Hating our children

Culture | Not disciplining children is child abuse

Issue: "Life of a warrior," June 12, 1999

A little girl who is teased on the playground may be able to sue the school for not preventing sexual harassment. So the Supreme Court ruled, finding in a hotly contested 5-4 decision that school districts may be legally liable if they do not protect their students from unwanted sexual advances on the part of other students. The ruling may seem like another frivolous legal incursion, opening the door for criminalization of the playground.

But, on another level, it is a recognition that children's behavior has to be controlled. Ironically, while the court established the legal responsibility of schools to discipline children under their care, the American Civil Liberties Union has been filing lawsuits to prevent schools from doing so.

Now that classes are finally over, school administrators and teachers are breathing a sigh of relief. In the aftershocks of the school shootings in Littleton, Colo., hundreds of schools across the country have been paralyzed with bomb threats, hit lists, and rumors that copycat shootings were being planned. The notion that these were just pranks to get school cancelled was shattered when another (thankfully not fatal) shooting did break out in suburban Atlanta.

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Considering that the Littleton killers had been advertising their intentions on their websites and even through in-class projects, principals have started taking anti-social behavior seriously. But many parents, surprisingly, and the ever-litigious ACLU, not so surprisingly, are opposing these school crackdowns.

The day after the Columbine massacre, some Ohio high school students used their website to congratulate the killers and to discuss their own hatred of preppies, athletes, and certain of their teachers. When their principal heard about it, he kicked them out of school. But the ACLU used its legal muscle to force the school to re-admit them. "What happened in Colorado was tragic," they conceded, "but it would be doubly tragic if those who took so many lives in Littleton were allowed to rob children across America of their right to free expression."

Or as talk radio's Dr. Laura Schlessinger put it: "Dead is bad. But worse (actually, doubly worse) is kids prohibited from spewing hate on the Internet."

Not only the ACLU but also many educators, child psychologists, and even parents subscribe to the "expressive" theory of mental health. According to this model, human beings, deep down, are basically good. They simply need to express the feelings they have inside. Obstacles to this expression-such as "society's rules," "oppressive" authority figures, and "judgmental" belief systems-cause repression and thus mental unhappiness and twisted behavior.

Under this worldview, any attempt to control or punish or suppress the feelings of a child is construed as cruel. And disciplining a child becomes next to impossible.

But in the post-Columbine era, American society must find a way of disciplining its children. The issue is not only school shootings. Children also need to be prevented from bullying, tormenting, and, yes, sexually harassing each other. They also must be taught to control-not just express-their emotions, and to govern their actions by moral principles.

In the realm of education, reading and writing and arithmetic used to be taught to the tune of the hickory stick. But not anymore. While some see America's school system as starting to slide when prayer was removed from the classroom, others blame the removal of the paddle.

Corporal punishment on the part of schools-paddling students who misbehave-is illegal in 27 states. In the 23 states that do allow spankings, the practice is so hedged around by rules, procedures, and paperwork that it is almost never carried out. (All states do allow parents to use reasonable, nonabusive corporal punishment on their children. But in nine European countries-Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Austria, Finland, Croatia, Latvia, Italy, and Cyprus-it is illegal for even parents to spank their children.)

Children used to respect their teachers-they were afraid not to-and could be coerced into sitting quietly at their desks. Perhaps there is a better way than corporal punishment for schools to keep students in line. But regardless of the method of discipline, it is clear that not much learning can take place when the students ignore their teachers and run wild in the classroom.

For all of the attempts to discipline children through "positive reinforcement" and such nonpainful methods as "time outs" and guilt trips, young people are learning that since adults will not exert force against them, they can pretty much ignore those in authority.

In an affluent suburb of Milwaukee, police were called to investigate a blatant case of underaged drinking. About 20 teenagers were having a beer bash. When the police arrived, all of the teenagers simply went inside, locked the door, and turned out the lights. When the police knocked, they simply didn't answer the door. The police called, pleaded, and cajoled. No one answered.


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