Punishing Small Children?

When children are very young, one learns how to distract and deter them from doing dangerous and/or destructive things. Ordinarily this involves calming them down and talking to them persuasively as to why such things should not be done. I recall an experienced early childhood teacher showing us how to get through to an enraged 2-year-old. One kneeled down to their level and hugged them. Hugging has a calming effect at that age — works later on, too.
As children grow older, one learns to scale restrictions for wrong doing by, say, depriving of privileges and more talking. Eventually one will most likely have a rebellious teen on one’s hands on the verge of leaving the nest one way or another — college, work, military service, whatever when they are on their own. By that time the lessons have either been learned or not.

Back to early childhood, one of the saddest scenes one sees is some over stressed parent whacking a small kid in a store, say. The kid screams in pain and manifests understandable resentment. What does such a child learn from inappropriate and excessive punishment? It is pretty obvious that one must dodge getting caught doing the wrong things or lie to get out of a trouble spot. One of my grandfathers many years ago ran away from home at age 12 (and stayed away) when he was wrongly punished by a cruel step mother who had accused him of getting into the sugar barrel which was actually the offense of his younger step brother. He grew up, incidentally, to be a man of great integrity, respected by all who knew him. On the day of his funeral his town, Hanover, NH, closed down and flew flags at half mast. He had, among other things, actively opposed the Klan when it was at its height all over the U.S. in the 1920s.

The bottom line here is our American criminal justice system has been running wild with punitive approaches to all areas of real or alleged wrong doing. We have more people in jail than any other nation — 1/4 of the world’s prisoners (some 2.3 million) with only 1/20 of the total world population. We are seen as punishment nuts who seek to solve our social problems simplistically by punishing someone — often an innocent someone who may be executed to give comfort to families and friends of victims, regardless of guilt. What an horrendous commercial reduction. That one can ‘pay’ for a life with one’s own!

The Sean Bell case is an all too obvious manifestation of America’s hate religion relating to punishment. The judge in this case made the only just finding that he could. Careless the officers may have been or badly trained, but amidst the flashing bullets in the dark of dawn, they did what people scared for their lives do, they shot at the assumed source of bullets they thought were coming their way. The compensation for the Bell family will be with a civil suit award that will care for them.

A number of my students were police officers and we often discussed the pressures they faced in such circumstances. They were the first to acknowledge that there were bad and/or dangerous cops. But the saddest case was my student going through college with hopes of pursuing a law degree who was cruelly and painfully disabled when a perk forced his police car off the road into a tree. He was beset by crippling back pain and mustered out with a minimal disability support arrangement, his life destroyed.

I note that Senator Clinton in response to the Bell decision is calling for a federal civil rights prosecution of the officers. Obama accepts the judge’s verdict and calls for outreach, proper training, and healing between groups to avert future conflicts of this sort. Obama’s looks to me to be the way to go in our future. He has been there and seen precisely this sort of challenge in his work in Chicago.

We must stop being THE draconian nation that boasts its democratic values while engaging in brutal practices in war and peace. It is time for us to grow up stop acting like a nation of enraged small children!

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]
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