By Richard L. Davis
VOLUME II, NUMBER 7 July, 2000
The greatest obstacle to discovery of the truth is the illusion that we already have the answer. What I hope to accomplish through these monthly columns is not to present the reader with the truth, rather it shall be the collective goal of both author and reader to discover the truth concerning domestic violence. To accomplish this we will have to battle against the "facts" and dogmas of many contemporary domestic violence experts who believe they have already discovered the truth. It is my task to guide this search by asking unfamiliar questions. It shall be our collective task to provide the correct answers and hence discover the real truth.

Recently the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the right of a parent to spank a child. The case involved a boy who was attending a special needs program and has attention deficit disorder. The "spanking" was not a tap on the wrist or a thump on the bottom of a diapered toddler. The child in this case was hit so hard with a belt that the marks were visible when he attended school. One member of the above august body, in his infinite wisdom, said that it should be acknowledged that the child was spanked with the soft end of the belt. Proof positive, to me at least, that this Supreme Court member has never been spanked with a belt. Neither end feels very soft. The child's teacher, who is compelled by a law that is similar in each of the 50 states, noticed the welts and reported the abuse to the Division of Social Services. That agency brought the father to court.


October is Domestic Violence Awareness month. In Massachusetts, by statute law, domestic violence is child, sibling, spousal, intimate partner, and elder abuse. Domestic violence is when people use assaults, force or coercion to change or alter the behavior of other family members or loved ones. It is generally agreed that the issues of unequal power, control and economic resources can be catalysts for this behavior. What is not recognized, understood or agreed upon is where adults, regardless of gender, learn to use this type of behavior. One of the foremost and lasting lessons we learn as children is that those who have power, control, and economic resources will use any one or all three of them to “get their way.” In every state it is legally and socially acceptable for adults to use physical assaults [spanking] to change or alter the behavior of children. These physical assaults are considered by most in society to be acceptable behavior. Adults are legally allowed to use belts or other implements to hit their children. In Massachusetts these assaults are condoned by the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth as long as the skin is not black and blue or broken and bleeding. Also, often heard and considered to be socially acceptable in most homes by most people is, “As long as you remain under my roof and eat my food, you will do what I tell you to do.” In the college text, Family Violence, Legal, Medical, and Social Perspectives, the author writes “Researchers have interviewed, tested, observed, and evaluated thousands of people in an attempt to discover the factors that contribute to family violence.” As the comic book character Pogo once noted, “We have discovered the enemy and it is us.” Perhaps most researchers and society in general have not discovered that they are contributing to domestic violence because they continue to resist looking in the mirror.

Richard L. Davis

Spanking or the corporal punishment of children is legal in every state. In fact there are many states that continue to allow those in authority, who are not parents or guardians, to use corporal punishment against children. The majority of people, both men and women, continue to condone the spanking of children. Spanking is one person, most often bigger and stronger than the other, physically striking the smaller and weaker person, in an attempt to alter or control that persons perceived improper behavior. Most often it is the intent of the bigger and stronger person to teach the smaller person a lesson that they will remember and hence that improper behavior will not be repeated.

When a police officer responds to a home where a parent has spanked/hit a 16 year old child, or where two 15 year old boys have had a fight, the police continue to be trained to disregard all of their contemporary domestic violence training. Officers continue to be trained to understand, as they were once trained in adult family abuse, that spanking is a "family problem." After all, in Massachusetts the court just ruled that you not only hit children, you can beat them with a belt. Courts, not just in Massachusetts but nationwide, continue to rule that parents have the right to use corporal punishment on their children. The lawyer in the Massachusetts case questioned, "Who the hell are they [DSS] to tell parents how to discipline their children?

Who the hell indeed! English courts once reasoned that a rod no wider than a finger was thought to be reasonable force and it could be used on wives as well as children. Many courts in early American history would commonly dismiss spouse abuse charges on common law grounds that, "a husband was legally permitted to chastise his wife without subjecting himself to vexatious prosecutions for assault and battery." In the mid-1800s a single act of adultery by a wife was grounds for divorce in South Carolina, but persistent and repeated adultery by a husband was required to prove marital infidelity. In 1975 when I became a police officer a husband could not be charged with the rape of his wife. Who the hell indeed!

The nexus of spanking and many domestic violence incidents is that some abusers believe their physical behavior is not meant to harm. In fact, most domestic violence between adults begins with threats and low levels of violence such as pushing, shoving, slapping, grabbing, etc. The abuser often believes that this physical force is for the victims own good, as do parents who spank their children. Most often both the spankers/abusers intent is to alter the improper behavior of their children/partners. The battering of partners and the spanking of children are not just physical aggressions, but physical aggressions that are intended to function as a method of control, subjugation, and intimidation. Many domestic violence clinicians have heard the excuse from the abuser that their behavior "was for the victims own good." That is our justification for the corporal punishment of our children.

Are we to continue to believe that the spanking/hitting of children is proper behavior modification, but when we hit or abuse each other as adults it is a crime of epidemic proportion that is sweeping this nation? The mere push, shove or even threats between adult family members are now grounds for arrest, yet a court condones the beating of a child with a belt as proper behavior? Are we to believe that there is a magic age when our right as family members to hit each other suddenly becomes a crime? When those who are legally classified as children violently abuse others, many states now try them as adults. When we hit them, well after all it's our God given, biblical and court sanctioned right. Often when a researcher attempts to make a connection between the legality of the corporal punishment of children and adult partner abuse, many feminists claim that theory is no more than a diversionary tactic or an attempt to lead researchers away from the real cause of domestic violence - patriarchy. How long will we continue to believe that there is one primary cause of domestic violence and that "patriarchy made them do it," is the one simple answer?

Richard L. Davis, the author of Domestic Violence: Facts and Fallacies, Praeger Publishers, Westport CT (1998), retired after 21 years of service with the Brockton, Massachusetts Police Department, he is a Domestic Violence Intervention and Programs consultant.

Copyright © 2000

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