Whether or not any child, in any circumstance, on any pretext, should be subject to physical battery and whether or not such treatment is beneficial to that child are questions that have long since ceased to be matters for serious discussion among the informed. I assume that I am writing for an informed readership that has no interest in a rehash of the reasons why the deliberate traumatization of a child by its caretaker, in any degree, is always wrong.
In the following quote, Dr. Karl Menninger gives the debate on corporal punishment the amount of ink it deserves. He wrote:".... I don't know where torture belongs, but certainly not in the classroom, not even in the jail or court. Whipping is torture and humiliation, and pain. I thought we human beings were trying to get rid of these afflictions, and that civilization had partially done so. In some countries you say it has. Why not in ours?"1Indeed, corporal punishment, a.k.a. chastisement, discipline, spanking, switching, paddling, whuppin', licking, beating, popping, bopping, whacking, belting etc. is torture and humiliation and pain. The ever-expanding number of euphemisms for this brand of pediatric violence persuasively demonstrates the penchant for self-delusion among its practitioners.
Corporal punishment in Europe and in the U.S.
Not one European country legally condones the hitting of schoolchildren, and nowhere is there any discernible movement within European teachers' professional associations to repeal the prohibition. Moreover, in Norway, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Austria, Cyprus and Italy, hitting children, even in the home by parents, is not legally permitted. This prohibition is now being considered by the governments of several other European countries, and the number of nonhitters will likely increase in the near future.
Commenting on Italy's spanking ban (May 1996), Supreme Court Judge Francesco Ippolito said that the court's decision to completely ban corporal punishment of children was seen as an opportunity to address the problem of violence against children.2
By contrast, 23 states in the U.S. retain laws permitting teachers to batter children. All states permit battering by parents.
So-called guidelines for the use of corporal punishment in school are vague and unenforced. Some school districts require an adult witness to be present during a paddling. Why? For whose protection? Surely not the child's! One cannot find any other pedagogocal procedure that requires a witness.
As for parents, their legal right to use physical violence against their children is enshrined in the statute books of every state. California's definition of child abuse is typical:"Child abuse is a physical injury which is inflicted by other than accidental means on a child by another person. It also includes emotional abuse and sexual abuse . It does not include spanking that is reasonable and age appropriate and does not expose the child to risk of serious injury." 3Such verbiage--unctuous, ingratiating, ambiguous, unenforceable and self-contradictory--provides a comfortable legal shield for all but the worst child abusers. Its hypocrisy is inescapable at first glance.
The principal stumbling block to reform
The Religious Right is the main obstacle to the establishment of basic legal protections for children and to allowing the United States to join the company of more civilized nations in this regard. Those on the far right cling to the anachronistic notion that children are chattels and that their owners have every right, and are even duty-bound, to control their property by violent means, and may assign that right to others. They cite the Proverbs of King Solomon as their authority. Their rationalizations exactly parallel those of slavery apologists of the 19th century who believed that their right to own slaves derives from Leviticus 25:44-46 and that what they did with their property was nobody else's business.
It is my hunch that fundamentalists' fondness for Old Testament authoritarianism is driven primarily by their need for self-exculpation with regard to their mistreatment of their own children. It is very doubtful that those who take to heart Solomon's advice on family management have given much thought to the fact that he was an arch-polygamist, an idolater and, by any standard, modern or ancient, a lout and a bully--not exactly the kind of fellow you'd welcome into the neighborhood with his 300 wives, more than twice as many concubines and sizable brood of oft-whipped offspring.4 Yet in countless homes of the pious, Solomon's Prov. 23:13,14 is bookmarked for easy reference.
Politicians quake at the thought of provoking powerful evangelical groups like Focus on the Family, a major defender of the right to spank. To be pro-child is to risk being labeled anti-family and anti-Bible. This is at least part of the reason it is so difficult to open serious public discussion on the rights of children, and why, with rare exceptions, people in positions of power and influence go deaf and mute when the subject is introduced.
Hillary Clinton has observed:"The causes of younger children have not fared well, partly because these representatives have loyalties diluted by conflicts between children's rights and their own institutional and professional goals." 5She might have said more directly: The causes of politicians fare better when they avoid aligning themselves with the causes of children. Consider how President Clinton recently sprang into action to protect schoolchildren from health risks caused by a bad batch of imported strawberries--a politically neutral event, to be sure. But on the issue of schoolchildren being beaten on their buttocks with wooden boards at the rate of about 1/3 million incidents per year--an issue that must make anybody squirm who thinks about it--the cat's got his tongue. He defers to subordinates who say:"...With regard to your specific request for advice regarding discipline policies, I must inform you that this matter must be resolved at the State and local level....", William Modzeleski, Director, Safe & Drug-Free Schools, U.S. Dept. of Education, (Letter to the author, April 9, 1997)From the state level, we learn:"...Discipline policies are made at the local district level based on Arizona statutes. I do not have jurisdiction in this matter...." Lisa Graham Keegan, Superintendent of Public Instruction, State of Arizona Department of Education, (Letter to Dr. Adah Maurer, July 31, 1997)Here we have a perfect object lesson in how abrogation of moral responsibility is a contagion that spreads from the head downward.
Three-step prescription for reform
1) Change the law - Laws that enshrine child battery must be rescinded. As long as they remain on the books, excluding children from the normal protection against assault and battery, children will continue to be brutalized. Schools in the paddling states will remain magnets and safe havens for people who should not have access to children. Abusive parents will ally themselves with abusive teachers and school administrators will hide behind the correct assumption that what they are doing is strictly within the law and reflects prevailing community standards. Until anti-child laws are expunged from the statute books of every state, our nation's pro-child stance will remain hollow and self-delusional.
2) Teach the teachers - Teacher-training institutions should break their discreet silence on the topic of corporal punishment. Currently, no reputable teacher training program instructs students how to hit people. But that isn't enough. They must begin teaching not to hit people and must take an unequivocal and outspoken position against pedagogical pupil-battering. Any education student who clings to a belief in corporal punishment should be viewed in the same light as a medical intern who sees no value in washing his hands between examinations of patients. Such a person should be counseled to pursue another line of employment.
A new generation of properly prepared teachers will be able to withstand the corrupting influence of entrenched hitters and hitting apologists whom they will encounter in the field. They will refuse to participate in blatantly unprofessional conduct. Within a relatively short time, the teaching profession in the United States will be weaned of the hitting habit. As teachers demonstrate their success with nonviolent management of children, they will become appropriate models for the community and receive the respect and support they deserve. Their good example will contribute directly to a reduction in child abuse in the general community.
3) Inform the public - Today, no responsible parent would tolerate having their child ride a school bus with faulty brakes and bald tires, nor allow their child to sit in classrooms contaminated with asbestos or lead. An informed public will find it equally intolerable to be required to entrust the care of their children to credentialed hitters.
In 1941, Herbert Falk, Ph.D. wrote optimistically:"Legislation, public enlightenment, and an intelligent teaching profession are mutually complementary factors in the abolition of corporal punishment. An enlightened public opinion will make prohibitive legislation possible and its execution effective. Legislation will habituate the public to an educative process not based on force. An intelligent and well-trained teaching profession will reconstruct education along lines which do not tolerate the use of coercion, thus reinforcing enlightened public opinion and in turn being reinforced by it."6Since the time those words were written (1941 was not a good year for optimism), the steady decline in spanking's popularity suggests that enlightenment is at last displacing superstition in matters of pedagogy and child rearing, and that the time has arrived for nurturant home life and nurturant school life, operating in tandem, to evolve and flourish. ______________________________________________________
1. Personal correspondence to the author, 2/6/84.
2. From an interview in Rome with Professor Susan Bitensky of the Detroit College of Law at Michigan State University, supplied by Dr. Bitensky to the author.
3. California Penal Code Section 11165.6 and Welfare and Institutions Code Section 300.
4. Maurer, Adah and Wallerstein, James S., The Bible and the Rod. Berkeley: End Violence Against the Next Generation, Fourth Printing 1993. (p. 3)
5. Clinton, Hillary, Harvard Educational Review, November 1973, (p. 493).
6. Falk, Herbert Arnold, Corporal Punishment: A Social Interpretation of its Theory and Practice in the Schools of the United States, Teachers College, Columbia University Contributions to Education, No. 835. New York: 1941, (pp. 146-7).
Greven, Philip, Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse. New York: Random House, 1991.
Hyamn, Irwin, Reading, Writing and the Hickory Stick: The Appalling Story of Physical and Psychological Violence in American Schools. Boston: Lexington Books, 1990.
Males, Mike, The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents. Monroe Maine: Common Courage Press, 1996.
Miller, Alice, Breaking Down the Wall of Silence. New York: Dutton, 1990.
Straus, Murray, Beating the Devil out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families. New York: Free Press, 1994.