Should spanking be legal? The answer is simple: No. There are practical arguments against spanking, such as it doesn’t work and it is co-related to the children growing up to be abusive, but that’s not my focus here. Even if it did work and didn’t help create future abusers, I would still be opposed to it. Why?
All you have to do is ask yourself: what kind of world do you want to live in? Do you want to live in a world where very large and powerful people are by law allowed to hit very small people who have virtually no power, who have only a fraction of the physical and mental abilities of the bigger person, and who have almost zero access to outside resources?
What if these big people (also known as parents) are, due to no fault of their own, often under extreme stress? There may be other countries in the world where the social safety net is more supportive of parents, but in the U.S., parents get very little help. We work too many jobs – where we get bossed too much and paid too little. Most do not get any paid leave to take care of our babies and children. We are raising children in a country with a seriously frayed social safety net that deprives us of desperately needed relaxed time with our children and instills fear and dread about their safety and their futures.
So who thinks it would be a good idea to say it’s okay for these very big, powerful, and stressed out people to hit these very small people – some of whom can’t even talk yet, and all of whom are utterly dependent on the big people for their continued existence?
Apparently, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) thinks so.
In June this year, the Massachusetts SJC reversed a lower court’s finding that Jean Dorvil from Brockton was guilty of assault and battery for possibly kicking and then spanking his two-year old. In its ruling, the SJC has attempted to codify the circumstances under which spanking can be legal. According to the Massachusetts Criminal Attorney Blog, parents “may use corporal punishment against a child if it: (1) is reasonable; (2) is reasonably related to safeguarding or promoting the child’s welfare; and (3) does not cause or substantially risk causing: physical harm other than fleeting pain or minor marks; severe mental distress; or gross degradation.”
In what many reports called “balanced,” the 25-page decision attempted to protect parents’ privacy while at the same time protecting children from abuse. In cases where it is difficult for authorities to tell if the spanking was “reasonable,” they said, then “the balance will tip in favor of the protection of children.”
Reasonable Spanking Reminiscent of Reasonable Wife-Beating
Where our society is now, with regard to parents hitting children, is similar to where it used to be with regard to men hitting women. We need to shift our culture, in a similar way that the anti-domestic violence movement has shifted our culture to condemn wife-beating. There is no court that would say: Well, just make sure that if you hit your wife, you are providing a “reasonable” punishment, and that it is for her own good, and that you don’t leave any marks behind, and that if you do leave marks behind, they are “fleeting” or “minor.” No, actually, thanks to large-scale organizing and advocacy efforts, domestic abuse – hitting of any kind – is 100% against the law.
To get to this point, we had to go up against strongly held views that it is acceptable for husbands to hit wives. These views often mirror exactly the way people talk about parents’ rights to hit children. In 1874, for example, a North Carolina judge attempted to “balance” an anti-abuse stance with respect for privacy, in a way that is eerily similar to the recent SJC’s ruling on spanking. The North Carolina judge wrote that a husband has no right to chastise his wife and yet he went on to say that “if no permanent injury has been inflicted, nor malice, cruelty nor dangerous violence shown by the husband, it is better to draw the curtain, shut out the public gaze, and leave the parties to forget and forgive.”
In addition to shifting our culture against hitting of any kind and for any reason (whether it leaves marks or not), we need to shift our culture (and policies and laws) away from blaming parents. On the macro level, we should relieve parents of obvious stressors, such as alienating jobs that don’t pay enough. We should have generous paid parental leave so that parents don’t have to feel like they are in a constant time-management crisis. We should address racism, particularly the extra stresses that parents of color are under, many of whom feel that harsh discipline is the only way to safeguard their sons and daughters who literally risk their lives if they are not instantly obedient to police officers. We should address the ways that sexism punishes mothers and puts most of the incredibly draining and unpaid work of parenting directly on our shoulders. We should acknowledge that increased class privilege is associated with “elevated odds of harsh physical punishment,” according to a study published in Pediatrics. We should address the hypocrisy of blaming parents for being “aggressive” when our country takes aggression to a whole new dimension. In addition to immoral and illegal wars abroad, U.S. authorities regularly “solve” problems with violence and harsh punishment (eg. aggressive policing, mass incarceration, punitive practices against school children, etc.).
Managing Little Bodies
But meanwhile, macro forces and hypocrisies notwithstanding, the day-to-day work of parenting involves millions of micro decisions. When you are parenting, you are full-time managing little bodies and sometimes forcing them to do things. What parent has not pinned their baby down during a diaper changing or wrestled their toddler into a car seat? Who among us has not forcefully grabbed an arm when their child suddenly darted into traffic? If a child reached to touch a hot stove, who wouldn’t instantly swat it away? All of those are instances of using adult power over a smaller person. And there are many other ways we have power over our children. I have written elsewhere about all the decisions parents make on behalf of their children – decisions that the children have absolutely no control over – such as where they will live, what religion they will be raised in, etc.
If, as a society, we have set up parents to have this level of power over their children, then it is our responsibility to make sure they can do their jobs compassionately and rationally. We should say no to spanking. There is no justification for hitting our most vulnerable members of our society. But we should offer this guideline along with systemic changes that address oppression and that give parents the time and resources they need to be healthy and stable, as well as available to their kids so that they can foster a relationship of love and trust. That’s the kind of world I want to live in.