As I approach my 70th, I’m spending more time remembering how fortunate I was to have been raised in a loving family, where, as an only child, I was treated as something special.
For health reasons, my mother was explicitly told not to risk what would likely be another unsuccessful pregnancy.
But throwing caution to the wind, and desperately wanting to have a child of their own, mom and dad gave it one more try.
My birth was treated, literally, as a gift from God.
Well, almost all the time. The exceptions had to do with those occasions in which I seriously misbehaved.
That is, those times when I caused my parents to question whether the divine gift had a good bit of the devil’s contribution in the mix.
When that happened – and it had to be a very serious offense to cause this particular punishment – the razor strap came out (my dad was a barber at a time when facial shaves were a regular feature of his trade), and I was given a truly stinging whipping.
That corporal punishment I still see, all these years later, as a deviation from my parents’ love.
Even then I recognized that their anger against me caused them to draw on the worst parts of their otherwise caring personalities.
(And I can only hope that my own children recognize that when I inflicted corporal punishment on them, it was a similar departure from who I was as the father who loved them.)
I have the sense that my parents weren’t exceptional in reverting to corporal punishment. As far as I can tell, it was the norm.
That started changing when more and more parents over time heard about, read and took to heart what Dr. Benjamin Spock proposed in his book “Baby and Child Care” (1946). The message was be verbal not physical in disciplining the child, and all within the context of expressing love, even if it had to be tough love.
Twenty-nine countries now outlaw corporal punishment in the home, 22 of them in Europe. In the United States it remains legal, but here too there are limits to what is acceptable physical punishment.
I can see that transformation operating in the way my own grandchildren are being raised.
Here in the United States, we’ve changed.
Or have we? Might it be that we’ve only changed the way we administer the corporal punishment?
New York Times columnist Charles Blow made that case in a “striking” way.
He referred to a Guttmacher Institute report that indicated unintended pregnancies have increased 50 percent since 1994.
Yet politicians are passing laws to restrict abortion at a record pace: 80 this year, compared to 23 in 2010 – more than three times as many so far this year compared to all of last year.
What has this got to do with corporal punishment?
“Even if you follow a primitive religious concept of punishment for sex, as many on the right seem to do, you must at some point acknowledge that it is the child, not the parent, who will be punished most by our current policies that increasingly advocate for ‘unborn children’ but fall silent for those outside the womb,” wrote Blow.
But it isn’t just in the area of sexuality where we’ve found new ways of inflicting physical harm on children.
Blow also quoted from a new report of the Annie E. Casey Foundation: “the official child poverty rate, which is a conservative measure of economic hardship, increased 18 percent between 2000 and 2009.”
And if that weren’t enough, Blow drew from a U.S. Department of Agriculture study that “the number of children facing food insecurity in 2009 soared to nearly one in four.”
Then there is also an ABC News report that “49 percent of all children born in this country are born to families who receive food supplements from the federal Women, Infants and Children assistance program.”
What is the consequence of that kind of malnutrition brought on by child poverty and child hunger? What is the corporal punishment that is being inflicted?
Delayed growth and motor development. Lower IQs. Severe behavior problems. Attention deficit hyperactivity. Deficient learning capacities. Lower educational achievement. The list goes on and on.
All that punishment inflicted against children for the sin of being born into families guilty of being poor.
Members of the Republican party, as well as many Democrats and Independents, express what seems to be genuine concern about the national debt that today’s children will have to bear as adults.
But in their 2012 budget proposal the Republicans, in particular, want to reduce spending for nutritional programs.
“They want to hold the line on tax breaks for the wealthy, not paying attention to the fact that our growing income inequality, which could be reversed, continues to foster developmental inequality [among children], which is almost impossible to reverse,” wrote Blow.
Since in this country we don’t have laws condemning the old forms of parental corporal punishment, there’s probably no chance of passing legislation that would assign some form of appropriate punishment to politicians and members of society-at-large who engage in this kind of neglect and abuse of our nation’s children.
But couldn’t those of us in the Christian community at least take guidance from the procedure Jesus recommended to his church when one member sinned against another?
He instructed (see Matthew 18:15-17) that if one fails to get the attention and confession of the offender in a face-to-face meeting, the circle of witnesses ought to be widened, and, failing that, the offense ought to be brought to the whole community for judgment and then, finally, punishment.
That punishment apparently was exclusion from the community of faith. Maybe that’s what the church today needs to do with its child neglectors and abusers in public office.
And, of course, the electorate could do something similar when it’s time again to choose its leaders.
Larry Greenfield retired on Dec. 31, 2018 as the executive director of the Parliament of the World’s Religions. He served previously as executive minister of the American Baptist Churches of Metro Chicago, a regional judicatory of the American Baptist Churches U.S.A, and the theologian-in-residence for the Community Renewal Society.