“Whoever spares the rod, hates their children.” -The Bible, Proverbs 13:24.
In 19 states, it’s perfectly legal for public school teachers or administrators to commit child abuse against pupils as young as 5 in the name of punishment. Corporal punishment, it’s called, and it just so happens that nearly all of those 19 states are conservative, the majority of them in the Bible Belt, where a majority of people believe the “Good Book” is the literal word of God. You can’t argue with God, even when he’s condoning, commanding or even committing genocide, mass murder, slavery, child rape or any of the other crimes against humanity you’ll find by randomly turning to most any page of the Old Testament.
But this isn’t an atheist screed. It’s a rejection of legal—or any—child abuse. As a former abused child, it’s a deeply personal issue. My mother wasn’t necessarily a bad person, but she was abused as a child and you know what they say about the cyclicality of abuse. It’s not like I was a problem child; I was often, if not usually, on both the academic and athletic honor rolls and from the earliest age I understood it was best to go along to get along. But I also had the misfortune of being adopted by an imperious, irrational former abused child with a prodigious prescription drug habit to whom the slightest manifestation of dissent was often answered with brutality.
At age 5, it was still mostly bare-handed slaps across the ass. By 6, it was the paddle. Next came the belt, the wooden spoon and, long before my first pimple or shave, the rolling pin. There were sometimes threats of worse to come—mom once worked with undercover narcs and was not above the occasional not-so-thinly veiled death threat. How is a 10-year-old supposed to know what’s bullshit and what isn’t, especially one who’s already been subjected to unending torment? The constant physical and psychological terror meant a hellish childhood and enduring anger issues that took decades to overcome. There were bruises, there was blood and there was constant fear, all in an era when there were far less safeguards for children and far fewer outlets for them to report abuse.
As you might imagine, I have long been a staunch opponent of any form of child abuse. And so it was with great indignation that I viewed the viral video of Pam Edge, principal at Jasper County Elementary School in Monticello, Georgia, smacking a terrified 5-year-old boy with a wooden paddle as long as the kindergartner’s legs for allegedly spitting on another student. Georgia school officials can only commit corporal punishment with parental consent. The boy’s mother, Shana Perez, says she consented to the paddling under duress because she feared she would be jailed for her son’s truancy issues, which she claims are health-related.
The paddling video sparked widespread outrage and condemnation. But plenty of parents have also come out in support of corporal punishment. “If the kid’s parents spanked him enough at home, the principal wouldn’t have had to spank him in school,” goes the typical pro-paddler comment. “Whoever spares the rod, hates their children.”
The trouble with that sort of thinking is, as that most famous Georgia son Martin Luther King Jr. said, violence begets violence. A society in which children are violently inculcated from the most tender age to associate the use of force with problem solving is one in which adults will grow up much more likely to resort to violence to solve their own problems. Or just for kicks. It’s not such a long way, morally and philosophically speaking, from the kindergarten paddle to the horrors of Guantánamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.
Maslow said that it is tempting to treat every problem like a nail if the only tool you have is a hammer. Whoever commits or condones an act of violence has proven themself too lazy, too impatient, too stupid or just too cruel to work out a more peaceful solution to their problem. They should be roundly condemned, and doubly so when that violence is committed against an innocent child. There is never an excuse for child abuse, but in a society that doesn’t flinch as its military slaughters thousands of children in half a dozen countries, or as thousands of its own children are sacrificed on the altar of the Right to Bear Arms, it’s easy to see why so many are utterly unfazed by a whack on the backside.
Persuading a nation of hammersmiths that children aren’t but more nails to be beaten into the grain of conformity is indeed a tall order, but history is progressive and American children have far more protection today than even when I was growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s. Some 31 states have already outlawed corporal punishment in public schools. Like same-sex marriage bans and yes, probably even capital punishment, it is only a matter of time before legal child abuse is consigned to history books and horror stories told by old-timers. Hopefully I’ll be one of them.