Corporal Punishment: Hot Topic in African American Families - Parenting Support Services

“Spare the rod, spoil the child”.  If you are familiar with this saying, you are very familiar with the idea of corporal punishment.  In some African American households, corporal punishment is used as a way to maintain tradition, order, power of authority and respect.  Traditionally, the older generations used spanking/beatings to discourage their child from being spoiled or disrespectful toward their parents.  Depending on where the family lived, the method of punishment differentiated.  For instance, those that lived in the southern states can remember their parents saying, “Go outside and pick the switch you want me to use” to administer their beating; in northern parts, it was a common practice for parents to use belts and a hand, and in some cases anything that is available!  What are some of the traditions you heard of or experienced?  Comment on them in the comment box below.


Corporal punishment seems to get a bad rap when discussing methods to punish children.  The other methods such as timeouts, taking away something your child likes, counting to three, ignoring your child’s behavior or other hands off approaches may or may not yield the desired outcomes or is clear enough for the child to equate their undesired behavior to the punishment.  The one approach that is clear, immediate and yields respect as a side effect is corporal punishment.  One thing to make clear is that there is a difference between corporal punishment (open hand on extremities or buttocks) and physical child abuse (causing redness, soreness, bruising, broken bones or other injuries).  Make note that what’s in discussion here is corporal punishment absent of child abuse.   There are arguments on both ends of the spectrum when it comes to opinions about corporal punishment.  Let’s discuss some of the arguments that are in favor and not in favor of corporal punishment:

In Favor of Corporal Punishment:
• Punishment is immediate and it is clear to the child what the undesired behavior is
• It is effective and remembered
• It is not used to physically harm a child
• Other forms of punishment can cause psychological damage
• Child learns to respect their parent’s request and authority

Not in Favor of Corporal Punishment:
• Can cause physical harm
• Can lead to aggression
• Can lead to lowered self-esteem
• Can lead to a rift in child/parent relationship
• Can teach child that using physical methods of punishment is acceptable ways to get what they want (which then can be translated into bullying)
• Shown to be used more with children who are raised in a disadvantaged environment, ethnic minorities and disabled children

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of administering corporal punishment should not be judged by either side.  Some things to consider when administering corporal punishment to eliminate the negative effects of the punishment are:
1. Giving the child a spanking absent of your own anger
Spanking a child when you are not exhibiting your anger toward their behavior can show the child that they are being punished for what they did and not how they made you feel.  This can have positive outcomes in the way they view their relationship with you as well as how they learn about consequences.  When punishing your child out of anger, it can lead to physical abuse that can have devastating psychological and physical effects on your child. 

2. Have a talk with your child after the punishment
When your child calms down from being punished, have a conversation with them about what they did and why it is an undesired behavior.  If you are having trouble coming up with reasoning for their undesired behavior, step back and consider if their punishment was warranted or if it was an emotional reaction.  This will allow the child to not only remember the punishment, but to learn about how to behave and your expectations.  Sometimes we assume a child should “just know” how you expect them to act and what they should or should not do; however, developmentally that is impossible.

3.   Allow your child to express themselves
Sometimes parents are not interested in hearing why the child decided to write a paragraph on your freshly painted living room walls or ignore your request to do their chores.  The one thing that seems very apparent is that your child did not listen, follow through with a request, disrespected you or any other desired behavior and they need to understand that that is not acceptable and a punishment is warranted.  After their punishment, ask your child how they felt about what they did, how they felt about their punishment and what they are feeling in their current state after being punished.  This will allow your child to learn to express themselves in a healthy way.  Some children who receive corporal punishment are taught to dismiss their feelings and learn to internalize them which can lead to depression and self injurious behaviors. 

One thing to make mention is the concept of natural consequences.  This concept allows a child to learn consequences directly from their actions.  For instance, if your child argues with you about taking a bath and you allow him/her to go to school without taking one, he/she may incur an odor that will shun his peers from wanting to be around him/her.  With that in mind, he/she will learn that if they don’t take a bath, they will stink and may loose friends.  The situation may not happen as neat as this is laid out; however, you get the gist of the concept.  Unfortunately for inner city Philadelphia populations, natural consequences may not always be welcomed with open arms.  For instance, if a child goes to school with an odor, the family may be viewed as if they are neglecting their child.  This may lead to child protective services being contacted and an investigated into maltreatment may be launched.  Also, if a child is in public with their hair undone, or clothes shuffled and with non matching clothes, this could have a direct impact on how the child’s family is viewed in their culture.  A child is often seen as a direct representation of their family and if they are not presented well in public, this could have negative reactions toward their family.

After reviewing the positive and negative aspects of corporal punishment and tips to make corporal punishment more affective, consider what methods produces the best results with your child.   Children are not all the same and not all forms of punishment work for all children.  Some children can benefit from corporal punishment and others can be left with lasting effects such as a lowered self esteem, internalized emotions and a rift in the parent/child relationship.  Some children benefit from redirection, while other children are confused and need more explicit discussions on how and what they did was not appropriate. You are the expert in what your child needs to behave, become socially appropriate and exhibit respect for you.  If you believe that your child’s negative behavior is continuing to escalate and that he/she is not responding well to your interventions help is available. Sometimes talking with other parents for ideas about what else you could do, or speaking with a trained child therapist can help you gain insight as to all of your options in how to best guide your child’s development.  If you believe that you need extra help or support with child rearing, you are not alone. There are many parents who feel lost when considering how to raise their children. There is a reason the saying “it takes a village to raise a child” exists.  The demands of raising a child are enormous. Our family therapists at the Center for Growth are here to support you. We offer an array of parenting support services.  Call 267 324 9564 to speak with one of our counselors in Philadelphia today.

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