Chain The Dogma November 16, 2011
Corporal Punishment, the Abuse of Authority and the Rights of Children
Protecting children's rights protects human rights for everyone
by Perry Bulwer
Abuse of authority is a theme common to most of the posts on this blog. It applies whether I am writing about corrupt religious leaders, corrupt politicians, or corrupt police, three groups I frequently criticize here. But there is another group of people I have not yet specifically written about that regularly abuses their authority. Those people, as you probably guessed by the title of this article, are parents who believe that corporal punishment is a just and effective way to discipline children. My first draft used 'spanking' in the title, but corporal punishment often involves far more than hitting just one body part. Here is what I wrote in the main article on the home page of my archive, Religion and Child Abuse News:
Of course, there is an awful lot of physical child abuse that is not related to religion. Children are easy targets. But it is more than just sad when religion is used to justify assaulting children, it is immoral and criminal. Corporal punishment takes many forms ranging from slaps to torture. In my opinion, even a slap is an affront to the dignity of a child, or any human for that matter. Spanking children is not necessary. There are better ways to train children than hitting them, so why do believers who claim to have superior morals to those of unbelievers think it is okay to assault vulnerable children? If a slap is ok, why not a punch, or a beating, or a whipping, or water torture, or other tortures? Some believers don't know where to draw the line and children suffer or die.
Furthermore, the term 'corporal punishment' also applies to situations where no physical assault occurs, but where necessities of life are purposely withheld, such as forced fasting, sleep deprivation or deliberate and prolonged exposure to the elements causing hypothermia, or other similar evils.
The words 'discipline' and 'disciple' are obviously related, and it is no surprise that religious people who believe it is their duty to make disciples of their children are the most ardent supporters of corporal punishment. For example, some of the scriptures most often cited by Christians to justify assaulting their children are Proverbs 13: 24; 19:18; 22:6,15; 23:13,14; and 29:15. Those verses encourage beating children with an instrument as the proper way to discipline or train them. While Proverbs 22:6 does not specifically refer to beating children, it does indicate that such training, or 'training up a child', is intended to instruct children in the right way or path according to that dogma, so that when they become adults they will not depart from it. In other words, Biblical corporal punishment of children is specifically directed at so thoroughly indoctrinating them with dogma that it becomes extremely difficult to escape it, even when they become adults. There is no choice or freedom for children imprisoned by such dogma, they simply must obey authority without question: do it because mommy, daddy, or God says so. Those children certainly have no freedom of religion, for they are told exactly what to believe, and threatened with punishment if they do not.
By the way, To Train Up a Child, is the title of a very popular book among Christian fundamentalists that teaches them how to properly beat children. It was found in the homes of at least three families where children died as a result of the methods taught by its author, pastor Michael Pearl, who insists that the Bible gives parents authority to assault their children and violate their inherent human rights. Michael Pearl is an evil man. At least two of those murdered children were adopted, and may have been victims of the evangelical movement's use of international adoptions for the religious conversion of children. Undoubtedly, there are many more victims we may never hear about.
Authority is synonymous with power, so to abuse authority is to abuse the power one holds over another. Such abuse is evil. In The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, Philip Zimbardo wrote:
Let's begin with a definition of evil. Mine is a simple, psychologically based one: Evil consists in intentionally behaving in ways that harm, abuse, demean, dehumanize, or destroy innocent others—or using one's authority and systemic power to encourage or permit others to do so on your behalf. In short, it is "knowing better but doing worse."
Continuing with that theme, William Antonio Boyle, in a footnote to his essay on "Sibling Rivalry", wrote the following about abuse of authority (emphasis in the original):
Abuse of power or authority may be the prime source and true essence of moral EVIL - Evil is the ABUSE of power. Moral EVIL begins to exist when someone refuses to accept responsibility for the welfare of others, especially those naturally under his or her direct care. It can be said that someone has POWER, if that someone can decisively influence (the) reality (of others).
In this context, AUTHORITY is power that derives from a social accord or convention, such as the laws or customs of a social group such as a state or an organization. So then, what is "abuse of power"? ABUSE OF POWER is the illegitimate use of power.
ABUSE OF POWER is that situation that exists whenever someone who has POWER over others, (that is, the capacity to impose his or her will on those others) for example, by virtue of his or her superior mental dexterity, social position, physical strength, knowledge, technology, weapons, wealth, or the trust that others have in him or her, unjustifiably uses that power to EXPLOIT or HARM those others, or through lack of action, ALLOWS exploitation or harm to occur to them.
It follows that someone who does not have (a particular form of) power cannot abuse it. It also follows that the main (and perhaps the only) principle of human ethics and morality should be to avoid the abuse of power.
Obviously, parents have some natural authority and power over their children, but it is not absolute, at least not in a civilized society. Not only are there national laws forbidding parental neglect and mistreatment of their children, but the international community has recognized in various declarations, conventions and treaties that, unlike parents, the vulnerability of children requires they be given special rights and protections, as set out in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (the Convention), which all nations have ratified except for the United States and Somalia.
Although the rights of parents and legal guardians must be taken into account when considering the rights of a child, that balancing act is always weighted toward the child since the primary consideration must be the best interests of the child (see Article 3). When articulating specific rights of children, the Convention also considers the developmental stage of the child. Those various considerations are also set out in Article 5:
States Parties shall respect the responsibilities, rights and duties of parents or, where applicable, the members of the extended family or community as provided for by local custom, legal guardians or other persons legally responsible for the child, to provide, in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child, appropriate direction and guidance in the exercise by the child of the rights recognized in the present Convention.
That article indicates that the rights and obligations of parents must be directed towards ensuring that their child is able to eventually exercise all of their Convention rights, which would be in the best interests of the child, though not necessarily the parents. The phrase "evolving capacities of the child" also appears later in the Convention in relation to religion. It recognizes that as children mature they are increasingly able to form their own thoughts, opinions and beliefs, and that their exercise of particular rights is on a continuum according to their maturation level. While parents "... have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child [t]he best interests of the child will be their basic concern." (Article 18) In other words, the authority of a parent over their child is not absolute, for not only is it limited by national laws related to child welfare, it must also be directed to ensuring the best interests of their child in accordance with their inherent human rights as set out under international law in the Convention.
Before getting back to the issue of corporal punishment, which the Convention addresses in Article 19, other Articles addressing the issues of freedom of speech and freedom of thought, conscience and religion are also instructive for determining the proper balance between parental and children's rights. Article 12 states:
1. States Parties shall assure to the child who is capable of forming his or her own views the right to express those views freely in all matters affecting the child, the views of the child being given due weight in accordance with the age and maturity of the child.
2. For this purpose, the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law.
That article addresses a child's right to freedom of expression, and so does Article 13. Article 12 speaks to the obligations of States Parties, in other words, those governments that have ratified the Convention. The age and maturity of the child is specifically considered in that Article because it concerns all matters and decisions that affect the child. The more a matter effects the child, such as in a custody dispute, and the more mature the child is, the more weight given to their views on the matter. Moreover, while sub-section 2 indicates that although a child's right of free expression on matters affecting them is particularly important in judicial or administrative proceedings, the right is not confined to that. Article 13 clarifies that point by speaking directly to a child's right to freedom of expression, without any regard to parental rights or the maturity and capacity of the child.
1. The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.
2. The exercise of this right may be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
(a) For respect of the rights or reputations of others; or
(b) For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public), or of public health or morals.
Importantly, freedom of expression for children includes the right to "seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds". And just as important, there are no specific parental restrictions on this right. However, this right may be violated by authoritarian parents more often than most others, except for the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. After all, it is rather easy to control a child's access to information and ideas, even in this information age. Books can be banned or burned, access to university and the internet can be denied, thoughts, opinions and facts can be censored. Many religious people home school their children and many religious groups set up their own private schools for precisely that reason, but in direct contradiction to the principle of the best interests of the child. It is not in any child's interest to be denied their right to freely seek and receive information of any kind in any form. And it is also not in any child's interest to be denied their right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion, as set out in Article 14:
1. States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.
2. States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.
3. Freedom to manifest one's religion or beliefs may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.
Article 14 is crucial for establishing the proper balance between parental and children's rights. Clearly, children have the right to freely form their own thoughts and conscience, and choose their own religious beliefs, or none. After all, freedom of religion for children, and for adults, would be no freedom at all if it did not include the right to be free from religion. Since parents also have the right to the same freedoms, it is inevitable that conflicts between those rights will arise. As it must and does throughout, the Convention sides with children. Sub-section 2 clearly states that the rights and duties of parents in this regard must not be directed towards protecting their own freedoms, but towards ensuring their children are able to exercise their personal religious rights in accordance with their evolving capacities. Anticipating objections from parents who only read the first few words in sub-section 2 and insist that their own religious freedom gives them a right to indoctrinate their children, sub-section 3 clarifies that the right to religious freedom is not absolute. A parent's right to religious freedom does not give them the right to deny that same freedom to their child, regardless of the child's age. Or, as the U.S. Supreme Court famously said:
Parents may be free to become martyrs themselves. But it does not follow they are free, in identical circumstances, to make martyrs of their children before they have reached the age of full and legal discretion when they can make that choice for themselves.
That quotation also touches on the principle of the "evolving capacities of the child" as well as the concept of a child's right to an open future. That is a right that is not specifically set out in the Convention, but is implied in this Article and elsewhere. After all, if a parent makes an irreversible religious decision on behalf of their child, such as to rely on faith alone and refuse necessary medical treatment and the child dies, then that child has no future at all. Circumcision of both boys and girls is another common example of a religious decision made by parents that causes irreversible harm to children. But even where death or injury does not occur, a child's right to an open future can still be easily denied them through indoctrination that cuts off their capacity for critical thinking and ability to freely form their own thoughts, conscience and beliefs.
If a child is indoctrinated into a particular religious dogma by authoritarian parents from the earliest age, their right to freedom of expression and information denied through restrictive, narrow-minded 'education', and they are unaware of the full extent of their human rights, it becomes impossible for them to exercise those rights, either as a child or later as an adult. I have encountered countless believers who are so unaware of their own rights that they insist that religious freedom does not include the right to be free from religion. But if the right to freedom of religion has any meaning at all, it must mean that everyone, including children, is free to choose their own religious beliefs or none. When that freedom is denied to a child, it is also denied to the adult that child will become. Protecting a person's rights while they are a child is the only to way to protect that person's rights once they are an adult. That's what a child's right to an open future means, reaching adulthood with their capacity to exercise all their rights still intact. Protecting the full range of children's rights protects human rights for everyone.
Finally, we get to the heart of the issue of corporal punishment and children's rights in Article 19 of the Convention, which states:
1. States Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child.
It could hardly be stated clearer than that. State Parties, that is every country in the world except the U.S. and Somalia, are required to take all measures necessary for protecting children from all forms of harm while in the care of their parents. In other words, children are vulnerable and therefore need protection from all forms of harm, even from their own parents or guardians. The question then becomes: does corporal punishment harm children? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) does not endorse corporal punishment for any reason because it is ineffective for changing behaviour in the long term. But there is also evidence that, even if a milder form of corporal punishment such as spanking does not cause physical harm it still causes emotional and intellectual harm.
According to Zimbardo's definition of evil, any action that among other things demeans or dehumanizes others is evil, in other words, harmful. Corporal punishment, even in its mildest forms, certainly demeans the dignity of children, but even worse, it dehumanizes them. Long before Michael Pearl's book became a best seller on how to beat children into submission, James Dobson, another evil evangelist and founder of Focus on the Family, wrote a book in 1977 called Dare to Discipline, in which he "glorified a sadomasochistic/spiritual ritual of discipline." And in his 1992 book, The Strong Willed Child, Dobson compares beating children to beating dogs. After describing his efforts to make his defiant dog obey him, he writes: "Just as surely as a dog will occasionally challenge the authority of his leaders, so will a little child, only more so." Not to be out done, Pearl writes in his book that he uses "the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules". To those evangelical child beaters and others like them, such as Bill Gothard,
children are mere chattel, or personal property, akin to slaves or domesticated animals, without any personal rights. They are not just using dogs and mules as metaphors for how to train children, they are using exactly the same methods on children as they use on animals. If that is not dehumanizing, therefore evil, I don't know what is. And it is an evil they call good (Isaiah 5:20), which makes it even more evil.
If you have followed any of the links here to news articles detailing the horrifying results of corporal punishment you will understand that referring to it as evil is not hyperbole. Some will object that my examples are all extreme cases and that most corporal punishment takes the form of mild spanks or slaps that do not cause physical harm, and therefore it is unfair to call that evil. However, as I have pointed out, growing evidence suggests that even that type of corporal punishment can cause emotional and intellectual harm, in violation of Article 19. Furthermore, consider the issue from a child's point of view and imagine what it must be like to have a giant human who is several times larger and more powerful in every way hitting you for reasons that may not be entirely clear to you. But because most corporal punishment is hidden behind closed doors, it can be difficult to imagine what corporal punishment is like for children, even after reading horrific accounts. So, here is a video, courtesy of a Texas judge, who adjudicated dozens of family law cases, beating his teenage daughter with a belt. Now, imagine again that same brutality or even worse being applied to even younger children, and tell me that is not evil. By the way, the judge would have been criminally charged, but the statute of limitation had run out. That video contradicts claims by many advocates of corporal punishment that it is only used against young children, as do the well documented abuses in the 'troubled teen' industry of boot camps or similar behaviour modification programs.
I have used the ordinary meaning of 'assault' in this article to refer to physical blows by one person against another, but in most common law jurisdictions (where I'm writing from) the legal meaning of 'assault' refers to threats of harm to another, while actual physical contact is called battery. The point is, the law in those jurisdictions protects adults not just from physical violence but also from threats of violence. Even the most benign threats can attract criminal charges. For example, a Canadian police officer had a young female protester arrested for assault for blowing soap bubbles in his direction. So, if adults are protected from even the mildest forms of assault, why are children who are far more vulnerable not similarly protected? Of all the countries using the common law, only New Zealand, Kenya and Tongo are among the 31 countries that have enacted laws prohibiting all corporal punishment of children, as Article 19 of the convention requires all parties to do. In all other countries, including here in Canada, it is illegal to threaten or hit adults, but it remains legal to threaten and beat children, in direct contravention of their inherent human rights recognized in the Convention. And that is a crying shame.