Ron Goldman's Speech to Brookline, Mass. Town Meeting, May 26, 2005

Article 25: Resolution to Encourage Parents and Caregivers of Children to Refrain from the Use of Corporal Punishment

Iím here as a childrenís advocate to speak for those who are powerless and sometimes harmed, those whose rights and feelings are sometimes unrecognized. I raise the issue of corporal punishment (CP) because the evidence is overwhelming that it is harmful, and yet it needs more attention because it is misunderstood, common, and accepted.

If nobody had ever hit a child intentionally to inflict pain, and someone offered hitting as a new idea for disciplining children, I suppose there would be universal rejection of the idea. However, as an embedded cultural practice, hitting children is often defended. We have learned throughout history that what is common is not necessarily in conformance with the highest principles of behavior.

If you are unhappy to see this resolution return, I know how you feel. I was a Town Meeting Member in the 80s and 90s when a petition article returned regularly for 9 years, and some of us were frustrated about that. How you feel about a repeat submission may depend on which side of the issue youíre on or political considerations. The Selectmen cite repeat submissions in opposing this resolution, but the Board uses a double standard. Other articles have returned to Town Meeting without such comment from the Board. I checked the Combined Reports on Town Meetings from the 80s and 90s on that old petition article. It was submitted 10 times. During those years the Board generally recommended favorable action, often unanimously. One Board member who voted favorable action on the 9th and 10 submissions sits on the Board now and told this body at the last Town Meeting that he opposed this article because of its second submission, after the first submission was denied a direct vote.

Letís remind ourselves that repeat attempts at a vote are a fundamental part of the democratic process. The process is non-partisan and protects your right to resubmit. If you want the option of resubmitting your articles, fairness would call for accepting resubmissions by others. Furthermore, the State Attorney Generalís Office says a Town cannot limit repeat attempts if it wanted to. At the State and national legislatures, there are numerous resubmitted bills.

Regarding citizen support, as we know, it is uncommon for citizens to appear at hearings on resolutions. In any case, this is an unreliable indicator. From my experience petitioning and from demographic data of national surveys, citizens of Brookline probably support the merits of this resolution by better than 2 to 1.

In addition, at the Selectmenís hearing on this resolution in March, I asked the Board to vote on the resolutionís merits. The chairman said, "I think this Board will do that." Lack of response from other Board members suggested their implicit agreement with that statement. Now, we have a Selectmenís vote that is not based on the merits but on misleading, inconsistent claims.

The existence of corporal punishment in Brookline is supported by my petitioning experience, reported child abuse which professionals consider to be the tip of the CP iceberg, aggressive childhood behavior, and my talking with school leaders, parents, and children. A 5-year-old boy told me, "My father hits me." His tone and body language expressed his sadness, distress, and shame.

CP is a national problem, and we have a part. Letís have the honesty and strength to acknowledge it. One difficulty is that adults believe CP is "mild." This suggests a lack of empathy for children. By definition, CP causes pain. It is not "mild" to children. In addition, deliberately causing any unnecessary pain to another person breaches ethical principles and the Golden Rule. Opponents have no response to that. There is much good work on family violence in Town, but we can do better on corporal punishment. Work on associated issues is not enough. The resolution calls for action. Approval would signal Town agencies to make CP a higher priority.

Letís understand that sometimes you can control how a child behaves with force, but you can never control how a child feels with force. This is the reason the parent-child relationship suffers when force is employed. The resolution describes better alternatives.

I remind you that this is a citizenís petition. And you are citizens of Brookline, not faceless bureaucrats a thousand miles away. Government is already involved in family life, with child abuse, marital rape, and other matters. Weíre only encouraging more protection. This non-binding resolution seeks only to raise awareness about the consequences of and alternatives to corporal punishment. It is "meant to be a gentle, reasonable, and respectful suggestion." It is voluntary and anyone can ignore it. There is no demonstrated adverse effect from this resolution.

The Selectmen and the Advisory Committee make weak arguments because they have no strong ones. No statement in their reports questions that CP is harmful and should be discouraged. That is the central idea of the resolution. Everything else is irrelevant. It is understandable that opponents deny the problem, inflate supposed negative effects of the resolution and minimize or ignore the positive effects. Opponents appeal to your fear or anger. Is acting on your fear or anger more important than the welfare of children? Listen to the quality of their arguments, not the quantity.

Child abuse is not the focus of this resolution and is already subject to State law. The law says child abuse involves "physical or emotional injury" in the judgment of professionals who work with children. Examples include bone fracture and internal organ injury and anything which "substantially imperils a childís health or welfare." As long as hitting does not result in such outcomes, it is CP. Thatís the difference. Would you accept being hit as long as there was no recognizeable physical or emotional injury? Of course not. Why treat children, who need our protection, with less protection than we would want for ourselves? Opponents of the resolution have no answer.

There is no prerequisite for supporting this resolution. Whether or not you were hit as a child and whether or not you have hit a child, what we know now is different that what we knew years ago. We did the best we could at the time. With new information and awareness, we can change our opinions and behaviors. Letís remember that there was a time when spousal abuse was quietly accepted. Our cultural attitude about that has changed, as it has changed about many other things.

Town Meetingís obligation is to vote on the resolutionís merits. The Selectmen and the Advisory Committee do not. Instead they make irrelevant, unsupported, confusing claims and misrepresent the resolution. If you reward them by opposing this resolution, you risk inviting more such reports. Send a message that you have higher standards. Furthermore, the fact that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and 14 countries have adopted similar positions is clear evidence that corporal punishment is an appropriate subject for public debate, and such positions are useful in raising public awareness about it. In the last year, three more countries have joined the movement opposing CP.

This is the season of graduations and graduation speeches. A common theme in such speeches is the need to do the right thing, to speak out against injustice, to protect the vulnerable from pain and harm. This is our chance to act. How we treat children may be the most important issue we face. We have known for over 100 years that early childhood experience is associated with adult feelings, attitudes, and behaviors. How we treat children affects what kind of adults and parents they become and what kind of world they create. There is wide support for the goals of the resolution among pediatric professionals and childrenís advocates. Please take their support seriously.

Your vote could decide the outcome. Regardless of outcome, I will not resubmit this resolution to Town Meeting. Will you vote based on principles or politics, evidence or emotion? If you agree with 60 years of research and various professional groups that CP is harmful and should be discouraged, then let your vote reflect what you think. I urge you to vote with integrity and independence, and help break the chain of pain. Ask yourself if your vote will be true to your deepest impulses and the child that is in you. Letís make a public statement in support of children, the family, and society. Let history show that Brookline led the way to raising awareness on this issue inside and outside the Town. Vote the way Town citizens would likely vote.

It takes courage to speak out and do the right thing, and a town that does so may be admired for its enlightened leadership. We will act on those graduation speech themes if we keep two priorities in mind: the welfare of children and what we think of ourselves.

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