The impact of corporal punishment on children has never been resolved and is no more likely to be so after last week's ruling by Maine's Supreme Judicial court.
Intending to provide clarity to the question, the justices managed only to enflame critics anew.
In overturning three assault convictions against a father who had physically disciplined his young son, the court ruled that the applicable standard for assault would allow nothing beyond "transient pain" for the victim and "temporary marks." Notwithstanding the fact that pain tolerance and any physical response to aggressive touch vary from individual to individual, even attempting to define the issue presents problems.
Advocates against family violence are asking whether the court's definition ought to be offered at all, given that no similar standard is employed when differentiating the levels of assault between adults. They argue that children have the same legal entitlement to be free from physical attacks as adults.
Ideally, parents discipline children with the intent to provide behavioral education and guidance. Sadly, exercising that discipline can cross over easily into a display of power and control that has little to do with behavioral guidance.
Attempting, then, to define a physical standard — the size of any surface wound or its severity — not only clouds the question of an "acceptable" level of violence, but tends to dismiss its emotional and psychological impact.
Spanking or hitting children as a parental method of punishment is often — if not always — challenged by child welfare advocates. Though doubtless well-intended, the court's ruling has done little to appease those advocates or, in fact, guide parents.
Copyright © 2000 Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc.