Choosing not to hit my son is one decision I’ve never regretted.
With domestic violence so prominently in the news recently, in predictable sequence have come outrage and backlash. After it was made public that the NFL had known about the video of Ray Rice punching his fiancee unconscious in a casino hotel elevator, and then behaving coolly afterward, my friends on Facebook expressed righteous anger, first directed at the perpetrator and those who would cover up such violence. But then came the more complicated responses: the scorn for Janay Palmer, who expressed regret for events leading to her own assault, and who married the man who treated her so remorselessly. There were even defenses mounted for Ray Rice, saying that Palmer must have brought on such actions, that she had struck first and had it coming.
When the second scandal hit, of another NFL player, Adrian Peterson, beating his four year old child with a switch cut from a tree, the cycle of abuse coverage went through the same cycle of anger, shock, disbelief, bargaining, and shame. This time, among the defenses of his behavior was that loving African-American parents not only commonly beat their children with switches as a form of discipline, but that this is good and necessary. Necessary, according to one person with whom I’ve had this conversation, because Black children, especially Black boys, need to be harshly disciplined, or risk bringing upon themselves the wrath of a racist society.
I’m a white man, from what I think of as a fairly typical working class white American family. My sister and I would get spanked, and have other corporal forms of discipline imposed upon us. I decided not to spank my own son, and to raise him differently in other regards: to value difference, to be empathetic, to know that I was a real person, and so was he. I think I did, not great, but okay. Some of my choices as a parent were wrong, and some have been cause of long introspection and deep shame. The choice not to hit him is not one that I regret.
When I was a kid on Long Island in the early Eighties, my family’s principal bonding experience was watching TV together. My sister and I would sprawl on the white shag carpeting in front of the big console television in the living room, and we would all laugh together at “All in the Family,” “M*A*S*H”, “The Muppet Show,” and other prime time programming, especially on Sunday nights.
My parents, sister, and I watched “Bill Cosby: Himself” on HBO when it first aired, in 1983 or ‘84. Cosby’s live show was a clear departure from our family’s usual fare, the production bare, and revealing. His standup routine was delivered in a period brown suit on an empty stage, a conference chair and a microphone his only props. Cosby covered several taboos in succession: drug use, religion, childbirth, parenting. And he did it all without going “blue,” enabling my sister and I to stay through the whole performance. There’s a whole bit about how he and his wife would deliver nightly beatings to their five children, announcing it like an arena sport. My sister and I laughed at this along with our parents.
We all loved Cosby after that, and became devotees of his new sitcom. The Huxtables were well-to-do, squeaky clean role models of modern American family life, a version of the Cosbys, themselves. Whether Dr. and Mrs. Huxtable spanked their TV family was never addressed. I wouldn’t have chanced to wonder. That Bill Cosby had managed to bring a Black family into my father’s living room was miraculous. Even Archie Bunker types like my father were getting Cosby sweaters for Christmas and Father’s Day, in 1985, and growing to identify with him. My family, who regularly identified themselves with Archie Bunker et familia, now invited Dr. Huxtable’s family into our living room on Thursday nights.
The actor who played the Huxtables’ teenage son, Theo, on “The Cosby Show,” Malcolm Jamal-Warner, was serious “Tiger Beat” material. The model for TV’s Theo Huxtable was Ennis William Cosby, Bill and Camille Cosby’s only son. He was killed in 1997 in a robbery on the side of the highway at night, while changing a car tire.
Ennis wasn’t alone that night. He called a friend, who came and watched from her car while he changed his tire. Someone came up and knocked on her window and caused her to move her car a short distance. When she looked up again, Ennis was dead.
Ennis Cosby did all the things I’d want my son to do, in that situation. Be self sufficient, and value your life. Move off the side of the road, fix the flat, don’t be alone in the dark. Ennis’ father was America’s Number One Dad. Ennis had dyslexia, and his parents sent him to the schools with the best LD programs they could find. The foundation named after him is for kids with learning disabilities. If the most perfect parents, giving their son every opportunity and tool that he needs to succeed, can’t keep him safe from a racist thug with a gun, then what can possibly keep any of our kids safe?
The answer is, nothing. We can do the best jobs we are able, even the best jobs possible, and yet we can’t control the whole world. Every day, millions of parents have to watch their precious children, whom they love, walk out the door into the unknown, and just… hope they’ve done enough to bring them home safely. What knowledge, what parenting act, what faith or magic, can possibly be momentous enough for this task? I imagine the fear that Bill and Camille probably felt for their son every single day, that someone would take their beautiful child’s life, because that unknown future assailant would not see their child as beautiful.
When I was a child, I was beautiful, but no one let me know that. Other kids told me that I was funny looking. From a young age, I told my classmates that I was from outer space, that my parents were not my real parents. I knew I was weird. I eventually stopped telling lies and tried to figure out the truths of why I was so different, what it was about me that isolated me, even in my own small family. It would take me a long time. Meanwhile, others volunteered their own answers to my question. Their taunts varied, leaving me only with the impression that there was something wrong with me that even others had a hard time pinning down.
One afternoon I came home from school and called my mother at work. I was sobbing and she was flustered. I never called her at work. “Let me call you back,” she said hastily, and hung up.
I’d gotten gum in my hair on the school bus. Someone had put it there. My hair was long and thick. I would have to cut the gum out. It would not make much of a difference, but I was defeated, anyway. This wasn’t the worst bullying incident. Yet for some reason, I called my mother. I only ever turned to her when there was no where else left to turn.
She called me back after a few minutes. “You bring this on yourself by being different, you know.” Her advice went on in that vein, not for long. Then she hung up.
I cut the gum out of my hair and didn’t mention it again.
When I hear the stories about Janay Palmer and Adrian Peterson’s son, I feel sorry for them, because they are being told that they deserve to be abused. And some people believe it’s true. The arguments for it include, this was done to me and I turned out fine and, if I don’t do this to my own kids, they will draw fire, however unjustly. But this is what happened to me and I’m not fine. Not only can’t you protect your kids by beating them, but hitting them begins teaching kids the lesson early that some people are allowed to hit other people, that there are natural hierarchies, with violence flowing down to the bottom. It sets them up for the next lesson, the one my mother stated so baldly on the phone that afternoon. It sets them up to take responsibility for their own victimization.
There are few subjects less divisive than how to parent. We all want to think that in such important areas of our lives as how we treat one another, the loved one and the stranger, that we are making the right choices. A new generation of progressive American parents is challenging bullying, even permitting the diversity of transgender children to flourish.
The conservative countervailing forces regard the couple, and the family, as small sovereign nations, places where we each must make our own laws in accordance with our own values, and be free to make the difficult choices of how to be good people, how to stay alive, and how to raise our children to be good, free, and safe, as well. None of us are perfect at it, even the ones with college degrees, TV shows, and worldwide recognition. It leaves us vulnerable to criticisms that go to the heart of who we are: our values, our children.
If you take cultural relativism to its extreme, any practice is acceptable, as long as it has a stated purpose and is accepted and perpetuated in a society. Female circumcision, child brides, even the deplorable practice of slavery, upon which America was built, can be defended and has been: that it is Biblically sanctioned, that it was “necessary” to economic development, that it was “less severe” in the North, that it “brought heathens to Christ,” or that ”it happened here, and we’re okay now.” Opposition to change is a conservative impulse, and not all conservative trends are bad, even to a flaming radical. Without doing things the way we always have, every morning would have to begin with a negotiation of terms that we would otherwise regard as settled: which side of the road to drive on, what language to conduct business in, whether we still have employment and on what terms. Some institutions are worth keeping, but leaving open to modification, as needed.
We still speak English every day, but we let new words slip in, and new ways of saying things. We still have laws, but we don’t pillory or publicly hang people, any more. And while many parts of this nation were founded on specific religious principles, or on slavery, or piracy, or genocide, these are no longer values we embrace as American. And we did this through the radical act of enlarging who we saw as fully human and worthy of being treated as an equal to ourselves, from a “We the People” that did not include me or most of my neighbors, to one that does. Even the Constitution, our nation’s Bible, is not immutable. Today’s “We” still doesn’t include everyone it could, and its breadth is constantly being contested. I would say it’s in our nature to contest it, has been all along. The reason we had to fight the Civil War was because we could not sustain the courage of our convictions at Lexington. The reason we had to fight the Civil Rights Struggle of the 1960s was because neither war was fully over. Perhaps the Puritans were right to identify themselves with Israel, who wrestles with angels.
I don’t have all the answers to how we’re going to win the war on racism, or how to actualize the emancipation of children from the petty tyrannies of their parents. I am no more an authority on parenting than average, perhaps less so. Maybe the family is an oppressive structure that cannot help but recapitulate abusive power structures, or perhaps it can be reformed, a tool instead of a cage, and made just. In either case, change to the family unit will only happen incrementally. Yet it’s undoubtedly changing.
Image credit: fuzzcat/Flickr