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Picture this: My grandmother’s house in Youngstown, Ohio. This house has forbidden places for young people. One such place is the “Front Room”, aka, the formal living room. You know, the one where more pieces of furniture are covered in plastic than not and there are plastic floor runners protecting the very light carpet. I can still hear Eloise, my grandmother’s name; a name I still look over my shoulder to see if a smack is coming when I say it. I was not allowed to call her anything but grandma, another post altogether! The sound of her slippers on the plastic runner going to check the mail slot daily, was a spur to my curiosity. She’d open the creaky slot grab her mail and then walk through the sliding pocket doors to the den, sit in her chair to flip to flip through it. When the doors opened, I would eagerly peer into the forbidden Front Room, wondering what it would be like to sit on the big white chaise, covered in plastic, like a princess.
Fast forward 22 years; the furniture has changed some but that formal white chaise is still there and still covered in plastic. We are in town visiting with her great-grandchildren for whom the same rules apply; no child calls her Eloise and no little people are allowed in the Front Room. My curious four-year-old is not going for it; she wants to see what’s in there so badly it’s killing her. She peers through the keyhole in the pocket doors every chance she gets and even finds a little piece of plastic floor runner peeking through the doors and plays with it. She is on the floor wiggling her little fingers between the doors to get them to slide open so she can inspect a little closer. The doors slide and my grandmother gives her the look. You know the one; it sends the message “If you don’t stop, there will be trouble!” My husband is sitting next to me on the sofa (and doesn’t know) gives me the inquisitive glance that says, “What does that mean?” I get up and lure Jenna into the kitchen for a snack. I can feel the pit of my stomach churn because I have not had the dreaded talk with him about how I come from a family where disobedient children will be whooped! I don’t mean the slap on the behind spanking, that parents refer to today. I’m talking about a whooping! I also had not shared with my family that Jeff and I live in the land of “reasoning-it-out” with the child and instilling a firm “time out” or loss of a favorite snack as discipline.
And my granny was old school too. She would send you out side to pick out the very switch with which she intended to tear your little hindquarters up. So after the snack, my previously distracted child, returned to her same spot on the den floor, and I could see the little wheels in her brain spinning, I want to see the stuff in the Front Room! My grandmother got up to go out in her garden to pick green beans for the night’s dinner and I went with her. We pick as huge plastic bowl full of beans came in and washed them in the sink and I see Jeff and Jenna were no longer in the den. I thought he was trying to get Jenna down for a nap but in actuality, he had gone to the restroom.
Grandma went into the den and noticed the doors to the front room were open. Simultaneously my husband came down the stairs into the den just in time to see Jenna perched on the white chaise, snack in hand. And GRANNY.WENT.OFF! “Girl if you don’t git your narra behind off my chair with food, you goin’ outside to find me a switch and I’mma tear that narra behind up!”
I drop beans on the floor and rush to rescue my girl because Granny is not kidding and my husband is speechless!
This resulted in one of those hushed outdoor conversations with my husband that went sort of like this
Jeff: “She wouldn’t dare..”
Me: “Oh, yes she would!”
Jeff: “That is barbaric! She is just a baby!”
Me: “Actually, she’s old enough to know better, I’ve never sat on that chair because I knew she was not kidding.”
Jeff: “This is insane! You’d let someone spank our child?”
Me: “I was whooped and I didn’t turn out half bad!”
Jeff: “What does it prove to the child?”
Me: “Good behavior is not optional!”
Jeff: “We are not spanking our child!”
Me: “I never said we were!”
Jeff: “Well, what are you going to do about your grandmother?”
Me: “I’m going to keep Jenna out of the Front Room. Granny gave her two warnings and nobody has been spanked yet!”
Jeff: “I’m going to tell her that where I come from, we don’t do that!”
Me: “And she will say that’s because little White children don’t have to suffer the same consequences as Black ones where I come from!”
Jeff: “That’s ridiculous.”
Me: “Not in her world! In her world parents had to demand beyond reproachable behavior from their children, to keep them in line and out of the hands of society accusing them of crimes and bad behavior that could get them killed. Not to mention that at 76 years old, you are not going to change her mind about that reality. She lived it. This was how she raised three Black men, who all lived beyond the age of 30. It is also how she raised five Black women, who were all graduated and married, before having children.”
Jeff: “This is really all about race?”
Me: “Not entirely, but I understand that the world for Black people in the era my grandmother grew up in really felt it was better for someone who loves them to discipline their children then to let society string them up for poor choices or brand them as not have family values or a good upbringing. In her world, White children didn’t have to worry about bad public behavior ending their lives.”
FYI, my daughter did not have to hunt for her own switch, as I was diligent in keeping her, busy. However, I think this was the beginning of the first real discussion with my husband about double standards for our children. While dating we talked about our lives changing and our relationship being scrutinized but rarely discussed the differences of raising a Black child in today’s world that would judge them occasionally unfairly. To his credit, Jeff’s Minnesota upbringing is exactly what I want for my children. I give a fierce time out when I have to, but have also smacked a spitting mouth, as that is intolerable in Granny’s book. I am tough on my daughters but lovingly explain all punishments. I don’t let the little things go because I know that they will still be judged by a different set of rules all of their lives. This was new territory for my “always in the majority” mate. However, I always knew this; I had a mother and grandmother who explained why they were as strict on us as children.
For the record, this post is not a debate on whether to spank or not to spank children. We all have friends and family who have spanked or been spanked. Nevertheless, have you every explored the cultural philosophy behind someone’s use of it?
Have you had thorough discussions on how your children will be judged by the world? Was your granny as strict as mine? Did you have loving parents or grandparents explain why they were so strict? And do you think there is a color difference in discipline?
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Hillery Smith Shay, is a proven leader in Visual Communications and New Media Marketing. She holds a MBA, from Bethel University and a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Haverford College. Shay is an award-winning photographer who has worked for the Associated Press and various newspapers. Hillery resides in West Saint Paul with her husband Jeff and their daughters Jenna and Hayden. She is also the proud stepmother of Erin, Ginger and Jack. Read more about her at hilleryshay.com and follow her Twitter @crazphotochick.