Last month—Black History Month—ended with a nod to slavery, as a father brutally beat his son in a school cafeteria following a parent-teacher conference. I will not dignify the unfortunate curiosity of those who wonder about the son’s infractions. They don’t matter. What matters is that a 41-year-old adult beat a child until he needed hospitalization.
I hit my daughter. It only happened once. I say “hit” instead of “tap,” “spank,” “swat” or any other word that makes violence look like necessary punishment. I hit her and it doesn’t matter why. What matters is that her eyes grew big with betrayal and she began to grab for my hair, claw my face, kick me with both legs and I was so proud. She has a spirit so unlike my own, which gave up and bowed everyone time a tall person threw a menacing glare my way. I held her arms, pulled her still-fighting body close to my heart and said, “We don’t hit each other. I’m sorry. In this family, we don’t hurt each other.” I said it like a mantra, a reaffirmation of my commitment to the woman I’d decided to be before the pressures of parenting pushed me toward the woman who was just a product of her environment. It happened once, but once is too much.
I don’t ever want it to happen again, but acquaintances who don’t share my commitment to nonviolent parenting have cautioned me never to say ‘never.’ (Apparently, Black girls perform root work that turns otherwise peaceful parents into raging assailants and I must be prepared for this.) So I won’t. But I will say that I give her permission to kick my a*s. I want to be pinned to the ground, held until her aunties come to her rescue. I want to be checked into a healing house until the women who love both of us can help me return to myself, the woman I had become in spite of my own experiences with violence.
The children of part-time philosophers should not be the only ones who don’t get punched in the face. There should be national, community-based academies for the children of those who demand respect from those too young to understand the concept; for the children of parent assailants who wield belts, fists, shoes, sticks, extension cords, open palms, or anything they can find; for the children who stand in the literal punchlines that comedians later exploit with statements like, “a Black mom will whup that a*s!”
If I were to talk about these parents without context, I would become one of many who police black parenting as if their behavior is un-American. And if I use “book smarts” to put child abuse in the context of American violence, I preach to the choir of researchers or grown survivors trying not to become their parents. But what about the children? When the rhetoric is stale, what are our alternatives to state intervention that inflicts its own violence?
I propose a three-step program for emotional and physical survival: de-escalation, grappling, and ally training. In the first step, pre-teen children will learn how to identify nonsensical questions that signal the escalation of violence: When did you start paying bills in this house? Do you hear me when I’m talking to you? Do you want something to cry about? Are you feeling grown now? Students will practice de-escalation skills like those espoused by like the Crisis Prevention Institution: non-confrontational eye contact, steady tone, undivided attention, and intentional body language.
Because some assailants are ill beyond de-escalation, the next step is grappling. In a mixed martial arts program, students will learn forms of self-defense that allow for disparities in weight or height. Students will be trained to account for these differences with moves that depend more on agility than strength. Students will not be taught to win fights with parent assailants, but to defend themselves from severe bodily harm.
Because self-defense can escalate the violence of the worst parent assailants, the third aspect of training is as important as the first two. Those who have survived their parent assailants will be trained as allies to the children who are still living in abusers’ homes. These allies will be trained to debrief with students who have narrowly escaped violent encounters, to respond to emergency texts or calls and remove students from the physical space of the parent assailants, and, finally, to train teachers and caregivers who may have accepted and internalized the abuse. The ally-trained caregivers are more likely than the non-trained to place the welfare of children over their allegiance to archaic notions of discipline.
Without radical intervention, patterns of abuse are repeated and belt-whipped children become belt-swinging adults. My proposed academy is far-fetched, but I believe in it. After all, I’ve been told to never say ‘never.’
Asha French is a writer and mother in Atlanta. She tweets: @afrenchwriter.