NBC’s “The Slap” hits at the disciplinary struggles of immigrant parents

There I sat, a small and uncomfortable second grader, as my principal questioned me about my “home life.”

A few days before I’d openly mentioned to a friend that my parents sometimes hit me when I was disobedient. I’d assumed this was common — turns out I was wrong. My friend must have passed on what I said to an adult, and now here I was in the principal’s office.

Parenting is a sensitive topic, especially when it comes to corporal punishment. Being Eritrean American, I was raised to view hitting children completely differently than many of my peers.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who’s grappled with these cultural differences. NBC’s controversial series The Slap, which has its finale this week, takes on the polarizing phenomenon of physical discipline of children with a start studded cast.

The series — based on an Australian show with the same name — centers on a father named Harry (played by Zachary Quinto) who slaps his friend’s child in the first episode. The slapper is Greek American, providing a jumping off point for the show to explore different cultural lenses on corporal punishment.

Regardless of culture, parents hitting their kids is tricky and taboo subject. The line between instilling corrective discipline and abusing a vulnerable child is a thin one, especially in the eyes of others outside the family.

In “Why we should study subabusive violence against children,” Anthony M. Graziano theorizes that the point where punishment blends into abuse is subjective, and different from culture to culture.

When I was young I never felt my experiences were wrong, they were just different. In the principal’s office, I claimed there was a misunderstanding and that I’d never been hit because I was afraid of what would happen if I told the truth.

Wherever you come down on the ‘the slapping debate,’ it’s important to recognize that your ideas about corporal punishment of children are probably based on cultural training.

Dr. Jody McVittie, a family physician and program director of Sound Discipline, recognizes there are differing views toward discipline. McVittie has taught parenting classes and trained educators for 22 years all through the methods of Jane Nelson’s “Positive Discipline.”

Jane Nelson's "Positive Discipline" series sets the tone for modern American approaches to disciplining children. (Photo by Agazit Afeworki)
Jane Nelson’s “Positive Discipline” series sets the tone for modern American approaches to disciplining children. (Photo by Agazit Afeworki)

Nelson’s ‘must-read’ series broke the traditional mold of harsher parenting. The series has become a parenting bible, and like the 10 commandments, there are 10 principles. Nelson’s objective focuses on solutions instead of punishment.

As an educator McVittie doesn’t feel she should impose her personal beliefs onto other parents. She’s worked with all sorts of minority groups, from African Americans and Asians, to Somali communities in Washington, and even internationally in Nicaragua and China

“I don’t usually make rules for parents,” she says, “I help them decide what’s best for their family.”

McVittie’s classes offer hungry parents “a menu of tools.” But she says she doesn’t judge or scrutinize the parenting tools they bring with them into her classroom.

“A lot of people who come to the United States that are first or second generation from Africa, from Asia, and from Latin America have a more vertical way of parenting,” she explains.

Immigrant parents tend to view respect and obedience as one, so children who disobey are seen as disrespectful, said McVittie. By contrast, kids who grow up in mainstream American culture expect  to be respected by their parents too, in a more reciprocal relationship.

In my case, my immigrant parents didn’t want American customs to override my heritage. They didn’t want me to lose my sense of history. This made their style of parenting restrictive in a way that I slowly began to realize was abnormal amongst my peers.

As a teenager, not being able to go places with my friends or being punished when I didn’t follow order was torturous — but I can now see how tricky it was for my parents juggling two cultures.

In Jody McVittie and Dr. Al M. Best’s study an illustration shows a quadrant of parenting styles. ‘Permissive’ which is freedom with no order, ‘Authoritative democratic’ being both freedom and order, ‘Neglecting’ has neither of the two and ‘Authoritarian’ which is order with no freedom.

Four parenting styles (from top left to right) include Permissive, Authoritative democratic, Neglecting, and Authoritarian. All placed on an axes of firmness and and responsiveness. (Figure from Dr. Jody McVitties and Dr. Al Best's study)
Four parenting styles (from top left to right) include Permissive, Authoritative democratic, Neglecting, and Authoritarian. All placed on an axes of firmness and and responsiveness. (Figure from Dr. Jody McVitties and Dr. Al Best’s study)

Generally, “authoritarian” parenting proves to be more prominent in collectivist cultures like those of East Asia or Africa. For example, Ruth K. Chao’s study of Chinese immigrant mothers found that they exerted more parental or authoritarian control than European American mothers.

Luchia Mehari, mother of two, may have been raised in a more ‘authoritarian’ Ethiopian household with what she describes as “extremely strict” parenting. In response, when she became a parent herself, she says she did what many who grew up in strict homes often do: try to break the inter-generational pattern.

Now, she parents with more freedom. The relationship a parent has with their child today requires more communication, she said.

However, she isn’t sold on the idea that corporal punishment is outright wrong. She’s says she just views hitting as a temporary solution. Her kids don’t always learn from their wrongdoings just because she hits them, so she feels it’s more or less unnecessary.

Mehari does worry about one thing. Her daughters could end up in same position I was, where something that’s perfectly acceptable in her home could be mistaken for abuse. Raising kids in a time where it’s unconventional to spank or slap, she fears her parenting methods could be judged.

“People shouldn’t question how other parents are raising their kids,” she says.

For me, and other children of immigrant parents, corporal punishment just doesn’t have same connotation of abuse that it does for much of White American culture. Methods of parenting vary because traditions are different. Parenting requires a great deal of learning as you go, and for better or worse, our culture affects our approach.

In NBC’s “The Slap” harsh parental discipline creates social frenzy, made worse by the fact that the slapper isn’t the child’s parent, but a family friend.

Though one slap may lead to a court case on television, in some parent’s reality it strikes a disciplinary purpose. My friends got “time outs,” while I was slapped. But I don’t feel the relationship I have with my parents was negatively affected by the way they chose to parent me.