Yesterday Slate ran a thought-provoking article entitled “When Abuse Is Not Abuse.” The subhead was “Don’t expect Adrian Peterson to go to prison. In much of America, beating your kids is perfectly legal.” The accompanying comments run the gamut of opinion.
It was rather remarkable to see how much times have changed — or not changed — since I was a kid. And to see how attitudes about corporal punishment vary across the country.
For starters, there’s the provocative “beating your kids” in the subhead. Normal people would not condone “beating” kids, which I think of as something done with fists or blunt objects and causing bruises, wounds, bleeding, etc. Emergency room injuries. But many, many parents would and do condone spanking or whipping or switching and consider it a normal form of punishment far short of a “beating.” I, for one, was not particularly shocked or concerned when I first heard about Peterson switching his son. At least, not until I saw the pictures.
You see, when I was growing up in Oklahoma, switching was, I assumed, a fairly standard, accepted practice. When a child misbehaved, nothing got his attention quite like the sting of a green switch across the back of his bare legs. My siblings and I were occasionally threatened with such punishment when Mom got particularly stressed out with the five of us. We knew she was serious when she homed in on one of us and told us to go out to the yard and cut a switch. Imagine the fear engendered by having to create the instrument of your own punishment. The thought alone resulted in instant obedience. I don’t recall any of us ever actually being switched.
This was, mind you, in a white, upper class, well educated household in the late ’40s and early ’50s. It seemed perfectly normal to us. Mere spankings, of course, were routine. Everybody spanked their kids. Spanking an unruly child was perfectly normal. It was how one made a lasting impression about something very important, like don’t ever run into the street again. It certainly didn’t rise to the level of “beating.”
So when I first heard Peterson, a resident of Texas, had switched his son, I thought little of it. I hadn’t heard of such a thing since my childhood, but I imagined only a couple of red marks across the boy’s legs. Multiple lashes severe enough to cause bleeding is an entirely different matter. But it raises the very interesting question of how how far a parent can go in punishing his own child. Parental rights are sacrosanct — until the parent violates the law. So when does spanking, switching, or paddling become beating, assault, or abuse, and therefore illegal?
Taken beyond the home, the next step is corporal punishment in schools. It’s still acceptable and common in many parts of the country. Should it be? Should it be illegal? And who decides?
When I was in school in the ’50s, the disciplinarians in most schools were the vice-principals. And most had paddles. And students who were sent to the vice-principal for discipline might end up being paddled as a punishment. It was not uncommon to be offered either detention/suspension or three swats with the paddle. Boys in particular thought it a badge of honor to take the swats without flinching or crying. Short of the vice-principal’s office, one might be subjected to a rap on the knuckles with a teacher’s ruler.
My great awakening came when my son was perhaps three or four years old and I swatted him once on the butt with the back of a hairbrush, something I’d been threatened with when I was a child (I don’t recall it ever actually happening). I was absolutely horrified to see a bruise on him the next day. I never laid a hand on him again. And neither did anyone else. They’d have done so over my dead body.
So yes, I’ve long been opposed to corporal punishment. But society and the authorities must be very, very careful in deciding when to step between a parent and a child and deem that parent’s punishment a crime. Most parents are probably emulating their own parents, and such generational behaviors can be difficult to change. A particularly fractious child might earn a spanking (open hand on clothed bottom) from a concerned parent, but more than that, or any corporal punishment at all from a non-parent should, in my opinion, be subject to outside intervention. If not, then we are condoning, enabling, and perpetuating violence in our society.
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There’s child abuse and then there’s child abuse