I recently had the privilege participating in the annual Town Meeting of Brookline, Massachusetts and in a hearing of the Judiciary Committee of the Massachusetts legislator that I think may be important steps forward in the process of banning corporal punishment by parents.
Landmark vote in Brookline, Massachusetts, USA - A little after 11 PM on the night of May 26, 2005 marks what may turn out to be a historic turning point in the effort to end the violent child rearing that goes under such euphemisms as “a good spanking,” “smacking,” and "a quick swat on the bum.” It took place in Brookline, Massachusetts, when at the annual town meeting, the members voted in favor of the following resolution:
This resolution made Brookline the first American government unit to declare itself as opposed to spanking by parents. It may or may not mark a turning point in American history, but it at least sets a precedent.
The resolution was first introduced in 2003 by a Brookline resident, Ronald Goldman, but a vote was blocked. On a 2nd attempt in 2004, it was defeated, but by only two votes. In 2005, after almost an hour of drama, it passed by 89 to 80.
After I had accepted Ron Goldman’s invitation to speak, I almost changed my mind because there was a high risk making the two hour trip to Boston and not being able to speak. First, the resolution was the 25th item on the agenda. It might be carried over to the next evening, and I was leaving for Mexico the next morning and could not attend a session the following evening. Second, there must be unanimous consent for a non-resident to speak. Given the close vote and the depth of feeling, there was a high risk that I would not be allowed to speak. I decided to go despite the risk, partly because there was likely to be press coverage and refusing to let me speak is the kind of thing reporters like to cover. It that happened, it would get the no-spanking message out to the public even if the resolution failed.
Consideration of the resolution began when the Moderator (a citizen elected for purposes presiding at the meeting) read the resolution. It was the 25th and last item on the agenda and a little after 10 PM. Ron Goldman had arranged for me to have five minutes to speak in support of the resolution.
Opening Statement By Resolution Sponsor. - The Moderator first called on Ron Goldman to speak for up to 10 minutes. Goldman presented the arguments for the motion, including why corporal punishment was bad for children and bad for the community. He reviewed the previous attempts to pass the resolution, during which he refuted the procedural objection that the resolution had already been defeated twice and the voters should not be burdened with it again. He pointed out that the vote was blocked the first time and that there had been only one previous vote, and that only two votes short of passing. He also pointed out that many previous actions had been put on the docket repeatedly, including one favored by the selectman for nine successive years until it finally passed. He accused the Selectman of using the repeated vote issue as a subterfuge and implied they were being hypocritical, at which point the Moderator asked him to cease making personal attacks.
The other major objection that Goldman addressed was the argument that a town government should restrict its activities to town government and that it was inappropriate for a town to attempt to legislate on the morals of its citizens. He pointed to previous resolutions on moral issues such as the Viet Nam war for which Brookline had a long and proud record, and to legislation to control immoral behavior such as drug use and drunkenness.
Board Of Selectman’s Statement - Next the Moderator ask the representative of the Board of Selectmen to speak This board is an elected body which manages town affairs between the annual meetings, investigates issues, prepares reports, and reviews items placed on the docket by citizens . The board had voted 4 to 1 to recommend that the resolution not be approved. He said he favored the resolution in principal but would not vote for it because he objected to it being brought up for a third time after being defeated in two previous attempts. He also said he did not think it was appropriate for a town meeting to vote on moral issues.
Statement by the Chair of the Brookline Council On Domestic Violence - The next speaker presented the recommendation of the Advisory Committee. She introduced herself as, among other things, director or chair of domestic violence services (I presume in Brookline) and a long time social activist. She reported that the advisory committee also voted to recommend a no vote on the resolution by 13 to 4 (with 2 abstentions). Then she explained why she herself was opposed. I wish I had taken notes because it would have provided some precious examples of specious objections. One that I do remember is that there is no need for this because Brookline does not have a problem with child abuse. (Previously, Ron Goldman had very clearly explained the difference and said that the resolution was not about child abuse.) She went on to say that if one of her grandchildren started running out into the street, she wanted to have the right to give him “a slap on the bum” and then used words to imply that the resolution would endanger Brookline children by withdrawing that right. She also said that she would not slap a child in the face and is not advocating that.
Hearing a woman who has devoted herself to ending violence against women speak against a resolution devoted to ending violence against children brought back an experience I had 25 years ago when I was forcibly ejected from a shelter for battered women. While the director of the shelter was showing me around, I saw one of the residents spank her child. The staff person in the room did not intervene. I asked if the staff was instructed to do anything about such incidents. She replied they would do something if things got out of hand. I then said that a mother hitting her child was an important opportunity to teach non-violence. The shelter director became angry and said indignantly that these women are not violent. She put her hand between my shoulders, pushed me toward the door, and .told me to get out. I am glad that in the intervening 25 years almost all shelters have adopted a never-spank policy, but this town meeting revealed that the old way lives on in the thinking of some.
The Vote On Permitting Me To Speak - At this point the Moderator called on me. He introduced me as a professor of sociology and the founder and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, who had driven from Durham, NH to talk about this issue. A point of order was immediately raised. It was the need unanimous consent for a non-resident to speak. The moderator called for vote and perhaps 20 or thirty voted no consent. The rest of the town meeting responded with cries of outrage and jeers and calls for a second vote. The moderator accepted the request for a second vote. On the second vote, only one person stood and voted no. The outcry from the meeting was even louder. The moderator then said “Mr. Wheeler, do you want to reconsider your vote. He did and I was allowed to speak.
My Statement - I began by thanking Mr. Wheeler for giving me the privilege of speaking and thanked the town meeting members for allowing me speak. I devoted the five minutes allowed to two main points: Why it is important to never spank children, and why Brookline should pass such a resolution.
Perhaps four of the five minutes was devoted to the why never spank, with three main points: (1) Spanking is not necessary because solid research, including experimental studies shows that in the immediate situation it is not more effective than other methods of correction and control. (2) Those same studies also show that spanking does work, even though no better. If spanking does work correct misbehavior, why should it be avoided? Because the research, including longitudinal studies, shows that it has many harmful side effects. Consequently, as with a medicine that has shown to have harmful side effects, if there is an alternative, the alternative should be used. (3) It is morally wrong to hit misbehaving children, just as it is morally wrong to hit misbehavior adults.
My concluding remarks about “Why Brookline?” made the point that Brookline is a community with a long history of taking a stance on issues of social and moral importance, and that this is an issue of great importance to the children of Brookline. The resolution should be passed both to set a national example and for the welfare of the children of Brookline.
The Votes - As soon as I finished speaking there was a call for a vote. However, because other speakers were listed and lined up to speak, the Moderator asked for a vote on whether to close discussion. The motion to close discussion passed. A vote by show of hands was taken, and the moderator announced that the resolution passed by 89 to 81 (if my memory is correct). Cheers and applause broke out. However, it was stopped by a request for a standing vote. Because the first vote was so close, I was worried that the next time it could easily go the other way by a similarly small amount.
For a standing vote, the hall is divided into sectors with a counter assigned to each sector. Those in favor are asked to stand, they are counted and the counts given to the moderator. This is repeated for those opposed. This second vote was almost identical -- 89 to 80. The cheers and applause were even louder. What I hope was a historic turning point had occurred.
Characteristics Of Brookline - Brookline is adjacent to Boston and has a population of 57107. Liberal. Many previous resolutions on policy issues such as the Viet Nam war. Few other communities in which it would have passed. Perhaps even more remarkable than that the resolution passed, is the strength of the opposition in this high education and liberal community. So it may provide information on both potential and strength of opposition to taking a stance on corporal punishment..
The New England Town Meeting - The traditional Town Meeting is an annual event in which the citizens of a town meet to conduct the town’s business, including determining taxes by voting on town expenditures, choosing town officials (including the “Moderator” who conducts the Town Meeting, and passing legislation, including resolutions. Any citizen may introduce legislation, either by having it placed on the agenda or bringing it up as other business. As towns have grown beyond a size that could be accommodated in an auditorium, many have shifted to other forms of government. Some, like Brookline, have modified the Town Meeting by having it consist of elected neighborhood representatives. The Brookline, meeting consists of ?? representatives. Members of the meeting can register to speak on an issue. Others may also speak. The meeting can vote to close discussion at any point, even if there are previously listed speakers waiting to speak.
On June 7 I testified on behalf of House Bill 1787. The central provision of this bill is that
“It shall be unlawful in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts for any adult to inflict corporal punishment upon a child.”
The hearing began at 1 PM. Seventy seven bills were on the agenda, but no agenda was available to indicate that or the order in which testimony would be heard. For some bills no one was present and there was no testimony. For some others, such as one on medical use of Marijuana, there many speakers. The corporal punishment bill turned out to be next to last on the agenda, and testimony was not heard until about 7:15 PM. By this time the only members of the committee still present were the co-chairs from the House and Senate. They were truly devoted public officials.
It was a hearing-only session; that is, no vote on forwarding the bill to the legislature was planned. But not many heard because only the co-chairs were still present. In addition, by the time HB 1787 came up, there were no reporters present. On the encouraging side was the fact that, despite having been in the crowed hearing room for more than six hours without a break, the co-chairs did their best to make it a real hearing. Although each speaker was allotted three minutes, they did not enforce that or in any way try to hurry the five us who spoke on behalf or the bill. The speakers included Susan Lawrence ( on whose behalf the bill was introduced by Representative Marzill) and EPOCH board member Deana Pollard. The committee chairs were polite and they asked positive, non-hostile questions. I have no guess as to what the chances are of it receiving a favorable recommendation by the committee. But perhaps the most important accomplishment is that the bill even received a hearing. On the other hand, some of the opposition was indicated in an email from Susan Lawrence who said that “My Representative, Jim Marzill, who bravely sponsored this bill, has been under fire and getting some nasty phone calls.”
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