While searching for a school in New York for my two-year-old son, I recently made the disturbing discovery that children are still beaten in both private and state schools in America. I had assumed that a country built on a belief in liberty and disgust for “cruel and unusual punishment” would not permit parents or teachers to raise their hands to their kids.
But no. An estimated 50 per cent of all Americans – some 150 million people – have been beaten as a child.
I’m no fan of thrashings. I was the last boy to be beaten at Eton. That was in 1984, when I was 13, after I was caught with a bottle of rum.
The caning I received did not deter me from booze, but it did engender a visceral disrespect for the school’s authorities. From the moment I stood up, reeling from eight lashes to my backside, I have believed that violence is the last resort of the incompetent.
Britain has now banned corporal punishment in schools. But in the US, it’s still hugely popular. I’m finding it hard to make sense of this. America has banned beatings of sailors, women, and animals. How can it endorse hitting children?
Even the thought of a teacher striking my son makes me angry. What about the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects children from “all forms of physical or mental violence”? Not an obstacle, I have learned, since the US is one of only two countries, along with Somalia, which have not ratified it.
Do I really want my offspring to grow up in a kid-cuffing country? And if my family is going to up-sticks and emigrate, where would be the most flagellum-free place?
Countries can be categorised in a four-tier league system, like football teams. The fourth division, the most violent, is where children can be smacked by three groups of punishers: parents, teachers, and government officials. Right at the bottom are Saudi Arabia and Iran, whose regimes impose amputation and mutilation. If we were to move to Iran, its penal code would impose adult sentences on my son when he turns 16, and on my daughter when she is only 10. Anyone caught stealing must endure the amputation of the four fingers on the right hand for the first offence, and half of the left foot for the second.
Malaysia and Singapore regularly cane offenders. Flogging of the feet, or falaka, is used by strict Islamic regimes, and was applied by Uday Hussein to punish players on the Iraqi national football team who missed a penalty or an open goal. His favoured instruments were thorn-studded whips and electric cables.
Bangladesh is seeking promotion out of the fourth division, banning the use of religious edicts, or fatwas, in July 2010. But provincial justice is defying central government. Last month, a terrible story emerged of a 14-year-old girl in the Shariatpur district. She was accused of having an affair with a married man. A local imam ignored her protests of innocence and issued a fatwa that she be lashed 101 times, in public. She died a week later.
Under pressure from the imam, doctors wrote a post-mortem saying she had no signs of injury but had perished from “convulsions due to hysteria”. Her body was exhumed to reveal that she had died from internal bleeding and wounds to her scalp, abdomen, back, chest, arm and legs. Police are now treating the case as murder.
The third division of child clobberings is where children are beaten by parents and teachers. Here we find a brace of European countries – the Czech Republic and France – as well as Australia and Iraq. This is also where the US sits.
American supporters of corporal punishment often cite the Old Testament book of Proverbs, chapter 13: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.”
According to Deborah Sendek, director of the Center for Effective Discipline, a non-profit organisation based in Ohio, this Biblical interpretation underpinned American law on the mistreatment of children for nearly a century after the country was founded.
Corporal punishment remains widespread in American schools and homes, largely because of a 1977 Supreme Court ruling, Ingraham vs Wright. The case centred on James Ingraham, a 14-year-old student in Florida, who allegedly disobeyed a teacher’s order to leave the school stage. Ingraham was held down and spanked more than 20 times with a paddle. He suffered a haematoma that left him bed-ridden for days.
Ingraham’s parents sued the school for violating the 8th Amendment that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment”, and for denying his basic right of “due process.” But the Justices upheld school beatings as constitutional.
Corporal punishment retains a huge wellspring of national support. A study done in 2005 by SurveyUSA showed that 72 per cent of American parents believe “it is OK to spank a child”.
“We estimate that one in two American children are getting spanked or slapped, with a higher concentration of beatings in less educated, lower socio-economic families,” Sendek says.
As far as schools are concerned, individual states decide on whether teachers may hit students. Today, 19 out of 50 states give their blessing to corporal punishment in publicly-funded schools. Those states are marked in red on the map below:
Schools must keep a record of each beating. In 2006, the Office of Civil Rights documented 223,000 beatings in American public schools. That figure would be far higher if statistics were available for beatings in private schools, which 48 states allow.
Only two US states, New Jersey and Iowa, have outlawed beatings in state and private schools.
The favoured method of chastisement in American schools and homes is a wooden paddle. “Teachers are restricted to paddling or spanking on the buttocks,” Sendek explains. “They can’t strike the arms or face.”
Nevertheless, Sendek cites numerous cases of lasting harm. “We’ve seen serious injuries to the back and upper thighs and cases of pregnant adolescents miscarrying. Then there’s the psychological impact. For a student being bullied or having academic difficulties, who may be contemplating suicide, a beating can be the final straw.”
There are fewer restrictions on what parents can do. Sendek says: “Americans feel like we fought for the independence on how to parent and our laws reflect that belief: freedom to speak, freedom to smack.”
There’s a long and tragic history of American children who have died from parental beatings. Brooklyn, where I live, still mourns the 2006 death of Nixzmary Brown, a seven-year-old girl who endured months of beatings by her stepfather, and was eventually killed when he slammed her head into a bathtub. The killing prompted changes in the New York state law to improve child protective services.
I asked Sendek what legal limitations there are on beating. “Most states insist that a child cannot sustain an injury. This technically prohibits any bruising or tissue damage. But that damage happens with any spanking. It’s absurd. No parent ever receives training in how to beat their kids. So the reality is that thousands of pre-school kids every year are getting injured, not just with paddles and hands, but with belts and other objects.”
Proponents of corporal punishment often bring up the case of a child who sticks a metal instrument into an electrical socket, or touches a hot stove. I asked Sendek whether a smack on the bottom might help to fix such habits. “Absolutely not,” she insists. “That smack might change the behaviour at that moment, but it’s useless in the long term. A child in pain does not process things clearly. Effective discipline requires a clear, firm explanation of why that stove or socket is dangerous.”
A growing number of organisations have added their names to the call for an abolition of corporal punishment, including the Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, The American Psychology Association and the National Education Association.
In June, a Global Summit On Ending Corporal Punishment will be held in Dallas, Texas.
The organisers, including Sendek, hope that it will lead to America rising to the Second Division, where only parents may beat their children. In this group, we find Canada, Russia, Japan, China, South Africa and most of Europe – including the United Kingdom.
Historically, Blighty has only given up her floggings with a massive fight. Until 1891, British husbands were allowed to beat their wives in order to keep them “within the bounds of duty”.
It was not until 1948 that Britain abolished judicial corporal punishment, usually whipping and birching – well after its European neighbours.
As for corporal punishment in schools, Parliament outlawed the practice in state schools in 1986, and in private schools in 1998. (The ban took effect in England and Wales in 1999, Scotland in 2000 and Northern Ireland in 2003.)
But beating remains legal in British homes. Scottish law is tougher than in England. As of 2003, it banned the use of the belt, cane, slipper, wooden spoon or any other implement.
Some traditionalists still call for the return of the rod. A 2008 survey of more than 6,000 British teachers found more than a fifth believed the cane should be brought back. In the survey, one supply teacher said: “Children’s behaviour is now absolutely outrageous in the majority of schools. There are too many anger management people who give children the idea that it is their right to flounce out of lessons for time out because they have problems with their temper. They should be caned instead.”
Tony Little, the current headmaster of Eton, told me: “As someone who’s been a headmaster for 20 years, I have never felt it can be useful as a deterrent, or as a way to convey a message. It’s a very redundant approach.”
I asked Little how things had changed so much since I was beaten, 27 years ago. “There’s been a generational shift. It’s just so far off the radar from being considered now. We teach boys through their life and work to respect others. Laying into someone physically is just not appropriate.”
Still, there is no political momentum to abolish it in homes, so British prospects are poor for joining the Premiership. This growing group of 29 nations practising “universal prohibition” includes New Zealand, the Netherlands, Tunisia, Kenya, Spain, Israel and Venezuela.
So which of these should I move our family to? The top-dog equivalent of Manchester United, the country with the most anti-beating pedigree is ... drum-roll ... Sweden. It was the first country to introduce universal prohibition in 1979. I hope my children develop a taste for meatballs.
Sweden, here we come!
May 26, 2011