Belts equal violence, not discipline
By Richard Davis and Robert Heskett, Mr. Davis is president and Mr. Heskett executive director of Family Nonviolence, Inc. in Fairhaven.,, January 23, 2008

Last fall there was a flurry of activity in the media in response to the filing of a bill in the Legislature (House No. 3922) by Kathleen Wolf "to prohibit the corporal punishment of children." It has been met with a noncommittal declaration by Rep. Jay Kaufman, who filed the bill, with a poll by The Standard-Times that more than 75 percent of respondents said it was "silly," and with one radio commentator saying, "Kids out of line? Spanking might not be an option in Massachusetts."

It might be helpful to look at spanking in a different context. The Executive Office of Public Safety Web site defines "domestic violence" in this way: "Domestic violence is defined as a pattern of coercive and controlling behaviors and tactics used by one person over another to gain power and control. This may include verbal abuse, financial abuse, emotional, sexual and physical abuse. One of the first lessons that children learn is that it is acceptable for those who have more physical power and the control of economic resources to use that physical power and economic control to 'get their way.'"

As we may remember, it was once acceptable to believe that abuse occurring in the home, among adults in the family, was considered a "family affair." We have come to recognize that abuse of adults is no longer tolerable in our society. We have laws that mandate arrest of perpetrators of domestic violence that is, violence between adults. We have also determined that some extreme acts of cruelty toward children are against the law, both legally and morally. That is, a parent, or someone acting in the place of a parent, will be criminally responsible for assault and battery where the force employed is beyond what a reasonable parent might inflict under the same or similar circumstances.

What we have not yet come to recognize is that the exertion of power over children, including the threat and use of violence (defining spanking as violence), is not an appropriate and basically healthy way to discipline. In fact, in the case decided by the Supreme Judicial Court in Cobble v. Commissioner of the Dept. of Social Services (1999), the court ruled that a parent's spanking of a 9-year-old child with a leather belt and leaving pink marks the next day with no bruising, combined with an explanation of the reason for the punishment and expressions of caring, is not unreasonable force.

The board of directors of Family Nonviolence, Inc. takes the position that use of belts or other instruments on a child, under Massachusetts General Law 209A, is not reasonable force under any circumstances. Therefore, we have voted to submit to the Legislature as alternative to House No. 3922 a petition called, "An act prohibiting the use of belts or other instruments to discipline children." It includes this explanation: "The use of belts or other instruments to discipline children is not reasonable force and violates their rights to receive safe, secure and respectful care."


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