New York City’s first Black mayor, the late David Dinkins, would be proud of the city’s second Black mayor, Eric Adams. Though three decades separate their reigns, they are united by a shared philosophy that children are the future—and the belief that they are the enemy of peace because not enough parents are viciously beating them.
Come go back with me for a moment to the spring of 1989.
The concept of using corporal punishment to prevent crime
New York was a hotbed of racial division. There were massive layoffs. Poor Black folks were embittered by hard economic times. A crime wave triggered demands for the expansion of a more aggressive police force. And white folks were anxious about the city being led by a Black man with a progressive agenda.
In his first public appearance as the new mayor, Dinkins gave a speech at St. Barnabas Hospital in the Bronx for a community conference. He was touting his “cops and kids” anti-crime agenda before a racially mixed audience.
“Kids are our future,” he said before promising to add 30 more cops to the local precinct.
Dinkins, who grew up in Trenton, New Jersey, and was known for his dapper, gentlemanly demeanor, waxed nostalgically about his own strict upbringing. He recounted an incident when the police brought him home after catching him stealing light reflectors off license plates: His mother and grandmother – both dollar-a-day domestics – stripped him naked, stood him in the bathtub and took turns beating him with straps. He also told the audience that the only time he had been slapped by his mother was when he addressed an adult by her first name on the street. Dinkins attributed his historic success to that degrading punishment.
“This is the message that many of the whites who voted for Dinkins hoped he would bring to his black and Hispanic constituents,” a New York Times reporter remarked in the coverage of the event.
Flash forward 34 years.
New York seems to no longer be “the safest big city in America.” The health fallout from the pandemic combined with historic job losses, skyrocketing rents and housing prices, gentrification, income inequality and a surge in shootings and homicides has made many New Yorkers anxious about a return to the 1980s and 1990s. Like Dinkins, Adams has made crime-fighting his signature issue. Adams has also said he wants to reestablish a controversial anti-crime unit that was dismantled by his predecessor, Bill de Blasio.
In a recent appearance on AM970 The Answer’s “The Arthur Aidala Power Hour,” Adams and Aidala—a prominent white Brooklyn lawyer whose broadcast combines his courtroom experience with legal and political issues of the day—discussed the mayor’s plan to tackle New York City’s rising crime.
They bonded over being “two boys from Brooklyn” and then tied their concern over the crime rate to sharing how they parent and were disciplined as children. Aidala, who described his six-year-old son as “spirited,” said he’d responded to the boy sticking out his tongue at him by yelling, “You do that again, I will rip that tongue out of your mouth.” He said he later told his wife, “Me yelling at him like that … he knows I love him. Because if I didn’t care, I just let it slide. But the fact that I made it matter, there’s a part of him that knows I love him.’”
Aidala then told Adams: “I felt horrible after I had to yell at him … but it’s what you’re supposed to do. And I think maybe we’ve lost a little bit of that along the way.”
Here was a grown man, with a fully developed brain and a fragile ego, threatening to injure a child for engaging in normal developmental behavior. Adams agreed that “we’ve lost a lot of that along the way. I think parents are trying to be cool and not be parents.”
After sharing how his petite mother had knocked him on his ass, Adams said, “I just believe we need to go back to some good old-fashioned parenting … I think we’ve lost that. I had a mother that instilled respect in us. Our children are confused … we have to be honest and face those antisocial interactions that our young people must be corrected … as adults we must say, ‘You’ve gone too far.’”
So, let me get this straight – threatening to yank a child’s tongue out of his mouth doesn’t qualify as anti-social behavior? If children are disrespectful, where do they learn it from? Does Adams think that children give birth to and raise themselves? Children don’t do what we say, they do what we do.
This is the problem with these conversations and approaches to fighting crime. Rather than looking at persistent structural problems that have existed for generations, political leaders too often look for narratives that locate success or failure in relation to how parents are punishing their children. It seems like anytime there’s an uptick in crime or a social decline, they want to scapegoat kids—the people with the least power in society who have so little say over their young lives—and then wonder why kids rebel, act out or get in trouble with the law.
The frequent headlines about crime usually attribute a decline in the use of corporal punishment in homes or accuse parents of trying to be their children’s friends, as Mayor Adams griped to Aidala.
It is deeply problematic when people in positions of power who have the responsibility for the quality of their constituents’ lives, believe that the answer is to go back to “the good old days” when parents beat their kids like slaves to keep them in line.
Follow the science
Despite evidence to the contrary, many people are holding on to the belief that physical punishment will prevent kids from becoming criminals. If this were true, then we wouldn’t be having serial discussions about mass incarceration and rising crime. In fact, hitting children is the first step in the process of producing criminals.
We have decades of research that shows how physically punishing children slows their cognitive development and increases antisocial and criminal behavior. If political leaders want to make some headway into understanding juvenile and adult crime, they need to get up on this literature and start understanding how brain development and behavior are shaped by negative experiences and trauma in early childhood. They are sowing the very seeds for the problems they’re trying to prevent by hitting kids and calling for violence against them.
A decade ago, the great sociologist and child advocate Murray Straus released his famous book The Primordial Violence. He used data from more than 7,000 U.S. families to study the effects of corporal punishment. He wrote: “Research shows that spanking corrects misbehavior. But it also shows that spanking does not work better than other modes of correction, such as time out, explaining and depriving a child of privileges. Moreover, the research clearly shows that the gains from spanking come at a high cost. These include weakening the tie between children and parents and increasing the probability that the child will hit other children and their parents, and as adults, hit a dating or marital partner. Spanking also slows down mental development and lowers the probability of a child doing well in school.”
Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, and known as the godmother of corporal punishment research, has examined hundreds of studies and presented the results of the meta-analyses of the association between parental physical punishment and child and adult outcomes. She found physical punishment is positively associated with aggression, delinquent and antisocial behavior, and being the victim of physical abuse; it was negatively associated with the quality of the parent-child relationship, mental health, and more internalization (child’s internalizing of socially acceptable behavior); and associations with immediate compliance were mixed.
Why aren’t these leaders listening to the data and science? Why do they continue to be dissonant and focus on outmoded ideas that blame society’s least powerful people for the ravages of poverty, crime and institutional inequities that they did not create?
Hitting a child teaches them to act out on emotional impulses. It teaches them to normalize violence; to use violence to solve conflict and to get people to do what you want them to do. Kids who are hit experience biochemical changes in the brain that place them at risk of becoming easily angered and prone to poor impulse control and violent outbursts. They tend to learn to use violent behavior to deal with stress and interpersonal disputes. So, should we be surprised when kids engage in criminal behavior as a result? And worse yet, when our leaders promote violence against kids? It is time to break out of the mindset that corporal punishment is the solution to crime.
We don’t need leaders who scapegoat children
In a piece of good news, in January 2022, it was announced that New York State will no longer prosecute children under the age of 12. Gov. Kathy Hochul signed a bill into law that “raises the lower age of the state’s jurisdiction for juvenile delinquency, a move that will prevent those under the age of 12 from arrest except in the case of a homicide,” according to NYSenate.gov.
Previously, children between 7 and 18 years old could be charged as juvenile delinquents, which “allowed them to be subject to the criminal justice system for many crimes.”
Many criminal justice reform advocates have been working for years to change this law, which disproportionately impacts children of color. According to the Legal Aid Society, of the 800 children under 12 who were arrested by police across New York state in 2019, some 90% were Black or Hispanic.
But even this improved law isn’t the solution we need. Our entire society needs a new approach to preventing and responding to crime. One essential step is to address the issues that cause children to commit criminal acts in the first place. It’s time to decolonize parenting overall—especially the parenting of Black and Brown children—and to stop treating children like criminals when they misbehave in the home.
Simplistic solutions to complex problems aren’t the answer and scaring or assaulting children’s bodies won’t magically make crime decrease or disappear. It only perpetuates cycles of violence within families and communities.
From Dinkins to Adams to any future Black mayors of NYC, we don’t need leaders who scapegoat children in times of social unease and are complicit in normalizing any form of violence against children. Adams has an opportunity to make a real difference by breaking the cycle of violence that challenges his leadership today.
I implore the mayor and other leaders to start respecting the science on child development, applying the data and using their resources to do better by the citizens who need and can benefit from encouragement, nurturing, positive guidance, and much-needed healing. Rather than simply shifting the age at which children can be prosecuted for various crimes, let’s take a serious look at how to prevent the crimes and fix the issues that lead to those behaviors in the first place. Because these children really are our future, and one day soon they’ll be in charge.
Dr. Stacey Patton is an award-winning journalist, college professor, and the author of Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won’t Save Black America.