at home, not any big deal, no abuse or anything. My mom liked to send you out to get your own lilac switch, OK. But at school, I do remember being spanked with a ruler and - on my hands, and that's about it.

MARTIN: Dr. Corder, were you?

Dr. CORDER: Yes, I was spanked at home. And school, I was not. I was a goodie-two-shoe. But I went to parochial school for 12 years. I would witness quite a few spankings. And that was all I needed to see not to do anything that would warrant a spanking.

MARTIN: At school, was it paddled with a paddle, an actual paddle or a ruler?

Dr. CORDER: Both, they had ruler as well as they had a paddle.

MARTIN: And Stacey, you wrote a memoir as I said where you detailed the punishment handed out to you by your foster parents. Could you just briefly talk about that?

Ms. PATTON: Well, my adoptive parents were Pentecostals and they believed in that philosophy, spare the rod, spoil the child. So I got whipped with belts, switches, hangers, shoes, hands, whatever my adoptive mother could pick up. And at school, I went to a Lutheran school for much of my primary years. I was never personally hit by a teacher, but other students were. And this, the school was predominantly black and all of the teachers were white and I actually used to call it the missionary school. But the teachers would pull a child into a closet, pull their pants down, and either use a hand or a ruler to discipline the children.

MARTIN: Paula, what about you?

Ms. FLOWE: Yes, I was spanked at home, not often. I have five brothers. I would say they caught more spankings than I did. But at school, no.

MARTIN: And how did this make people feel? Stacey, I want to start with you because clearly, this had a very, it was a very big part of your childhood. Do you remember how it made you feel?

Ms. PATTON: I remember the first time my adoptive mother ever hit me. I felt like my entire world had come crashing down. I felt that there was no protection for me. I was confused. And as I got to see other black children in their relationships with their parents who were also physically hit, whether it was in church or a parking lot, in the back seat of a car, I began to somewhat normalize it. I thought, well, this is what it means to grow up as a black child. None of my white friends were ever hit by their parents. There was more talking and that sort of thing. As I got older I began to question the practice after being exposed to TV shows like "Oprah" talking about domestic violence. And I felt that what I was experiencing was a form of domestic violence. And I knew it was abnormal, probably by my pre-teen years.

MARTIN: I want to offer some numbers here. According to the Center for Effective Discipline, African-American students comprise seventeen percent of all public school students in the U.S. but they are 36 percent of those who experience corporal punishment. I've also seen data that suggest that Native American students and interestingly enough, special education students, special needs students are also disproportionately likely to receive corporal punishment. I wonder what that says. Stacey?

Ms. PATTON: There's definitely a direct correlation between marginalized groups and how they are socialized or dealt with by the larger society and how those groups parent their children. I mean when we look at the 22 states, mostly all of them are in the southern regions, former Confederate states even. And there have been numerous historians who've looked at the culture of the south, and the plantation legacy and domestic violence to show the historical roots of this problem.

MARTIN: Well, let me just offer some data here. According to the same Center for Effective Discipline, almost 40 percent of all cases of corporal punishment occur in just two states, Texas and Mississippi. If you add Arkansas, Alabama and Georgia, those five states account for almost three-quarters of all the nation's school paddlings. Now, Stacy, you're tracing this to slavery. What - so, let's - in your situation, this was white teachers - your school, it was white teachers paddling black students. But I think would be safe to assume that in many of these jurisdictions, this would be black teachers paddling black students. So, tell me why you think there's a connection to slavery.

Ms. PATTON: Looking at my experience being brought up under the rod, I knew that there was some connection to the way that my adoptive parents were raised. Their people were from the south. Mississippi actually, and the way that their parents' parents were raised - that this was something that was deeply rooted in the plantation system, and that it stretched over generations. This is something that slave parents did to make sure their children didn't step out of line. And then, in the aftermath of slavery, when it became increasingly dangerous to be a black child - you know, black children could be lynched or raped or any number of violent things could happen for transgressing racial boundaries. Black parents often reinforced those lessons, sometimes using violence.

MARTIN: So, I'll beat you so that these people won't kill you.

Ms. PATTON: Exactly. Slave mothers would say, a whipping from me is better than from the hands of an overseer. Or, I whip my child so the Klan won't kill them. And now you have black mothers today in particular, when I travel around and talk to different groups, you have a lot of black mothers say, look, if I don't beat him, then the police will shoot him in the street.

MARTIN: Paula, how did you get involved in this issue?

Ms. FLOWE: Well, first of all, I've been teaching since 1980 in New York City, that's where I started and it wasn't until 2006 that I went to a state where corporal punishment is practiced, which was Savannah. When I had gone to Georgia, that was my first time witnessing children being corporally punished. The teacher asked him had he done his homework and he said no, and she popped him in his head with the palm of her hand and I said, can I take him to the library? I was just getting to know him. I tested him, he couldn't even read all of the letters of the alphabet. He was a Special Ed fifth grader. And I was in shock.

MARTIN: And when you challenged this kind of abuse, said this is poor educational practice, it's not effective, it doesn't work, it's abusive, what did people say?

Ms. FLOWE: They looked at me like I was crazy, and they basically had this idea of you need to go back to California.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who though - because I think you're kind of in the trenches here, as you - Dr. Corder, on this - who say, well, first of all, some kids are just bad. You know, we've all seen this footage earlier this year of a student who attacked a teacher in Baltimore. Like, beat this teacher - it was two women, a young woman beating a female teacher with her fists, and another student videotaped it, and they say, well, you know, if - and there are those who would say, well, if there had been more corrective measures taken earlier, this would not have happened. So, Paula, what do you - and I want to hear from others on this. Paula, what do you say after that?

Ms. FLOWE: I always say that so-called bad kids usually are the product of bad handling, and if we trace it back, I don't know these girls, but I'm sure if I traced back what has been going on in their training and in their upbringing and in their environment, this is likely to be a result. There are very few children who are handled with dignity and respect who turn out to be children who are going to jump on a teacher and beat her up.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. I'm speaking with the Mocha Moms about spanking at home and paddling in schools and if it's ever justified. Jolene, what are your thoughts about this?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I have to say, it's very, very sad to know that any child is abused by their parent particularly it's, you know, it's devastating. It's a total lack of trust that you're going to generate with that kind of behavior, and I would never ever support it being done in schools, primarily because the first thing you have to have - and if somebody's going to spank a child is you have to love that child. You have to love that kid a lot in order for this to even be an effective measure. I've got five boys and four of them have had at least one spanking.

MARTIN: What were the circumstances in which you spanked them?

Ms. IVEY: Well, you know - well, actually my husband administered one, which was the kid ran across the street, didn't look. He was about three years old. He could have easily been hit by a car and killed. And he wanted to make sure that he never did that again. It was like an immediate safety issue, you have to know this and talking to him was not going to send that message to him.

MARTIN: Well now, here's what I don't get about that. I don't understand if talking to a three - if a three-year-old doesn't have the cognitive capacity to understand running across the street isn't a good idea, why is hitting him going to help him understand that?

Ms. IVEY: Because they don't want to get hit again so they're not going to run across the street again. I mean I just feel like there are times when it's appropriate. One of my kids got out of his booster seat while I was driving. He could never do that again. I cannot have a child in my car who thinks he can get out of his seat.

MARTIN: And how old was he?

Ms. IVEY: He was about two. He never did it again.

MARTIN: OK, well...

Ms. PATTON: Can I just chime in here?

MARTIN: Is that Stacey?

Ms. PATTON: Yes, this is Stacey. It's not about love. It's about the adult loss of control and power, and the adult not being able to be articulate or patient enough to explain to a child or creative enough to explain to a child why something is dangerous.

Ms. IVEY: You know what? About three weeks...

MARTIN: One second. Jolene?

Ms. IVEY: After that incident with my kid who got out of his seat, I was driving. I was the driver, and I had a friend in the car whose son kept getting out of his car seat, and she kept reasoning with him and that's all she ever did. And I'm sure she had her reasons, but that kid wouldn't stay in his car seat. And I just feel like having your seatbelt on in a car is just really, really important because you can have very serious injuries or death from that. It's worth it to me.

MARTIN: I just don't get this logic of the idea that you can somehow strike a child when you're not angry. Just - I'm puzzled by that.

Ms. IVEY: I see - I don't agree with that either. I strike when angry and only then do it a couple of times. I'm not going to - and it's got to be my bare hands so I feel it too so I don't go crazy. But I don't believe in the - you must be calm and rational and think it through. No. Then you've totally lost like...

MARTIN: That's sadistic to me.

Ms. IVEY: To me.

MARTIN: I'm a calm, rational person, but I'm striking you.

Ms. IVEY: I am with you a hundred percent, Michel.

MARTIN: I just think that's strange. Well, I'm sure a lot of people are feeling Jolene right now because they're thinking, yeah, you know this to me seem - is an extreme situation.

Ms. IVEY: And I wouldn't do it. I would not do it often. I don't advocate the people who routinely spank their kids. It's clearly not working. But if I've only had to administer one spanking per child - and I have five kids and they are really very well-behaved, charming, respectful children. I think that I've done all right.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this, though. Do you interpret each spanking as a failure or just as a necessary, but extreme step?

Ms. IVEY: I look at it as a necessary, but extreme step. I know that one of my kids - he was about four. I caught him trying to shoplift. Oh, my God! You can't have that. I mean, to me, that's also a safety issue because I'm like that slave mother looking at my kids saying this can happen to you, OK?

MARTIN: Stacey?

Ms. PATTON: When I was growing up, my adoptive mother used to say look, I'm beating you because I love you, because I want to protect you. I want to protect you from the police. I want to protect you from white people. I want to protect you from all these unseen forces. And that - it really gave me a warped understanding of what love was. I thought that love had to hurt, that love was harsh. I didn't develop positive relationships with other people early on in my life because I felt there was some level of violence or some type of degradation that followed it. And I just think it's just a very conflicting message to a child to hit them and say 'I'm doing this as a form of protection and love.'

MARTIN: Stacey, can I ask? Do you have children now?

Ms. PATTON: No, I don't.

MARTIN: Are you afraid to on some level?

Ms. PATTON: It's something that I've grappled with. I would hope that I'd never hit a child because to me, it's just absolutely absurd. I'm this big - physically bigger person, supposed to be more articulate and intelligent and patient than a child. And from watching other people, whether it's on the train, subway and seeing the way that talk to these kids and the lack of patience with the children really scares me and I get this question of well, do you have children all the time. And when I say no, then it's usually like 'hmm, wait until you have kids. It's easy for you to talk about this.' But the fact that I don't have children allows me the kind of space and opportunity to stand back and watch and observe some things and to say 'perhaps you could be a bit more creative in this way.'

MARTIN: Oh, it's also could be that it's - you know, you want to wait until you're sure you can break the cycle.

Ms. PATTON: Oh, yeah. And that I've had plenty of therapy to deal with all the things that went wrong in my own upbringing.

MARTIN: I hear you.

Ms. IVEY: But what you suffered was abuse. That wasn't discipline. I mean, that was abuse.

Ms. PATTON: What's one person's discipline can be another person's abuse.

MARTIN: I'm glad that we're having this variety of opinions here so that people can kind of hear themselves in this story. But I want to sort of get a concluding thought from each of you. Paula, I heard you wanting to get in this conversation. I'd like to ask you what next steps you think should be taken to get more sort of discussion and awareness about this.

Ms. FLOWE: It's very important that people know that in the cities where children are being paddled, number one, not one accredited teacher college trains teachers to paddle. Teachers are paddling children with sawed-off baseball bats, pieces of wood that have no standard for weight, for speed in swinging it or anything like that. I had even contacted the National Accreditation Council for Teachers in Washington, D.C. They said they were shocked and saddened to know that this was going on. This is one of the nation's biggest dark secrets. Even the - that organization did not know it was going on.

MARTIN: Jolene, final thought from you.

Ms. IVEY: All the states that allow paddling in school, they're wrong and they have to know they're wrong. And it seems to me that they should work towards eliminating that practice.

MARTIN: What about eliminating it in the home?

Ms. IVEY: Well, I don't support abuse, but it's parents - you know, parents got to do what parents got to do. My kids are good. That's all I got to say.

MARTIN: OK, Dr. Corder.

Dr. CORDER: OK. And we have come a long way, and children have rights and we have to be advocates for them. And you can't beat it out of them. It's very important that you bring the sunshine out in a positive way. And you know, just like we used to say, you know, before you get married, have counseling and sessions. Well, I'm an advocate for it prior to having children or as you have children. Have parenting classes because that will empower you, and allow you to communicate with your child short of spanking.

MARTIN: Is there anything that you could tell parents before they raise their hand? Do you think that would help them think about this?

Dr. CORDER: Hug your children, love them, communicate and put yourself in their position. You know, you are a huge person and they adore and worship you, and just try to stay as positive about it and learn from it. What did you do that they didn't get across that information, that point wasn't brought across, as a parent. So let's look at everybody.

MARTIN: Dr. Marilyn Corder is a pediatrician in Maryland. She's also an assistant professor of pediatrics at Howard University Medical School. Jolene Ivey is a co-founder of the Mocha Moms. She's also a Maryland state delegate. Dr. Corder and Jolene were both here in our Washington studios. We were also joined by Paula Flowe. She is the director of the Hitting Stops Here campaign. She's a member of the board of directors of Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education. She joined us from California. And Stacey Patton is a writer and is the author of a memoir, "That Mean Old Yesterday." She was in our bureau in New York. Ladies, moms, thank you so much.

MOCHA MOMS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this Tell Me More from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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