One highly publicized child abuse case can generate a great deal of public discussion about physical punishment that crosses the line, but it's not clear that all the talk does much to stop the problem. The repeated showing on television of a video in which Madelyne Toogood appears to punch and shake her 4-year-old daughter in an Indiana shopping center parking lot is a case in point. When all the hoopla dies down, it's unlikely that fewer children in this country will become the victims of simply misguided or plainly abusive parenting.
Some people believe that it is always wrong to strike a child. In 1998, the 53,000-member American Academy of Pediatrics said that while spanking is no more effective than other forms of punishment, it has enormous potential for harm. Studies show that hitting children can foster aggression in them. When a spanking gets out of control, it can cause serious injury or death. According to the organization, however, around 90 percent of U.S. parents spank their children.
Of those parents, probably 100 percent believe they know the difference between corrective punishment and abuse. Not all do, however. Take the appalling case of a Brazoria County man who repeatedly shocked his 8-year-old son with a 100,000-volt stun gun to hurry him along to school and as punishment for missing his school bus. Before his arrest last week, along with his wife for failing to report the abuse, the man unabashedly acknowledged he had beaten the boy with a belt hard enough to leave marks, and he defended his use of a stun gun as not being abusive.
It's hard to see this case as one of good intentions gone wrong, but the law apparently makes a distinction between deliberate abuse and extreme ignorance. Still, the charges this father faces could net him serious time in prison.
That seems appropriate. Because children cannot always speak up for themselves, much less defend themselves from the people who are supposed to nurture and protect them, society cannot give a free pass for stupidity, especially when it's compounded by cruelty and shocking indifference to helpless suffering.