I feel fortunate to live in a society that almost universally recognizes that domestic violence is unacceptable, where men
acknowledge that striking a women is wrong and where women are empowered to assert their right to protect themselves.
It baffles me, therefore, that a culture which is outspoken regarding
violence against women so complacently sits back and accepts violence against children.
That’s the inconsistency California Assemblywoman Sally Leiber
recently stood up against when she proposed a law which would ban parents from striking children under three years old.
On the surface, it seems uncontroversial, even redundant: The courts should vigorously prosecute violence against children. In fact, you might ask: Isn’t beating children already illegal under statutes against child abuse or assault?
The answer, sadly, is no. In many jurisdictions, injuring children is
allowed if the injuries are sustained in the course of “discipline.”
If the injuries aren’t “serious,” don’t cause “disfigurement,” or
don’t require immediate hospitalization, abusers get off scot-free.
Some recent examples should suffice:
In 2003 in Ohio, a family friend hit a 14-year-old girl on the bare
bottom, hard enough to leave bruises. His admitted intention: To
strike her “hard enough so … she wouldn’t be able to sit down.”
Even though all sides agreed that “physical harm” was caused, a judge acquitted the man, relying on testimony from the girl’s grandmother that the action was “appropriate.”
Last year in North Carolina, a father who hit his 13-year-old son with a belt was let off the hook by the state Court of Appeals because “serious” physical injury was not caused. Since the bruises left behind didn’t require “immediate medical attention,” the beating was not considered to be abuse.
In Texas in 2003, a 10-year old boy was beaten by a school coach to the point where he bled through his underwear; a doctor described the bruises as “consistent with traumatic injury.” The Texas Department of Education, however, found this to be consistent with their policy of allowing “nonviolent” corporal punishment, and a federal judge upheld the “spanking” as legal under state and federal law.
These cases aren’t spanking; they’re abuse, plain and simple. A man
who injures his wife will be prosecuted for domestic violence. A man who injures his pets will be prosecuted for cruelty to animals. But a man who injures his children can get away with it in many
jurisdictions by calling it “spanking.”
When we talk about the need to change laws surrounding spanking, we’re not talking about outlawing a mild smack that stings for a second, or that merely embarrasses a child.
We’re talking about the need to change laws like Colorado’s (CRS 19-1-103), which allows parents to legally beat a child to the point of bruising or bleeding, so long as it happens in the course of
discipline, and the actions fall within the “accepted child-rearing
practices of the [child’s] culture.” These standards are not only
subjective, but fail to draw what should be a clear-cut line against
The very youngest children – those the proposed California law is
designed to protect – are extremely vulnerable to injury, and are
incapable of reporting internal injuries effectively. Any striking of
young children poses such a great risk to that it’s negligent
parenting, and should be prosecuted as such.
Older children, on the other hand, should have at least the same
protections against physical violence, beatings, and bruising that
adults and animals have. That’s common sense, but the law doesn’t yet recognize it.
Opponents of these laws frame the debate as about a parent’s choice to safely and responsibly discipline their children in a way that doesn’t cause injury. Even though I disagree with the decision to spank children of any age, I don’t want to take that choice away.
What I think we all want is a society which recognizes that
“discipline” isn’t justification for abuse. When spanking crosses the
line to injuring, bruising, or beating, that’s a choice none of us
Seth Anthony is a chemistry masters student. His column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Replies and feedback can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.