Arrest in Georgia should hit parents square in the face

June 29, 1994|By MIKE LITTWIN

A woman and her 9-year-old son were shopping at a grocery store near their home in Woodstock, Ga. The boy, his mother would say later, was "being rotten" and picking on his sister.

Anyone who has ever taken kids to a grocery store can sympathize with the mother.

What happened next does not seem to be in dispute.

The mother yelled at the son.

The son yelled back.

And then the mother slapped him.

She slapped him across the face, one time. Twenty years ago, or maybe even 10, there would have been some whispers and pointed fingers and nothing more.

In 1994, store employees called the police.

The officer who arrived at the scene -- the cops come quickly in a town like Woodstock, a small town 20 miles from Atlanta -- saw what he described as red marks on the boy's face. According to the police report, the boy told the cop, "I get smacked when I'm bad."

Another policeman arrived and said it was against the law to slap a kid in Georgia, which may surprise you. It certainly surprised the mother. What the law allows is "reasonable forms of discipline . . . so long as any injury to the child is not more than minimal."

The officer arrested the mother, slapped her in handcuffs and took her away to jail where she was charged with cruelty to children, a felony.

The mother, who doesn't deny slapping her son, is now out on $22,050 bond and complaining that the police overreacted.

Certainly, it doesn't sound like a felony case, and no one expects it to go that far. But there are other questions.

Like, is it OK to slap your kid in public? Or, for that matter, in private? And to take it another step, what does that mean for spanking?

This is not the O. J. Simpson case. But I think it's related. On its most important level, the Simpson case is a double murder. But it is also about spousal abuse and domestic violence.

If you slap your spouse, that is domestic violence.

If you slap your neighbor, that's battery.

If you slap/spank your kid, what is it?

This is a tricky area. An increasing number of people don't hit their kids. In five countries, spanking is actually against the law.

In Sweden, they run an anti-spanking campaign that has been compared to one to get people to use seat belts. Of course, that's Sweden, one of your namby-pamby countries that hasn't won a war lately, or even fought in one.

In America, though, attitudes are changing, too. A recent poll showed that for the first time a majority of parents (51 percent) said they had not struck their children in the past year.

Still, a significant number believe, to borrow a phrase, that sparing the rod spoils the child. In either case, most of us don't want the government telling us how to bring up our kids.

Of course, the government does have a role in preventing child abuse. Sadly, somebody has to protect the victims. But protect them from what?

To put it another way, where does spanking end and abuse begin?

That's another tricky question. Is it OK to raise a welt on your kid's behind? Is it OK to use a belt? A switch? A hairbrush?

Is it OK to spank when you're angry? Is it OK to spank because the boss yelled at you and you're ready to explode?

I have my own bias, which is based, in part, on the principle that grown-ups are big and kids are little. I've noticed people tend to hit mainly those smaller than themselves. To me, that's the major lesson spanking teaches. I also buy the argument that kids who are hit are more likely to grow up to be people who hit.

But would I have called the cops on that woman?

Jimmy Mercer, police chief in law-and-order Woodstock, where schools allow corporal punishment, has been swamped with calls since the Atlanta Constitution ran a story last Saturday. In a written statement, he said the agency has been ridiculed for taking such action but noted that "we are ridiculed when we don't."

He added: "Personally, I do not believe that an adult can justify slapping the face of a small child without expecting some type of admonishment from the court."

Personally, I find it hard to disagree.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.