We don't hit animals

why do we hit children?

November 22, 2006|By Susan Bitensky

EAST LANSING, Mich. -- The "horse whisperer," Monty Roberts, trains horses exclusively through nonviolent methods. We have the "dog whisperer," Cesar Milan, as well. Although he does not renounce all physical force in training dogs, he has condemned hitting them. The appearance of these animal whisperers is a heartening testament to our evolving regard for other species and a growing repugnance toward violence.

Yet, the phenomenon also raises a question. Where are the child whisperers?

Corporal punishment of children is violence too. It is, in essence, the infliction of physical force upon children with the intention of causing them pain so as to correct or punish their misbehavior.

In keeping with the advent of the animal whisperers and the values they represent, the United States appears to be on a little-noticed trajectory toward prohibiting corporal punishment of children. Most states bar foster parents from resorting to this form of discipline. The laws applicable to other residential child care settings are more of a hodgepodge, but most state laws prohibit such punishment in nonresidential facilities catering to children, like day care. Well over half of the states outlaw physical chastisement of minors when detained or incarcerated by law enforcement. Moreover, our courts cannot sentence juvenile delinquents to flogging, whipping or any other physical retribution.

Progress in our country has also been made in eliminating the once ubiquitous paddle from public schools. Twenty-eight states ban corporal punishment of public schoolchildren, an increase of 26 states over the past 30 years.

It is only in the American family that legalized corporal punishment of children remains entrenched and unbudging. The laws of 49 states give parents power to administer "reasonable" corporal punishment. The one standout is Minnesota, the statutes of which may be read to make these parental corporal punishers liable for criminal assault.

It seems that our nation is in transition and conflict when it comes to spanking children. It is a hot-button issue for many people, provoking understandable concerns about undercutting parental prerogatives and letting children run amok. Nevertheless, recent scientific literature clearly establishes that corporal punishment is correlated with weakening, not strengthening, the parent-child relationship, and with increased child aggression, delinquency and antisocial conduct, rather than with good conduct and an active conscience.

Indeed, the scientific insights are also complemented by far-reaching legal reforms. Corporal punishment of children - while still widely practiced around the globe - has come to be absolutely forbidden by international human rights law. At least five treaties have been authoritatively construed to this effect, including two to which the United States is a party: the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.

Consistent with international law, at least 85 countries outlaw corporal punishment in schools. The United States and Australia are the sole industrialized nations where school personnel in some states or provinces may still hit children with impunity. The trend toward outlawing parental corporal punishment has been much slower, but it is moving. Fifteen nations, mostly in Europe, have banned all corporal punishment of children, no matter by whom the rod is wielded or in what context. In short, entire national governments have become veritable child whisperers.

Our animal whisperers should inspire and perhaps embarrass Americans into taking measures that would enable full compliance with the mandates of international human rights law. It would not be the first time that solicitude for animals has led the way to protection for children. In the latter part of the 19th century, New York law safeguarded animals from inhumane treatment - but not children. Thus, little Mary Ellen Wilson had been, by 1874, the unheeded victim of years of merciless physical abuse at the hands of her foster mother. It was the founder of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals who ultimately intervened to rescue her.

Susan Bitensky is a professor of law at Michigan State University College of Law. Her e-mail is bitensky@law.msu.edu.

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