When Ryan Michelle Bathe, star of the upcoming First Wives Club TV series, and her husband, This Is Us star Sterling K. Brown, began raising their two sons Andrew, 8 this month, and Amare, 3, they opted not to discipline them as she had been—with fear and physical punishment. Here, and in the latest issue of PEOPLE (on newsstands now), Bathe, 42, writes about her experience coming of age in a community where a “beating” for poor behavior was an accepted penalty—and why she’s taking a different approach.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child.” When I was growing up, where my culture and religion intersected, corporal punishment was the order of the day. One of the funniest stories that my cousins still share at family gatherings is of a “whipping” that our grandmother doled out to me and my first cousin. Apparently, we had done something she repeatedly told us not to do, and she grabbed her switch (a small limb from a tree) and chased us through the house into the bedroom. I proceeded to wrap myself in a curtain, while my cousin dove under the bed. My other cousins gathered to watch the spectacle, and it sends them into hysterics to this day.
I have been beaten for staying up late doing homework that I left to the last minute, not washing dishes, talking back, sticking my tongue out at my cousin, breaking a flower pot … and many other infractions that I can’t even remember. In my family, and in my culture, beating your child is the only way to ensure well-behaved, respectful, decent and successful children. I can remember being a child and seeing other children in the grocery store throw epic temper tantrums, and having my mother or grandmother comment that their behavior was because “they never got beat.” Yes, beat. Not a few whacks on the bottom with an open hand. No, what I am talking about is being hit with a belt, extension cord or a switch on your legs and back and butt, and sometimes, in the heat of the moment, whatever part of your body could be reached. I can remember crying while nursing my welts after being whipped, and hearing, “Stop crying, or I’ll really give you something to cry about.”
This will feel all too familiar to many black people reading this. Phrases like “I’ll knock you into the middle of next week” or “I brought you into this world, I’ll take you out,” have become a part of our lexicon and are cultural markers, things we share as a people. It is so familiar that almost every black comic has at least one riff on the beatings they got as a child.
It is a form of discipline that I never thought to question. As painful as it was, I truly believed I was being beaten for my own good. A common refrain I heard, right before and right after being whipped, was, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” As I became an adult, I believed that if you loved your child, you would love them enough to do what’s right and beat them so that it hurt and so they would be afraid of you. That was real love, and anything else was spoiling a child, making them rotten kids who would grow up to be rotten adults.
Then I had kids, and everything changed. Of course, when you have kids you read everything you can get your hands on. The Internet makes it easy to read article after article about “what’s best for baby.” So I was exposed to articles about discipline and the science around corporal punishment. It rocked me to my core. Without going into all the details, research shows that corporal punishment is highly questionable at best, and by no means is it the best way to discipline a child at all, according to science.
Well, try telling that to my family. Or my friends. Or anyone in my community. My husband and I (thankfully he was on the same page) felt like we were floating on an island. We were, and still are, completely unmoored from what we knew to be true. Spare the rod and spoil the child—if that’s not true, then how do we discipline our children?
We didn’t know. To be honest, sometimes we still don’t know.
Of course we use time-outs, and now that our oldest is 8, we take away TV, iPad, playdates, etc. But here is the truth: When you’ve been raised a certain way, divorcing yourself from everything you know makes learning something new extremely difficult. The truth is, our son is nothing like we were when we were his age. He “talks back”—as in, he asks questions when he doesn’t want to do something. We never talked back, for fear that we would get popped in the mouth. Last week I was trying to run a brush or comb or even just my hands through his hair so he wouldn’t look like he just fell out of bed. He stood there and said, “No. I don’t want you to do my hair. Why? Why do you have to do it?!” I said, “Because when you don’t look well-groomed, people think that no one at home loves you enough to take care of you.” My son looked at me and said, “Times have changed, Mom. That’s not true anymore. We used to be slaves, and we got free. We used to not have civil rights, and then we got them. We didn’t even have gaming systems, and now we do! Things have changed!” I settled for him wearing a baseball cap that day.
Here is my struggle: Our son is not afraid of us. At all. And I don’t know what to do about it. I was raised with the fear of God—literally and figuratively. I knew that my body was on the line, and I acted accordingly. And even though the fabric I was raised with has unraveled, I still take pride in how well-behaved I was as a child. And so do my parents. So they view my son Andrew as the brother from another planet. Our whole family does. Both sides. Going to visit family brings on a mixture of anxiety and shame that I have never felt in my life. Probably because I have never felt that I had to defend my choices from the people who raised me. My life choices were almost always in line with what my family expected from me: good grades, good schools, good behavior. And now I have Andrew, and he doesn’t say “How high?” when I tell him to jump. I have no ability to discern what’s normal and age-appropriate from what’s not. My husband and I are doing our best to take it one day at time, but with kids it’s scary not to have a plan. Our parents seemed so sure that as long as you gave your kids a good whipping from time to time, everything would be just fine. Maybe I have the benefit of remembering it from the point of view of a child—maybe they too had moments of doubt. But when you step away from everything you’ve ever known, having confidence in your choices can feel close to impossible.
The good news is that my husband and I are in agreement about corporal punishment. The other piece of good news is that we live in the age of resources and information. I can probably just YouTube “How to be a good parent,” right? We also have the privilege of being able to surround ourselves with a parent squad who share our values and also struggle with going against our cultural upbringing. I’m grateful for that good news.
So we continue forward, praying for guidance. Hoping that love will be enough. Hoping that we will continue to learn. We remind ourselves that our goal is for our children to love and respect us, and most importantly, themselves. That they learn to make decisions out of that love and respect, and not out of fear.
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