Why is it Legal to Hit a Child But Not an Adult?

There are plenty of people in this world who deserve a good spanking.

Several politicians come to mind. So do a number of newspaper columnists, more than a few celebrities and most MBAs. There are also fashion designers who believe that any woman over a size 6 is fat, able-bodied commuters who refuse to relinquish their seats to the elderly or the pregnant and the guy whose cell-phone went off three times during a recent performance of the play, The Island.

Nothing would give me greater satisfaction than seeing corporal punishment meted out to the rude, the cruel, the selfish and the arrogant.

Unfortunately, I am impeded by the Criminal Code. No matter how much people's behaviour irks me, I am not allowed to punch, slap or spank them. Barring self-defence, hitting someone is assault and is, in this country, not only illegal, but also considered morally wrong.

There are, however, two exceptions.

One is consent: If you are facing an opponent in a boxing ring, for instance, or if your name is Mistress Pain and your companion has been a very naughty boy. (Actually, if your name is Terri Jean Bedford, this could get you into trouble.)

The other is age. Adults are permitted by the Criminal Code to spank children in their care for "correctional" purposes, provided that the force, as Ontario's Superior Court of Justice upheld last year, is "reasonable under the circumstances."

As far as discipline goes, spanking is a highly effective practice if the goal is to humiliate, bully, frighten and intimidate. It's a good method for making someone submissive and resentful, but not a particularly useful way to teach communication, respect, or patience. No reasonable and loving parent ever feels good about hitting his or her child, especially when there are dozens of other more effective, humane and appropriate punishments, from timeouts to stern lectures to extra chores.

Some children's advocates even argue that spanking is a violation of a child's human rights and I'd agree. The Charter of Rights and Freedoms guarantees that every individual is "equal before and under the law and has the right to the equal protection and equal benefit of the law without discrimination" on the basis of, among other things, age. Why should the law protect adults from being hit, slapped or spanked and not children? If a blow to child's face can't be justified, how can one to the bum be justified? (Ontario's Superior Court doesn't share this view. Last year, it rejected a legal challenge to the Criminal Code provisions that allow for spanking. An appeal is set for September.)

Last week, seven children were taken from their home in Aylmer, Ontario, by police and child welfare workers after their parents repeatedly refused to agree to stop hitting the kids with rods or switches, a practice endorsed by the Aylmer Church of God, where they worship. According to the family's pastor, children "want their parents to (hit them) because it makes them happy children." Pastor Henry Hildebrandt also said that corporal punishment is validated by the Bible, a book, it should be noted, which has also been used to validate slavery, the death penalty, the oppression of women, the so-called superiority of white Christians and the persecution of homosexuals.

It was an ugly scene last Wednesday, with the seven kids dragged away screaming in terror and the social workers painted as monsters. A neighbour said the family was "quiet" and that there was "no indication of any problems." For its part, Family and Children's Services has been silent on the details, but made it clear that mere spanking isn't enough to even warrant an investigation - injuries or weapons have to be evident before child welfare staff become involved in any way. In this case, social workers responded to a report of abuse and had several meetings with the family. If it turns out that they are not being ill-treated, the children will be returned to their parents.

Taking children from their parents when there is strong, compelling evidence of abuse or neglect is a horrible, but necessary practice. Not surprisingly, on occasion, child-welfare workers overreact and make tragic errors.

More often than not, though, they are heroes, champions for people who are helpless and utterly dependent upon their abusers. Around the same time as the incident in Aylmer, police and child-welfare workers rescued two boys from a home outside Oshawa, where their parents had subjected them to beatings, confinement in cages and near starvation.

A shocked neighbour said afterward that the family was neat, tidy and quiet and that there was no indication of any kind of problem.

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