Given headlines in recent months about corporal punishment and debate about its efficacy and acceptability, it’s not all that surprising to learn that a father in Okeechobee, Fla., called the local sheriff’s office to perform a “stand-by” to watch as he spanked his 12-year-old daughter.
What some parents – and most kids – may find surprising is that any branch of law enforcement would offer to stand witness as a parent spanks their kid.
That’s one thin, black and blue line to tread.
It reminded me of how my mother always said, if you have to ask “Is this wrong?” it’s likely you already have the answer in your heart of hearts.
According to WPTV in Okeechobee, Dale Garcia called the sheriff’s office after returning home from Walmart to find his two 12-year-old daughters arguing over a tablet computer.
According to the media report, Mr. Garcia said one of the girls locked herself in her bedroom but her sister used a knife to pick the lock. The father “wanted to paddle the daughter who had the knife but called the deputy to witness the spanking.”
According to the report, the sheriff’s deputy stood by while Garcia spanked the girl "four times on her buttocks."
The deputy then concluded no crime had been committed. The Public Affairs Officer for the Sheriff’s Department refused comment on the incident.
Over 21 years of parenting four sons I have found that spanking or “whupping” is an evergreen topic which can instantly spark heated debate among parents.
In my personal history, I administered a singular “pop on the diaper” when our first son tried repeatedly to jump overboard while we were under full sail on the boat we were living aboard. He got the message because mommy had never spanked him and never did again.
However, it appears I might not be in the majority, according to sub statistics. Since 1986, the University of Chicago’s General Social Survey (GSS) has asked in surveys, “Do you strongly agree, agree, disagree or strongly disagree that it is sometimes necessary to discipline a child with a good, hard spanking?”
While respondents over the years have showed a general decrease in the popularity of spanking, it’s still a regular practice for many American parents, according to polling data, which shows in 2012 roughly 70 percent of parents polled being OK with spanking.
However, there are parents who go far beyond what most parents would consider acceptable spanking, and become abusers.
A case in point is Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings, who turned himself in to police over charges of child abuse – for allegedly hitting his son with a switch that left welts on his body. The resulting national debate over Mr. Peterson’s actions and corporal punishment in general have given parents who still want to spank reason to watch their actions.
While the Florida spanking was a sheriff’s department case, the public affairs officer from the department was not commenting, so I spoke with Detective Bill Saum, public affairs officer for the Okeechobee Police Department, and he offered his perspective.
He says his police department hasn’t gotten that same type of call, to his knowledge, but he has heard multiple sides to the story, as an officer and a father of grown children.
Officer Saum says in a phone interview, waxing philosophical, “Some say never hit. Some quote the Bible and say ‘Spare the rod, spoil he child.’ Some say it’s ridiculous for a police officer to have to spend his time on a call like the one the sheriff’s department here had.”
Saum says he would personally recommend to parents that they call the Department of Child and Family Services and not police when looking for guidance on the option of corporal punishment.
When it comes to children who have their corporal punishment witnessed by police, I asked Saum if there is potential prejudice against law enforcement as a result.
“That’s an individual call that depends on the person,” he says. “If it were me responding as a patrol officer, I would call my sergeant for advice. But personally, I would tell that child, ‘Your mom wanted me to be here because she loves you. She wants to make sure she didn’t harm you because she loves you.’ Then I’d give the child my card and tell him or her to call me if they ever need anything.”
Saum clarifies his views on spanking versus abuse when asked if witnessing a spanking, then offering your card, send a mixed message to kids.
“There’s a big difference between a spanking and abuse. You hit on the butt to get a point across. You break bones to show hate,” Saum says. “My father spanked me, but he never did it the wrong way. There was no anger. No hate. I learned and, while I still did plenty wrong over the years, I grew up right.”
While it still might be hard for non-spanking parents, like myself, to follow that logic, I do appreciate how many parents try to maintain traditional values that have served their families well, while adapting to the latest concerns around corporal punishment.
No matter your views on the subject, parents might save a call to the sheriff and a call from social services by sticking with the good old fashioned time out.
There are plenty of effective alternatives to spanking. As I often tell my sons, “The first one to hit, is the one who's run out of ideas.”