Let’s be clear from the start: this is not just about Toya Graham.
Toya Graham is the woman captured on video physically disciplining her son for throwing rocks at police officers during the Baltimore protests, hitting him several times in the face and head, forcefully removing his hoodie, and pushing him away from the crowd while swearing and yelling at him.
The clip went viral, and Graham was quickly labeled “Mother of the Year.” Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts praisedher actions, saying, “I wish I had more parents that took charge of their kids out there tonight.” Some on my Facebook feed applauded her actions, quoting Scripture as support: Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.
But after the video made its rounds on social media and news sites like CBS, other opinions began to emerge. Graham was branded a child abuser and a prime example of violence begetting violence. Calls of “racist” were directed from and to both camps of opinion, rendering discipline an issue of race, class, and cultural norms.
But this is not about judging actions Graham took in a situation I—though once a poor, single mother myself—could never fully understand. If there’s anything to call into question, it’s the supportive public response she received. Those applauding Graham generally failed to acknowledge that physically removing a child from harm’s way can be accomplished without hitting that child in the face. Even when using corporal punishment as correction, it’s up to parents to use the least forceful means of discipline that will result in the same effect.
I don’t deny that some situations call for harsher correction than others. But when race and class become the factors defining acceptable methods of parental discipline, I worry that people begin to see certain children as deserving harsher punishment and somehow less valuable than children in other circumstances. (I wonder: If the video had shown a father hitting a daughter, or a white father hitting his black son, would the response have been the same?)
After working with abused children and their families across races and socioeconomic statuses, I believe there is a universal truth regarding treatment of children. While not all physical discipline is abhorrent, there are sharp lines of distinction. Hitting children out of anger is violence, not discipline. Hitting a child on the face or head as a means of discipline is an intolerable use of force.
Those who use race and class to blur these distinctions miss the larger point: we are all God’s children and image-bearers. And those who quote Scripture as support for boundary-crossing forms of corporal punishment fail to see the irony behind their words: If we use rage instead of controlled discipline to train up a child, then that is the way he or she shall go, and shall not depart from it. Not without years of hard work, prayer, and time spent learning self-control, anyway.
But more importantly, if we use peace to train up child, then peace is the way he or she shall go. Peace is much harder to unlearn than violence.
That this conversation about parental discipline arose from the Baltimore protests makes it a subject even more fraught with heated emotions than it otherwise would be. Commentators are using race, socioeconomics, and the extreme circumstance of the protests—as well as the extreme desire of a mother to keep her son safe—to make this issue one of situational rationalism.
It’s much easier to cry “you just wouldn’t understand,” and “spare the rod, spoil the child!” than it is to have a discussion that recognizes we can congratulate parents for the love and concern that drives them to certain actions, without congratulating actions that deny our corporate responsibility to protect all of God’s children, without reference to race, class, or situations that are outside the realm of our everyday norm.
Jamie Calloway-Hanauer is an attorney, writer, and child advocate who has worked with abused children and their families since 1995. She will begin working on her master of divinity at Fuller Theological Seminary this summer.
Let Parents Do What Works
As an African American woman, wife, and mother—and someone who works with women and youth as an ordained pastor—I can relate to the response of one Baltimore mom who spotted her son with hood, mask, and rock during last week’s protests.
I can’t separate my thoughts on Toya Graham from my experience raising my own children. My 29-year-old son has graduated college, secured a job at a major corporation, and serves as a licensed minister in his church. My daughter, 21 and a rising senior at Howard University, is preparing to apply to law school. I’m a proud mother, but I wonder what if things would have turned out differently. What if I hadn’t disciplined them the best way I knew how?
Like the family I was raised in and many African American families across this country, I believe in parents having a right to use discipline, including spankings, as a means to teach respect. I was raised to reply, “yes ma’am and no ma’am” or “yes sir and no sir,” and I raised my children to do the same. We say, yes and no instead of yeah and nah. That’s the tone we set in our family—through the way we talked to our kids, issuing time-outs and other punishments, and, when those did not change their behavior, spanking.
My kids could also relate to the Toya Graham video. While they couldn’t imagine us cursing at them, both said they could see their parents confronting them forcefully in public if their behavior merited it, me grabbing them up and Dad giving them the look. These tactics are not designed to instill fear in our children, but to remind them that their actions affect us too.
When they misbehave, they disrespect the family and the family name. Similarly, when they act with manners and respect, that reflects back well on us. I will never tire of hearing people tell me that my kids are considerate and polite. These things don’t just happen though; this is how they were raised.
This element of parental authority and respect has been overlooked in much of the coverage and commentary exploring Graham’s response and the approach to discipline in black communities.
Salon ran an article declaring the hypocrisy of white Americans who would criticize violent protesters but applaud a mom who slaps at her son in public. It read:
Most black people debating the issue acknowledge that the desperate public beating came from centuries of black parents knowing they have to discipline their children harshly, or else white society will do it for them—and they may not survive it.
Similarly, an op-ed by Stacey Patton in The Washington Poststated:
Graham’s message to America is: I will teach my black son not to resist white supremacy so he can live… The beatings originated with white supremacy, a history of cultural and physical violence that devalues black life at every turn. From slavery through Jim Crow, from the school-to-prison pipeline, the innocence and protection of black children has always been a dream deferred.
Those factors did not cross my mind while disciplining my children, who grew up in College Park, Georgia, and Columbus, Ohio. My discipline was not about racial injustice, discrimination, slavery, Jim Crow, the school-to-prison pipeline, or even black children everywhere. It was about my childrenand our family.
Discipline begins at home, and I believe in parents having a right to exercise discipline based upon what works for their culture and community. I grew up as one of five children raised by two parents. If we didn’t return home on time, spoke back to an elder, or disobeyed our parents, we could be spanked. Not beaten, not abused, not manipulated or harmed, but spanked. We knew the expectations our parents had for us, and we knew the consequences of not meeting those expectations. “Honor thy mother and father” was not optional or conditional.
Disparaging the use of physical punishment in the home, or criminalizing all spanking as child abuse, dismisses the wisdom generations of no-nonsense parents who effectively used these methods to raise well-behaved and well-mannered children. I look at my siblings and my children and think, “Well, we haven’t departed from our training.” It worked.
Tough love can make us uncomfortable, particularly when we see on the news parents whose discipline was only tough and violent and not loving at all. But God himself practices tough love, too. He knows to discipline us to train us, even when it seems harsh. Hebrews 12 explains how discipline and rebuke from the Lord is a sign of God treating us as his children: “For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives” (v. 6).
The passage goes on to say how our earthly fathers also use discipline to build respect, and that “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (v. 11). It is through discipline that I hope to bring about in my children and community a peaceful sense of respect.