Have you ever hit a child? If so, join the club: Roughly 80 percent of American parents admit that they have slapped, spanked, or struck their children. And 20 states still allow corporal punishment in public schools, where about 100,000 students are "paddled" each year.
That's in stark contrast to the rest of the world, which has increasingly prohibited the physical punishment of children. Americans like to see themselves as being at the forefront of historical change, leading humanity to ever more freedom and progress. But when it comes to corporal punishment of children, we're well behind the curve.
Exhibit A is William Adams, a county judge in Texas who was captured on video beating his then-16-year-old daughter with a belt while cursing and shouting for some seven minutes. The 2004 video recently went viral after Adams' daughter posted it online. The judge was suspended from the bench with pay pending an investigation, but he is unlikely to face criminal charges.
In many other countries, however, any physical punishment of a child is by definition criminal. Starting with Sweden in 1979, 31 nations have passed laws barring parents from striking their children. Another 70 have banned corporal punishment in schools.
So why not America? It begins with our Puritan foreparents, whose true motives are often blurred in the turkey-fed haze of Thanksgiving. Rather than seeking religious freedom for everyone, as many Americans still believe, the Puritans wanted everyone to follow the dictates of their religion. So they set up rules and institutions reflecting biblical teachings, including that of Proverbs 13:24: "He that spareth the rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him."
And chasteneth they did - with rods and more. "Surely there is in all children a stubbornness, and stoutness of mind arising from natural pride, which must in the first place be broken and beaten down," one Puritan minister wrote. "For the beating, and keeping down of this stubbornness, parents must provide carefully."
If they didn't, schools stepped into the breach. Established to teach children how to read the Bible, Puritan schools also disciplined them according to it. "Because the Rodd of Correction is an ordinance of God ... the schoolmaster for the tyme beeing shall have full power to minister correction to all or any of his schollers," the town leaders of Dorchester, Mass., resolved in 1645, "and no parent or other of the Inhabitants shall hinder or goe about to hinder the master therein."
RESOLUTION, Dorchester, Massachusetts, 1645|
"Because the Rodd of Correction is an ordinance of God ... the schoolmaster for the tyme beeing shall have full power to minister correction to all or any of his schollers, and no parent or other of the Inhabitants shall hinder or goe about to hinder the master therein."
As the last clause suggests, some people were already resisting the Puritans' harsh regime then. And when the Founding Fathers established a new national government a century later, they took pains to separate it from religious authority.
They also limited its powers, leaving Americans free to pursue their happiness as they saw fit. Likewise, the new state governments gave citizens extraordinary leeway in conducting their lives. That meant most forms of corporal punishment continued, in homes and in schools. Campaigns against the practice tended to focus on its most extreme cases, which became known as "abuse."
It wasn't until the 1960s that most states passed laws requiring the reporting of child abuse to authorities. And the federal government didn't address the issue until 1974, when it authorized funds to help states prevent acts resulting in "death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse, or exploitation" of children.
Yet the very effort to define child abuse actually reinforced corporal punishment by legitimizing acts that did not meet the definition. In 1977, the Supreme Court declared that corporal corrections in schools do not violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment. Any "severe" or "excessive" punishments were already barred under existing "civil and criminal sanctions for abuse," the court noted.
That's the standard governing parents, too: Hitting is OK, but abuse isn't. When does one shade into the other? We leave that determination to adults like William Adams, who has presided over many child-abuse cases as a judge.
Where his own behavior is concerned, though, Adams can't seem to tell the difference. "In my mind, I haven't done anything wrong other than discipline my child," he told an interviewer after his daughter posted the video.
In the video, Adams shouts as he strikes his daughter repeatedly with a belt: "Bend over the f-ing bed! Lay down or I'll spank your f-ing face!" His daughter, by the way, has ataxic cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder affecting physical coordination.
The infraction that earned her this punishment? Illegally downloading games from the Internet.
Do we want William Adams - or anybody else - deciding when corporal punishment descends into abuse? To really stop child abuse, we need to stop adults from hitting children - period. The rest of the world is already figuring that out. Let's hope America catches up soon.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of "Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory" (Yale University Press). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.