Resolution on corporal punishment: Comments on a close vote Resolution on corporal punishment: Comments on a close vote
By Ron Goldman
Brookline Tab, December 3, 2004

If nobody had ever hit a child intentionally to inflict pain, and someone came along and 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 unlikely to stop anytime soon. Two weeks ago, Brookline Town Meeting had an opportunity to speak out against this practice, but the nonbinding resolution to encourage parents and caregivers to refrain from corporal punishment of children and use alternative methods of child discipline was narrowly voted down. (I was the main petitioner of this resolution.) Children's advocacy organizations and professionals supported the resolution. Such policies in various countries have helped to change public attitudes and behaviors and improve the welfare of children. (For more details, contact me at

Friends from other towns ask me how Brookline can vote against what seems to them is a "no-brainer." The evidence against corporal punishment is overwhelming (more than 60 years of research on parents' and children's behaviors demonstrating increased rates of anti-social outcomes). I respond that for some people, the emotional resistance to this resolution has nothing to do with evidence. Noted researcher Murray Straus, Ph.D., observes that "many of us are reluctant to admit that our own parents did something wrong and even more reluctant to admit that we have been doing something wrong with our own children."

The vote may have been influenced by the position of two selectmen, which involves an important process question. They argued that because a similar resolution was submitted to the previous Town Meeting, a resubmittal should not be supported at the most recent Town Meeting. They opposed the resolution for this reason. However, this position was inconsistent with prior experience and town bylaw. For example, the selectmen had no objection to the resubmission of the B2 development article, which was debated at two consecutive Town Meetings.

Furthermore, as a Town Meeting member in the 1980s, I recall the repeated submission over eight years of the petition article to include the Pledge of Allegiance at the start of Town Meeting. It was voted down each time by a large majority until the compromise to include it 15 minutes before Town Meeting started was reached. My recollection is that the petitioners' right to resubmit was never questioned. There is no legal limitation on resubmission of petition articles. This allows for changes to the articles, political compromises, changes in public opinion and other variables. Indeed, some of the most important legislation to be adopted in this country required multiple attempts. Of course, opponents do not want a resubmission because it presents another opportunity for them to lose. However, if they want the option of resubmitting their own articles without undue criticism, fairness would call for accepting resubmissions by others.

In view of prior experience and town bylaw, it appears that the selectmen's opposition may have confused Town Meeting members rather than raise a valid issue. Some Town Meeting members may have voted against the resolution because they believed the Selectmen's report about resubmissions. Needless to say, Town Meeting members must do their homework, or else they can be misled into making questionable decisions.

Actually, this resolution was resubmitted because there was no vote on it at the previous Town Meeting. Unlike other resolutions submitted to Town Meeting over the years, action on this resolution was "postponed indefinitely" last spring. As I stated two weeks ago at Town Meeting, "Resubmission offers an opportunity for Town Meeting to correct the previous process mistake and give the resolution an up or down vote like every other resolution." There is another objection to the resolution I have heard that deserves particular response. A few resolution opponents fear what "they" would think of Brookline if this resolution were approved. Those with this fear do not fully recognize how much corporal punishment is harmful to children and society. It also exemplifies the classic conflict confronted throughout history in personal and group decision-making: Conform to what is popular or do the right thing. It takes courage to speak out and do the right thing (and a town that does so may be admired for its enlightened leadership). It is easier and safer to be silent and conform. Though I understand that it matters what others think of us, there are at least two things that matter more: the welfare of children and what we think of ourselves.

Ron Goldman, a Longwood Avenue resident, was the sponsor of a nonbinding resolution to encourage parents and caregivers to refrain from corporal punishment of children.

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