Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Of crime, punishment and Tabasco(?!)

The first thing I thought when I heard about the hot sauce mom was that her chosen disciplinary methods, namely forcing her seven-year-old son to drink hot sauce before shoving him into an icy shower, are abusive.

For the record, the authorities agree. Prosecutors in Anchorage, Alaska have charged Jessica Beagley with child abuse. The basic facts of the case are not in dispute, as the incident was recorded on video and aired on national television.

The second thought that crossed my mind is that I bet Ms. Beagley is a product of the parochial school system. Because doesn't the idea of punishment via hot sauce have a certain nun-school feel to it? (Although I suppose Biblical purists would give a naughty child vinegar to drink, but I digress.)

Because I grew up in the nation's most Catholic state, many of my contemporaries endured physical punishments that could be politely described as "creative" at the hands of their nun teachers. Forget the ruler-wielding stereotypes; palm slapping is for novices.

Some of the senior nuns practiced true sadism. My sister-in-law recalls kneeling, bare legged, on uncooked elbow macaroni. She had to hold up a Bible while doing so, though not read from it. I'm still hazy on what purpose that element served.

When I first heard about the macaroni punishment, I wondered whether the nuns had to do penance afterwards, for the sin of wasting food.

I'm told parochial teachers in the south preferred to use uncooked grits. The choice of starch is irrelevant; it's the twisted nature of the punishment - one that inflicts prolonged discomfort - that makes it so objectionable. Just like the methods used by Ms. Beagley.

My parents sent my brother to a Catholic high school, even though we weren't Catholic, because they felt he "needed more structure than the public school could provide."

I joke that they basically outsourced beating him.

I remember him catching backhands from the monks for a wide variety of transgressions: calling his Italian teacher a Smurf, forgetting his Bible or requesting the wrong thing for lunch on a Friday during Lent. Obviously the parents who sent their kids to the school had no issue with heavy handed maintenance of order; indeed they paid good money for it.

Though the brothers were rough, they weren't noted for devising tortures reminiscent of the more shameful days of their Church. At least back in the eighties, that rendered their brand of corporal punishment acceptable.

Those holy brothers sometimes veered towards practicality, though, and believed physical labor benefitted the soul. My brother and his companions spent several detentions stacking kegs for the brothers' weekend libations. This turned out to be good preparation for pledging a fraternity three years later, but I bet it would be frowned upon nowadays.

Before you accuse me of Catholic bashing, let me point out that several Christian parenting sites (the majority of which profess Protestant affiliations) advocate "hot saucing" and ice water immersion, among other punishments. Many of them also recommend beating kids with sticks or belts, which surprises me since it's settled law that inflicting bruises or cuts constitutes criminal abuse.

I humbly suggest the following handy rule of thumb (no irony intended): if the Central Intelligence Agency can get into trouble for perpetrating an act on a suspected enemy combatant, then don't use that method on your kid.

Such a regulation would encompass beating, freezing, scalding, humiliation, sleep deprivation, sensory overload and forced eating.

A third, and perhaps more troublesome, thought struck me as I watched Matt Lauer interview his assembled child rearing experts after presenting the hot sauce mom clip. He, like I, was appalled by the video. But, and this is a BIG but, he was visibly skeptical of the featured pediatricians' condemnation of all physical punishment for children who have reached the age of reason.

Let me be crystal clear: I am not talking about babies or toddlers here. I am talking about kids in the elementary school set and older.

As Matt Lauer observed earlier today, reasonable adults can discern a VAST difference between an open handed "swat on the derriere" and the systematic torture of a child. While the latter is always abhorrent, I believe the former, when administered calmly, can provide a lasting deterrent more effectively than an impotent time out.

No one should ever be beaten. But sometimes a smack is justified when a parent needs to make sure a message is received. The most common scenario I've heard from friends who normally eschew physical punishment: I whacked my kid when he/she maliciously hurt the dog/cat/smaller child.
Why resort to a well placed smack in those instances? Swift certainty. The Grape isn't old enough for this to apply in our household, and I honestly cannot imagine my animal-loving angel maliciously hurting one of our pets. But if he ever does, I won't think twice about making sure he regrets it sorely.

I also know a few moms who spank their kids fairly frequently. I don't think it makes them bad parents, and I disagree with those who say that all physical punishment should be made criminal. (Although picture a chain gang of nuns for second. Funny, no?)

Seriously, though. My brother and I got slapped once in a while, and it didn't do us any harm. When we were pre-pubescent brats our au pair, whose job was to look after our much younger sister, would whack us with her shoe when we got particularly obnoxious. I'll say this: it wasn't pleasant, but it did have the desired effect of chilling bratty behavior. And neither of us has morphed into a sadistic psycho as a result. Although we did once hose down a less imposing (male) sitter with ketchup and mustard, if you consider that a violent outburst.

Maybe if it remained socially acceptable to swat your kids from time to time, parents wouldn't resort to more creative, infinitely crueler punishments. According to the Today show's poll of five thousand American parents, a full third find "hot saucing" acceptable.

I vigorously disagree with the hot sauce camp, but I leave you with this thought: at some point, most parents will need an option besides time out. I'm not saying the correction must be physical, but parents should feel able to discuss stricter disciplinary alternatives with pediatricians and other professionals, without fear of being branded abusers.

Swatting the kid's posterior isn't torture. Dousing him in freezing water after burning his throat is. Enough said.

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