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To Spank or Not to Spank

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How I choose to discipline my kids may impact their Hispanic identity and mine.

By Sabrina LeBoeuf, Photos courtesy of Marta LaBoeuf

Sitting on a worn-out couch in San Pablo Viejo, Panama, my great-aunt, my mom and I watched a video called Signs You Grew Up With a Latina Mom.

“Callate,” says the Latina mom in the video.

Menacingly, she holds up a pink slipper, and all three of us burst into laughter. For us, it was more than a slipper. It was a chancleta, a common tool for spankings in Hispanic culture and a heralded symbol of Latinx childhood. Its popularity has earned it YouTube videos with millions of views and satirical listicles. For me, the chancleta and its appearance in the video was a bonding force between three generations of my family.

In that moment, I felt like I was more than just the person sitting at the end of the couch. I was sitting at the possible end of a cultural lineage. I’m first-generation American, the daughter of a Cajun and a Panamanian immigrant, and I am proud of both sides of my heritage. But I’m only half Panamanian, and many people mistake me for being 100 percent American because I’m white. This often leaves me wondering about my personal identity, as well as what kind of identity my kids may have.

More Hispanics are disregarding their identity as immigrant ties fade with time. According to the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of U.S.-born children of U.S.-born parents but immigrant grandparents self- identify as Hispanic. This is a staggering difference from my generation, in which 92 percent self-identify as Hispanic.

If I have children, I want them to feel proud of their Panamanian heritage. I want them to be able to watch the Signs You Grew Up With a Latina Mom video and laugh just the same. That would entail taking up my own chancleta and demanding respeto from my children. But I don’t have kids yet, and I don’t know if I even want to spank my kids.

The 2018 American Academy of Pediatrics warning about spanking warned it can lead to aggression. The Journal of Pediatrics noted corporal punishment as a child can lead to dating violence during adult life. Beyond all possible side effects, my theoretical children will have the memory of me hitting them. I love my mom and how she raised me. I think her strict parenting is the reason I am disciplined and self-motivated, but I do remember the times when I was spanked.

Elizabeth Estrada, a Mexican mother who lives in Waco, Texas, didn’t want her kids to have that memory of her. Initially, she started raising her kids the way her family had raised her. Growing up in a family of 13 siblings, physical discipline made the most sense. When Estrada disciplined her kids, spanking was effective, but when her kids turned 5, she stopped.

“I didn’t want them to think, ‘Oh, my mom hit me,’ ” Estrada says. “I didn’t want them to remember me like that.”

Austin Family Counseling Founder Lora Ferguson has similar memories of her own mother, despite not being Hispanic. After all, spanking isn’t exclusive to any specific race or ethnicity. According to a Pew Research Center survey of American parents, 14 percent of white parents, 19 percent of Hispanic parents and 32 percent of black parents use spanking as a form of discipline “often or sometimes.”

Spanking is on the decline, though, with about 16 percent of parents using it “at least sometimes,” according to the Pew Research Center. Ferguson doesn’t use corporal punishment with her kids and instead utilizes positive discipline, a parenting model developed in the 1980s. Compared to corporal punishment, which produces a short-term result, this model looks at a child’s internal motivation.

A common metaphor used in positive discipline is an iceberg. A behavior is represented by the piece of ice above the water while the rest of the iceberg represents the underlying reason for a behavior. Ferguson says behaviors can be addressed by developing a connection with your child to understand why he or she is acting in such a manner. This is followed by creating consequences that are respectful to the child. This excludes spanking, yelling and timeouts.

“We want to come up with solutions that aren’t humiliating, that aren’t harmful to anybody, that are respectful but that are also firm,” Ferguson says. “A lot of times, people hear ‘positive discipline’ and they think you just let your kids get away with everything: ‘If I don’t spank them, they’re just going to think they got away with it.’ No, that’s not true.”

Ferguson says spanking is becoming less effective as hierarchies in society diminish. She says previous examples of top-down power, such as whites overpowering minorities and men overpowering women, were models for children to follow and obey while being overpowered by parents. With more racial and gender equality today, she says kids no longer have this model to follow, leading them to question obedience and compliance.

“What’s modeled for them is not like Dad’s the boss, Mom does what he says, kids do what Mom and Dad say,” Ferguson says. “We’re not saying kids get to run the show and do whatever they want. … We all have a role. We all have a voice. We all help each other.”

Licensed professional counselor Ana Cabezas immigrated to the United States from Ecuador and has been raising her son using positive discipline. Her goal, like mine, is to keep her son connected his heritage, and she says positive discipline helps because of how it blends American nurturing and Hispanic firmness.

But it’s not always easy. Cabezas was raised by strict parents who demanded perfection, so growing up, she swore she would never be mean or as demanding with her own kids. All of this changed when her son was born and she realized she was a perfectionist too.

“I have to keep reminding myself that that’s what I come from,” Cabezas says. “I love my child. There’s goodness in that. So I’m able to now turn it around and see what I can rescue from it, and be able share that with him.”

Cabezas never wanted to default to corporal punishment, but she says there are days when she feels the urge to use the chancleta as a consequence for bad behavior.

“I could feel my inheritance, my long lineage, coming out and wanting to grab that belt or the chancla or whatever I could find, or myself, and make sure that he learned the lesson,” Cabezas says, “but at the same time, having the awareness that that’s not what I want. Looking at his little face is like, ‘If I would have done it, he wouldn’t have understood why.’ ”

What is the line between spanking and abuse?

Cabezas says had she raised her son in Ecuador, things would probably be different. In her home country, authoritarian parenting is still the norm: Parents say and children obey. In the United States, kids are more assertive nowadays, Ferguson says. One night, Cabezas says her son asked, “If you hit me, is that something I can call the police for?”

My mom, Marta LeBoeuf, says once I started public school 15 years ago, I asked similar questions. “What is the line between spanking and abuse?” “What do I call the police for?” These questions were piqued by the informational videos they showed us at school. They wanted us to know what abuse looks like and how to identify it ourselves. The only part of the video I remember is the kids being taken away from their parents because of the bruises on their arms.

My mom says if she had to raise a kid today, she would do things differently because of how society has changed its perception of spanking. Rather than being concerned with being a parent and raising a child, my mom says many American parents are too worried about being friends with their children.

Angela Renfro, a teacher from Kyle, Texas, who was born and raised in Austin, initially tried spanking with her kids because that’s how she was raised. If needed, her father would spank her in a restaurant if she was being disrespectful. Her father was her parent, not her friend.

“He didn’t hurt me,” Renfro says. “He hurt my feelings, which is what it should be. … But you can’t do that now because somebody will call Child Protective Services.”

Renfro says moms are afraid to say whether they spank their kids because of judgment from other moms as well.

“I think people are interesting and fascinating and weird and care a lot about what other people think,” Renfro says. “There’s a difference between spanking your kid and beating your kids, and I think people are afraid to tell other people that.”

Renfro stopped spanking her kids when she found it was ineffective. With her oldest daughter, she attempted a dialogue-based approach that explained the behavior and why the consequence was being applied, similar to the positive-discipline model. She says this backfired because she raised a child who could out-argue her, and she had to undo it to step in as the parental authority again.

When I was younger, I did the same thing to my mom. I had a hard time with accepting what my mom asked of me without prompting follow-up questions. If I asked why I needed to do something, it was because she said so, and that was that. But if I pushed the question further, we’d get into an argument and I’d get upset.

“Quieres llorar? I’ll give you something to cry about,” my mom would say.

This was a warning for a spanking as well as a classic Latina mom line quoted in the video we watched. We laughed about it too.

My mom learned to say all the Latina mom phrases from her mom, my abuelita. Abuelita had learned them from her mom. If I want to continue the Panamanian culture with myself and my family, my mom says I should keep saying the same things.

“Que tu crees? Que soy tu sirvienta?”

“Te calmas o te calmo.”

She doesn’t think parental discipline has anything to do with maintaining cultural norms and feeling a sense of Hispanic identity, while I think it can. My mom believes being Hispanic has more to do with feeling connected to the music, the traditions and the family. She says Hispanics live at home with their parents for as long as they can and they take care of their parents when they’re older. Americans, according to my mom, are more individualistic and aren’t as close to their extended family. In my mom’s eyes, I’m more American than Hispanic.

“You want to be independent,” my mom says to me.

She’s not wrong, but I do wish I were Hispanic enough to my mother to match my genetics at 50 percent. I speak Spanish and I love going to Panama to visit my family. Plus, I could eat empanadas and plantains for the rest of my life. However, I’m a product of two cultures coming together, and identity isn’t as clear-cut as genetic makeup.

I wonder whether taking up the chancleta would make me feel or seem more Hispanic, but my mom says whether I do doesn’t affect how Hispanic I am. Instead, she simply says it is my choice to be Hispanic. And the same goes for my potential kids.

Perhaps my children don’t have to relate to Signs You Grew Up With a Latina Mom to feel Hispanic. The Pew Research Center says it determines who is Hispanic by accepting “anyone who says they are and nobody who says they aren’t.” Relating to Hispanic media isn’t required to connect with the identity, although it would be nice to not be the last person on the couch.

I just have to believe that I am Hispanic and be willing to share it, chancleta or no chancleta.


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