Spanking vs. Child Abuse: Can You Tell if a Mom Goes Too Far?

K. Emily Bond
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spanking toddlersCorporal punishment. Now that's one nasty, knee jerk, flashpoint of a topic. It's maligned by many and praised by others. It's even been known to ruin a few marriages.

I am relatively new to parenting, having been a mom for all of 19 months; therefore, I haven't encountered a situation that would call for me to haul off and hit my child. But when it comes to discipline, there are two things I know for sure, and a couple of other things I'm not so sure about. One, spanking a child without them understanding why you're doing so is abusive. And two, slapping a child across the face -- especially a toddler -- is parenting by humiliation.

Then it gets murky. How and when do you step in when you see a mom going overboard? And ... when is it none of your business?

Let's use a recent news event for an example. After a flight attendant saw a woman slap her 13-month-old across the face on an Albuquerque-bound flight, she removed the child and was praised by authorities for neutralizing the situation. Given that I'm about to board a trans-Atlantic flight alone with my son, all I can say is, "Lord, let this not happen to me!"

But I'm inclined to side with the flight attendant on this one. Slapping a child, especially such a young one at that, across the face in an attempt to "discipline" her doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me. The child allegedly kicked her, which I find even more baffling. I can just picture it ... slapping (and humiliating) a child while scolding, "Don't hit! It's wrong!"... kind of a mixed message, don't you think? Sort of like ordering the mega-meal and bitching that the fries make you look fat.

And yet ... by removing the child, the flight attendant probably succeeded in humiliating everyone -- including the mother and child -- and undermining mom's authority. On a fantastic follow-up report, Allison Keyes of NPR's Tell Me More spoke with Dr. Charles Sophy, Medical Director for the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, who said the following:

"...[the other person] stepping in should not be telling you how to do it. They should really be stepping in to see if you need some support because, clearly, a parent is at the end of their rope as well ... the best way to enter one of those kinds of situations [is to be] supportive and collaborative."

His co-guest, Jolene Ivey, disagreed.

"Dr. Sophy might be saying what should happen, [but] what really happens, if you see somebody who you think is abusing a child, you don't go over and speak real sweetly," argued contributing mom Ivey. "I mean I've seen it happen where a woman ... was smacking [her] baby on the face. And I went over there and yelled at that woman and told her I was going to take that baby from her and I was going to put it in a car seat and take it home."

Both are of the "it takes a village" bent. The question is, what rights does "the village" have when it comes to disciplining our children? Do vigilante moms like Ivey make the world a better place or a scary place?

On the other hand, I have never stopped kicking myself for silently sitting by while a mother sitting across from me on the 2 train "disciplined" her child for the entirety of our time in Brooklyn. I wasn't a mother at the time; thus, I was inclined to say nothing. What did I know, right? But I knew in my heart that she was going overboard. Her words and actions, like twisting her child's wrist so he literally bent to her demands, were unnerving to say the least. Yet I looked around and waited for someone else to say something. No one did. I exited the train and have thought about her ever since. If I could turn back the clock, I would've handled the situation completely differently. More than likely she would've told me to mind my own business. But isn't child abuse the business of all of us?

The train incident occurred the same year a 7-year-old girl named Nixzmary Brown was tortured to death by her stepfather, while her mother did nothing to stop him. Nixzmary's caretakers were sick to the extreme, but her abuse didn't occur in a vacuum. It's highly likely that she was slapped and abused in public. The question I should have asked myself about the mom on the train and the question the flight attendant was probably asking herself about the woman on the plane is: If these are their actions in public, what goes on behind closed doors?

What do you think? Are vigilante moms out to save the village or way out of line?

 

Image via Pink Sherbet Photography/Flickr

 

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