In the San Francisco Bay Area many years ago, I was once walking through an indoor suburban shopping mall south of the city. There from a distance I encountered the scene of a woman, two young children in tow, impulsively jamming an empty stroller into the side of the older child, a boy who looked to be about five years old. She was admonishing him about something or other. The boy started to cry after being thumped with the stroller. Then she did it again.
That was enough for me. I walked over to her and asked her what she was doing? Why did she just hit her child like that? Surprised, she replied, “You don’t understand, I hit him because I love him.” I couldn’t believe I was hearing such nonsense. Angrily, I asked her if she wanted to be reported for assault?
The young boy, probably more bruised in spirit than anything else, was quiet now and looking at me curiously. The even younger girl standing next to her mother was also quiet. I didn’t want to upset the children further, so more as an appeal than an admonition, I calmly said to the mother (and here I paraphrase my own memory of what I said), “Listen, you’re hurting your children acting like this. If you love your children, find another way to deal with things. OK? Please, just think about it.”
Whether it meant anything or not, I don’t know. The woman mumbled something apologetic and said she would. I said OK. And then I walked away.
Unfortunately, many Americans continue to support hitting or spanking children as some sort of God-given parental right. A 2013 Harris Poll found 81 percent of Americans support spanking children as “sometimes appropriate.” Only 19 percent thought it was never appropriate.
These attitudes may at least be slowly changing. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) cites data to show support for spanking children has dropped somewhat over recent decades. In fact, compared to older Americans, parents under 36 years were more likely to report they never spanked or hit their children, viewing it as inappropriate.
In her essay, Every Smack is a Humiliation—A Manifesto, the late psychotherapist and writer Alice Miller, author of The Drama of the Gifted Child and other books, wrote: “Many researchers have already proved that corporal punishment on children may indeed produce obedience in the short term but will have serious negative consequences on their character and behavior. Only if there was at least one single person who loved and understood the child, the disastrous development toward later crimes and illnesses could be prevented.”
Indeed, the AAP’s new policy statement, “Effective Discipline to Raise Healthy Children,” (December 2018) takes a clear stand against all forms of physical punishment and verbal abuse of children, including yelling at or shaming children. The AAP cites evidence linking such disciplinary methods to “an increased risk of negative behavioral, cognitive, psychosocial, and emotional outcomes for children.”
In her essay, Miller referenced the therapeutic concept of the “helping witness.” This is the idea that when a young child sees an alternative to their parents’ mistreatment, encounters adults who don’t blame them for the parent’s toxic behavior, this can help prevent children from internalizing the abuser’s worldview, one in which they must somehow deserve the mistreatment directed toward them. The simple message is sent that the whole world doesn’t endorse their abuse, that another world is indeed possible.
Tellingly, the incident of mistreatment I witnessed occurred at the Tanforan shopping center in San Bruno, California. Once the site of a long-standing racetrack, the old Tanforan racetrack was converted in 1942 by the Wartime Civil Control Administration into a temporary internment camp for Japanese-Americans. There nearly 8,000 men, women, and children were unjustly incarcerated for several months. Later, many of these families were relocated to government camps in Utah and elsewhere.
During the war, the Topaz camp in Utah was home to more than 11,000 people, making it at one time the fifth largest “city” in Utah. Those imprisoned there were innocent people guilty of no crime other than being of Japanese descent. It was a city of injustice, a barbed-wire monument to racism and fear. And, violence. In April 1943, an older Japanese-American man living in the camp was shot to death by a military guard for walking too close to the camp’s fence while taking a dog for a walk.
This year is the 77th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, signed on February 19, 1942 by President Roosevelt, which provided the legal basis for the imprisonment of some 117,000 people of Japanese descent, the majority of whom were U.S. citizens.
How much pain, suffering, and injustice is perpetrated in the name of love? Or parental authority?
Or, for that matter, democracy?