Parenting is hard. Ensuring that their kids are healthy and successful, while maintaining their own well-being and other commitments, is a real challenge for many caregivers. Parenting classes, an intervention targeted towards low-income parents, can help. These classes can potentially offer parents support and help them build skills. 

However, new research from Maia Cuchiarra shows how parents and class instructors may have fundamentally different understandings of the purpose of parenting. In particular, parents and instructors may disagree about the appropriateness of physical discipline, particularly when parents are concerned about preparing their children to live in a hostile or threatening environment.

Cucchiara attended weekly, community-based parenting courses taught by professionals living in the same predominantly Black and lower-income neighborhood.  Most of the class participants that Cuchiarra observed attended classes voluntarily or as a requirement of a housing program, not due to court-mandate. 

The Black mothers in the course understood parenting through a “protective frame.” They viewed their primary responsibility as ensuring the physical safety of their children in a world, and local community, that was unsafe and potentially violent. They had a nuanced view of physical discipline and drew clear distinctions between types of force that were or were not appropriate. These mothers felt that it was important for their children to respect them and understand how to use force to protect themselves if threatened.

In contrast, class instructors used a “therapeutic frame.” They viewed children as very vulnerable and in need of warm and gentle support. They did not think that physical discipline was ever appropriate and viewed the potential consequences of using physical discipline as serious for both the parent-child relationship and children’s self-esteem.

The mothers in the study used physical discipline because it helped them meet their high-stakes goal of keeping their children safe in a hostile world. Even though the parents and instructors in this study were members of the same community, this research shows how professional commitments to non-violence can clash with the parental responsibility of raising children in potentially violent environments.