We'd be a better country if adults stopped hitting kids, and despite what the cynics and hard-heads say, we're already on the way. A comprehensive national report issued in February found a significant and unprecedented drop in child abuse since 1993. The main reason cited was greater awareness and public intolerance of the problem. More people are paying attention. Social workers, cops, teachers, principals, doctors, nurses and daycare workers have all been trained to recognize abuse and report it. More people are speaking up. More people are getting the message: Stop hitting kids.
Certainly, we're making progress. Certainly the nation will be better off if more of the next generation manages to grow up without needless physical and emotional trauma. February's report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services was encouraging.
But here we are in summer, and a lot of the sentinels are off the job. Kids are out of school and away from their teachers, the people most likely to notice problems and help them. It falls to the rest of us — neighbors, coaches, friends or just bystanders — to act when we see something ugly. No expertise required. You know abuse when you see it — unless, of course, you're a practitioner.
If you're in the habit of hitting your children, you probably regard yourself as a disciplinarian, not an abuser. Your daddy whacked you, and you're doing just fine, right? A little smack here and there, a belt across the backside — those little traumas didn't do you any harm, and it will do your kids some good. I've heard those rationalizations before.
That's how many adults justify what they do, without calling it abuse.
That's why corporal punishment is still legal in all 50 states. It's considered a parental right to use physical violence against children. And parents who "merely spank" see themselves on a higher plane than abusers.
But stop kidding yourselves. There isn't much of a distinction. Degrees of violence matter little when the human being receiving the pain weighs no more than 40 or 50 pounds. It's all abusive, in my book.
Step back and think about it, and the laws make no sense: I can go to jail for slapping a woman in a bar, but not for slapping my daughter. I can get arrested for punching a guy in a bar, but not for taking a wooden paddle to my son.
Legalities aside, there's this: No one can convince me that anything good comes from using violence against a kid who has done nothing more than be a kid — a sometimes crying, howling, angry, sassy, stubborn kid. The juvenile detention centers and maximum-security prisons are full of boys and men, girls and young women who have spanking and/or abuse in their life stories. And while most of us who were at different times whipped, slapped, punched or kicked by our parents might regard ourselves as well-adjusted, even normal, adults, real honesty acknowledges the harm and scarring; real honesty says our lives would have been better without the lesson in violence and the trauma it inflicted.
Congress now has a bill to outlaw corporal punishment in schools across the land. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat, introduced legislation this week to take the wooden paddle out of the hands of the last school teachers allowed to use them.
Amazingly, corporal punishment is still legal in schools in 20 states — not amazingly, those states are in the South and Southwest. (Maryland abolished spankings in all schools in 1971.)
Citing data from the U.S. Department of Education, Ms. McCarthy said there were more than 220,000 incidents of students being physically disciplined by teachers or school administrators in the 2006-2007 academic year. (That's the most recent data available.) More than 10,000 of those students requested medical treatment, according to The Washington Post.
Here's another startling statistic from Ms. McCarthy's review of federal data: "Although students with disabilities constituted 13.7 percent of all public school students, they made up 18.8 percent of those who are subjected to corporal punishment. These students are often punished simply for behaviors arising out of their disabilities, such as autism or Tourette's syndrome."
Spanking the disabled: Why on Earth do we tolerate this?
And why, if we require teachers to report signs of abuse, would 20 states still give them license to inflict physical pain on the students we ask them to watch and protect?
We'd be a better country if all adults — teachers and parents — stopped hitting kids and stopped trying to argue that it's OK. It never is.