It was the early seventies. I was sitting in the living room, enjoying a good book. My belt was folded on the arm of the chair, next to me. I expected to use it again, soon. Suddenly, I heard screams from the bedroom.

When I entered the room, belt in hand, five-year-old Danny was on top of his little brother, Bob, punching him again. I immediately went into action. I let loose the belt, and it flashed out across his back. “I told you to leave him alone! Why don’t you listen!”

“Go To hell!” Danny shouted through his tears as he threw a toy at me and retreated to his bed and backed up against the wall. Saying to myself that he had to be straightened out for this behavior, I pursued him, swinging the belt.

“Leave me alone!” You can’t hit me!” He shouted as he threw a pillow, “You’re not my father!” His words stopped me dead in my tracks. He was right, I thought; he wasn’t my child, so I shouldn’t hit him. I wondered, however, who really did have the right to hit Danny?

To put all this in perspective, I was a twenty-year-old non-violent activist in the farmworkers union, committed to peaceful change. I believed that I’d done what I could do to stop Danny’s behavior non-violently. I had also been raised in a family where corporal punishment was a usual, “appropriate” though not constant part of discipline. In fact, I remember feeling fortunate that I was not a child in many of our neighbors’ households.

It was not unusual to see a mother or father beat their child in front of us because he or she had not come when called, or had “sassed” someone, or for any of a number of real or imagined transgressions. I saw countless children backhanded because a parent thought them “disrespectful.” Neither my mother nor father was immune from this behavior. I was not aware of one family where the threat of violence was not a fact of life. Of course, no one ever left a scar on my body, nor did I ever notice one on anyone else.

Millions of us, in thousands of neighborhoods, were getting spanked, smacked, or slapped throughout the 1950’s and ‘60’s while growing toward adulthood. It was normal. It was the usual. My mother and father simply did what their peers were doing. Violence or the threat of violence was a parent’s tool to manage the family in my neighborhood.

So who were these parents who were doing this violence? For the most part, they were people who had been beaten themselves while vulnerable children. Many years later I found out that my grandfather had actually broken my mother’s nose while “disciplining” her, and I wondered what his parents had done to him. How had their violence affected him? How had his violence affected my mother? How had hers affected me? What did I pass on to the children in my care?

The violence, of course, was not exclusive to home. By the time I had reached first grade, I’d seen teachers “paddle” children. I was attacked and beaten with a yardstick by a fourth grade teacher. I was jabbed, smacked, and had my hair pulled by a teacher in junior high. I was “swatted” with wooden or leather paddles by teachers dozens of times in junior high and high school until I finally refused to accept that punishment. Male teachers “playfully” punched me many times. One tried to punch me in the face. Because I had the audacity to defend myself, I was suspended from school. On the street police frequently attacked my teenaged friends and I, jabbing us with clubs, roughing us up with head slaps and pushes while searching us.

Admittedly, many children were not physically assaulted by adults as often as I was, but there were many I knew who were victimized a lot more. More importantly, almost all children in my generation grew up victimized by the fear of violence from an adult.

In many ways our culture has changed since my childhood school days. Throughout the ensuing decades Dr. Spock and his successor parenting experts have discouraged, though not condemned, corporal punishment as a method of discipline. Many school systems have eliminated or severely limit corporal punishment now. There are even billboards and bus placards in at least one major city proclaiming that it is never right to hit a child.

So, what about Danny and me? For weeks I attempted to “straighten him out” as he continued to pick on Bob. I just couldn’t understand what his problem was. Why did he force me to hurt him so much? What was wrong with this child that he needed to be beaten like that? I found myself more and more irritated by almost anything Danny did. Eventually, his mother stopped asking me to baby-sit. Later I found out that she had been afraid I was being too violent with the children.

It’s hard to describe the feeling of shame that rushed over me when I heard that. I was a trained non-violent activist who couldn’t be trusted to not hurt children! Fortunately, the cognitive dissonance was too much to handle. I couldn’t love myself and at the same time be someone who children would have to fear. I made a commitment to never strike another child, no matter what the circumstances. As an alternative high school teacher, counselor, and principal I kept that commitment.

I’ve continued to keep that commitment for about thirty years now, and I’ve never regretted it. I also made the commitment to help parents learn methods to minimize their violence. I found that condemning parental violence, only caused the parents to disregard my advice as unrealistic. Many of the people I’ve worked with neither saw the violence as wrong, nor did they believe that there was an adequate replacement. Throughout those years as a teacher and now a therapist the question has still been with me, who had the right to hit Danny? And why did I Most parents The laws of most states gave parents, step-parents, foster parents, and school officials the legal right then, and most still have it today. We adults still have the right to commit violent acts against members of this group called children. According to researchers in the 1990’s, over 80% of the American public still believe that hitting “a willful child” is an act of love. When I apologized to Danny a few years ago, he minimized the damage and told me that he probably deserved it anyway. I could have said the same thing to my mother and father. They probably would have said the same thing to theirs.

Throughout my eighteen years practice as a therapist and my thirteen years leading groups for batterers I’ve heard the following comment hundreds of times: “I got hit as a child, and I turned out okay.”

Did we turn out okay? Even if we did, is “okay” good enough? All the research shows that most people are more emotionally healthy and more respectful of themselves and others if they were not hit as children. I am more certain than ever that parents need training so that they can guide and nurture their children with confidence, and without the threat of violence. I’ve worked with scores of people traumatized in childhood, and I come round and round to the same conclusion: No one should have had the right to hit Danny, no one should have had the right to hit my mother, and no one should have had the right to hit me.




River Smith

Cleveland, Ohio