Spare the Rod

What Charles Barkley gets wrong about corporal punishment and black culture.

What Charles Barkley, left, gets wrong, Cris Carter gets right.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images Sport, Stacy Revere/Getty Images.

I’m guessing that Charles Barkley delivered exactly what CBS’s producers hoped for when they invited him on The NFL Today this past Sunday. Barkley came on the football pregame show to talk about race and corporal punishment in the wake of Adrian Peterson’s arrest on allegations that he abused his 4-year-old son by repeatedly striking his bare skin with a switch. Asked whether it was ever permissible to hit a child, the highly quotable NBA Hall of Famer suggested that not only is it OK to do so, but that the practice is so common in parts of the country as to be unremarkable. “Whipping—we do that all the time,” the Alabama native said, adding that if corporal punishment were made illegal, “every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances.”

Barkley’s was the loudest voice in a chorus of those who came forward to support Peterson. But the problem is that Barkley and the rest of the NFL star’s supporters have offered exposition without explanation—they are describing something that happens without addressing why it happens, let alone making a convincing case for why it should continue. Barkley’s circular logic comes down to: It’s OK to hit your child in the name of discipline because many parents hit their children in the name of discipline. Such thinking is not only illogical—it’s also dangerous.

To understand why, we first need to address the uncomfortable truth contained in Barkley’s remarks. The perception that black parents are more likely to employ corporal punishment than their nonblack counterparts is borne out by academic research. In one study that examined 20,000 kindergartners and their parents, researchers at the University of Texas at Austin found that 89 percent of black parents had spanked their children, compared with 79 percent of white parents, 80 percent of Hispanic parents, and 73 percent of Asian parents. There is no single reason why blacks are more likely to turn to the rod for discipline, but the numbers are correlated with factors that include socio-economic status, religious upbringing, and even the heartbreaking feeling that, as it’s often put, “I’d rather my child get a beating from me than from police.”

Still, it’s important to note that while black parents might be more likely to spank their kids, they’re not alone in raising a hand to administer punishment—the rates for white, Hispanic, and Asian parents in that University of Texas study are all above 70 percent. In a Harris poll conducted last year, 81 percent of respondents said it was sometimes “appropriate” to spank their kids, with 67 percent of those who took part in the survey admitting they had done so to their own children. As Daphne S. Cain, an associate professor at Louisiana State University’s School of Social Work, has written: “Corporal punishment is not counter to mainstream parenting practices; it is actually the norm.”

Support for corporal punishment—which remains legal in much of the United States—is all the more surprising given the mounting evidence that it can have negative impacts on both the child and the larger community, and that doesn’t even consider the parents, like Peterson, who go far beyond any possible definition of “disciplining their children.”

Why, then, does corporal punishment have such staying power? One possible explanation may lie in a string of studies that suggest the negative psychological impacts on the child are actually less pronounced in communities where corporal punishment is more common. Put another way, a kid is less likely to feel ashamed and singled out if all the other children in his neighborhood are getting spanked too.

That may sound counterintuitive at first, but the explanation likely lies in the reasons that corporal punishment tends to cause psychological problems in the first place. In short, the context of the punishment can matter as much if not more than the punishment itself. (It’s worth noting here, as Slate parenting columnist Melinda Wenner Moyer has previously, that there is room for some nuance in the debate: Whipping a child with a switch will likely result in a far worse psychological outcome than a light spanking delivered over the clothes with an open hand.) Some researchers believe that if a kid sees his spanking as unusual—a “non-normative experience,” in psychological parlance—he may be more likely to interpret it as a sign of parental rejection, which in turn fuels his anxiety and aggressiveness, the most common psychological problems associated with corporal punishment.

So, does the fact that spanking is more common in black communities mean that black children won’t suffer adverse consequences from corporal punishment? Jennifer E. Lansford, an associate research professor at the Social Science Research Institute at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, cautions not to go that far. “The effects may not be as pronounced for children in black communities, but let me be clear: The negative effects are still there,” she says.

If the consequences are less pronounced in a particular community, though, then it stands to reason that the community will be less likely to view physical punishment as a problem. And so the cycle fuels itself: The more a community embraces spanking, the more children are spanked, the less social stigma there is attached to the act, the less children feel ashamed and preyed upon, the less likely the community sees it as a problem that needs to be addressed, the more parents embrace spanking.

That cycle is only exacerbated by how Barkley and his fellow Peterson supporters are talking about corporal punishment. One recent study of more than 100 children and their parents, for example, found that every parent who approved of spanking a child for hitting a sibling passed that belief on to his kids. Few of us want to admit that our parents were doing something wrong when they were, quite likely, doing what they thought was best. And so we refuse to consider that we turned out all right in spite of the spankings, not because of them.

Perhaps the best example of how we should be talking about corporal punishment came from a different NFL pregame show. On ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, Cris Carter—who, like Peterson, played for the Vikings—delivered an emotional speech that proved it was possible to avoid blaming our parents while still promising not to make the same mistakes they did.

“My mom did the best job she could do, raising seven kids by herself,” an emotional Carter said. “But there are thousands of things that I have learned since then that my mom was wrong. It’s the 21st century. My mom was wrong. She did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me. And I promise my kids I won’t teach that mess to them.”

To put an end to corporal punishment, we need more Cris Carters and fewer Charles Barkleys. The only way to stop this vicious cycle is to understand that just because everyone is doing it, that doesn’t mean it’s right.