The Color of Discipline


My daughter is leaving marks—nicks from her fingernails, impressions from her teeth—across my body. She bites my leg hard through my jeans while I’m cooking because I can’t pick her up just then. She swipes at my face because I don’t immediately scramble to read to her after she shouts “Booh! Booh!” and points at the bookshelf. Sometimes she just bruises my ego. She kicks me hard in the stomach while I’m trying to change her diaper.

When I ask, “Why would you hurt Mama? Does Mama hurt you?” she responds “No… No…” with a look of serious concern, then goes right back to rapid-fire kicking and squealing with laughter. She goes in for a kiss, and I squeeze her in anticipation just before she sinks her six teeth into my cheek.

She is eighteen months old, and I understand that she comprehends much more than she can verbalize. I understand that she is frustrated and wants attention by any means necessary. I understand this is all developmentally appropriate. But it’s also annoying, and sometimes it’s dangerous. Sometimes it drains what I feel might be the last bit of energy that’s keeping me upright and lucid enough to care for her. She seems to pull it together mostly when we’re out of the house and in public spaces, but in the privacy of our home I am that mother one might look at pityingly and think, “How can she let that child run her like that?” I have chosen not to reprimand her physically. No spanking or, if you prefer, no popping her on the hand or swatting her legs. We use so many euphemisms for what is really just hitting a child, using violence to teach them violence is wrong.

I was spanked occasionally as a kid and it was fine. I don’t have any scary memories about the spankings. I don’t feel traumatized. I was never hit by a man or by anyone who regularly used their size or strength to intimidate me. I was spanked only by my mom, who was petite and pretty even-keeled emotionally. She did it hard enough to hurt, but halfheartedly just the same, as if I’d left her no other option and she was sad about that. I only ever remember being spanked on my butt or my thighs, places with enough meat to absorb the impact of her hand or the belt. She didn’t scream while she spanked me, and she certainly didn’t call me names, either then or any other time. I have talked to friends who were spanked as kids and who now call it abuse, and usually one of these things that never happened to me was happening to them. They were hit in the face, or they were hit with things like house shoes or extension cords.

So if there is a way to employ a kinder, gentler approach to spanking, I know it, and could use my own experience to guide how I reprimand my daughter for serious infractions. Still, I choose to use the word “violence” to describe the use of physical discipline, though it feels a little dramatic. As a black mother, framing it in this way is a political choice. It’s a reminder that I want my daughter to know that her body is her own, that pain at others’ hands is not a natural part of life, and that no authority figure—whether it’s me now or some teacher or police officer later in her life—has the right to hurt her as a way to force obedience. I’m not alone in wanting my home to be a microcosm of the world I want to live in.

Kim Tabari, a black mother in Southern California, is active in the Long Beach chapter of Black Lives Matter and co-founded a social justice group for children that includes her eleven-year-old son. “It wouldn’t make sense for me to carry out some kind of violence at my house and then want to stand up for people who have been attacked in the street,” she tells me.

I learn more about the politics of discipline when I read journalist and children’s advocate Stacey Patton’s book, Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America. In it, Patton details how an authoritarian approach to black parenting developed in the first place and why spanking—or as she calls it “whupping”—is common in our communities. These beatings were born of a fear that if, as a black parent, you did not go to great lengths to teach your child his or her place, then some white person would someday do so with much more violence and far more serious consequences. The violence inflicted by black parents onto their children was born out of both love and a deep, abiding fear for that child’s ability to survive the American caste system that devalues black life. And while some may associate the need for such tough love with the conditions of slavery or the Jim Crow era, many black families understand that that caste system and the risks inherent to it survive to this day.

That line of thinking is reinforced in pop culture. In his latest comedy special, Tamborine, Chris Rock does a bit on parenting: “If you don’t punch your black son in the face, that’s child abuse… It’s important that your black son follow your instructions. It’s the difference between life and death,” he told a Brooklyn audience in 2017. This tough love approach meant to make the boundaries in a child’s world crystal clear shows up again later in his routine: “I tell my kids: Outside this house, no one gives a fuck about you. No one thinks you’re cute. No one wants to hear your opinion.” The crowd laughs with recognition.

I don’t laugh. But around the time I watch Rock’s special, I do become obsessed with the heightened fear that parents experience, how it shapes our relationship with our children, how it distorts our own perceptions and creates a new kind of vulnerability. Courtney Martin, a white mother blogging for On Being, describes her experience with postpartum anxiety:

Over time, the vigilance waned. I imagine it like the smallest, most gradual leak in the tire of a bicycle. And the truth is, when I’m lying in bed and I hear the sound of one of my children (I now have two—ages four and one) gasp for breath with croup or gag as if to throw up, my body fills with that familiar anxiety instantaneously. But it ebbs and flows. I am learning that to be a mother is to know that you can’t know everything will be okay and still operate as if you could. The alternative is to have your entire body—heart, mind, and soul—be held hostage by fear.

Black parents know this anxious vigilance, but for many of us it doesn’t fade away after a period of months. Instead, many of us are held hostage by fear. Trina Greene Brown, founder of a support community for black parents called Parenting for Liberation, tells me she’s seen how legitimate fears convince some parents that they have limited options when it comes to keeping their children safe. “I’ve gone into communities where I’ve gotten push back,” she says. “‘We have to beat our kids. What are you talking about? If I don’t do X,Y, Z then they’re going to be in a gang.’ What can I say to that parent?”

It’s a critical question, and it’s similar to one I’m asking of myself. I want to give my daughter room to act out, to be a toddler who doesn’t yet know how to effectively express her emotions. I want to give her room to experiment publicly with bad behavior and learn for herself what it takes to get the response she wants. But I’m also terrified of being too lenient and thereby abdicating my responsibility to prepare her for a world that will routinely disregard her humanity and deny her the messy missteps of childhood that white children are allowed.

So I started asking other black moms what they do. LisaGay Hamilton is an actor living in Los Angeles. She is mother to eight-year-old Sekou and fifteen-year-old Azizi. She tells me my instincts are right when I swiftly place my daughter in the Pack N’ Play I keep in the kitchen as punishment for her biting, scratching, and tantrum-throwing.

I firmly tell her “No,” then I put her in the mesh cage and let her wail while I go on about my business, cooking or washing dishes or doing whatever else I’m up to. Most importantly, I turn my attention away from her. “It’s a time out. It’s the separating,” Hamilton tells me. “For Sekou, anytime you say ‘Go to your room,’ it’s ‘No, no, no!’ We live in the kitchen. And the idea of leaving the core and being upstairs by yourself is an issue.”

Several of the moms I talk to suggest setting up expectations on the front end, so that there’s a different conversation around consequences when rules are eventually broken. This doesn’t help me now, as I’m dealing with a toddler who can’t reason and has no sense of past or future. Still, these are tools to stock away for future use. Brown, of Parenting for Liberation, tells me they use community agreements in her family, a practice she picked up from the social justice trainings and workshops she regularly attends. Members of a group agree on the norms they’ll use to conduct themselves, and anyone can suggest an addition to the list. Participants buy in on the front end, making it hard for anyone to later claim she was being held to a standard she didn’t accept. Brown’s eight-year-old son had complained that it was unfair that she made all the rules without any input from him. Now he can request certain types of behavior of her as well. A recent ask was that she not raise her voice with him as much. They’re accountable to each other now, she tells me. They’re flattening a hierarchy her son didn’t want to live under and she didn’t want to impose.

I look to Patton’s book, and she suggests alternatives to spanking: denying privileges, taking away screen time and electronics, extra chores, talking through the issue at hand— all things that take time, patience, and finely honed communication skills on the parent’s part. It’s a lot harder than simply letting one’s instincts take over. Every time my daughter catches me off guard with a bite or a scratch, I override the urge to grab her wrist or swat her bottom. But then I remember that I want her will to stay strong, and that it’s only a matter of time before too many of her actions are misinterpreted as dangerous or defiant just because she’s a black girl. Some day soon enough she’ll be reprimanded harshly by someone who doesn’t recognize her fierce and courageous spirit for what it is. When that happens, I’m hoping she’ll be able to recover relatively easily, resourcing herself with memories of the nurturing she received from me even through the tantrums of her terrible twos.


Rumpus original art by Mike Tré.

Dani McClain writes and reports on race, reproductive health, and activism. She is a contributing writer at The Nation and a fellow with The Nation Institute. Her writing has appeared in outlets including Slate, Talking Points Memo, Colorlines, and She is currently at work on a book about black motherhood with Nation Books. More from this author →