Parents should be able to lay down the law — without the law
The way America is going on the child discipline front — cops in Florida are being asked to supervise corporal punishment of children — soon no one will be able to understand a fundamental story of my childhood:
The one about the bloody ear and the young thief and the weeping mother.
So I better tell it soon. It comes from the hard mountain villages in the old country where our people come from. It was told to my brothers and me on the South Side of Chicago when we were boys, usually after our mom had spanked us for some sin, like breaking Mrs. Biondo’s window or smart-talking our parents or teachers, or taking candy or lying.
But first there is that other story, the one making national news from Okeechobee, Florida. And if you’re a parent, surely you’ve heard about it.
It involves a smart-mouthed 12-year-old girl. She talked back to her daddy, and he called the sheriff, and a deputy came out to supervise a paddling.
“What they called for was they had an unruly adolescent teenager that’s 12 years old,” said Maj. Noel Stephen, the Okeechobee County undersheriff, in an interview the other day.
“Dad said, ‘I’m going to spank you,’ and the young’un said, ‘No, you’re not! I’m going to call DCF (Florida Department of Children and Families).’ He said, ‘Better yet, I’ll call them.’ So the dad calls the sheriff.”
According to Stephen, the deputy stood off to the side as the father spanked his daughter.
“It’s not a general practice or service, if you will, that the sheriff provides,” Stephen said. “I’ve been here 28 years, and I’ve heard of it and seen it a few times and probably a total of 12 times over my career here.
“I can tell you that from my personal opinion that I was spanked as a young’un, and I spanked my children when they needed it,” the undersheriff said. “I think it’s a form of discipline that if it’s necessary and warranted, then it’s the prerogative of the parents.”
Me? I don’t believe in spanking. Besides, I was just too wimpy to whip my young’uns. But years ago, when they were little, one boy got caught writing on the church wall after school. And when I pulled up to church, the other ran off and wouldn’t come back.
So when we finally got home, I ordered them upstairs into their room and told them what was coming.
One shrieked as if I’d skinned him before I even dusted his fanny but once. The other boy? He gave me a hard stare over his shoulder that dared me. So I dusted it for him. I thought I was done.
But he turned and stared again, silent, challenging, insolent, defiant. So I dusted it again. And he turned again and stared, and again I dusted his behind. He stared right through me, tears welling but determined not to cry, silently angry and defiant.
I left the room and closed the door, and when I knew they couldn’t see me, I almost passed out in the hallway.
I couldn’t take it. And we figured that if we spanked them again, the defiant one would become a criminal for sure. So we tried another way. It’s called “reason,” and it works, too, although it takes time.
What I found odd about the Okeechobee story is that many Americans now worry they’ll go to jail or lose their jobs if they spank their child. Again, I don’t support spanking. And there is a big difference between spanking and an angry, vicious beating.
But what frightens me is that American parents are now so fearful of sanctions for punishing their children — sanctions that could cost them social standing, jobs, even their freedom — that they now invite state enforcers to stand between them and their responsibilities.
And that’s one place where law enforcement doesn’t belong.
It does, however, bring me to the story of the ear.
A young thief who’d killed a man in a robbery was about to be hanged. His final wish? To kiss his mother goodbye.
So they brought her forward, an old woman in widow’s black. The thief leaned down to kiss his mother.
And he bit off her ear.
First there were teeth and blood, then came screaming and chaos and more screaming.
“What kind of animal is this?” shouted police as they beat him with clubs. What kind of animal does that to his own mother?”
Finally, the thief stood and explained:
“When I was 5, I stole an egg, and my mother said, ‘Don’t steal,’ but she didn’t punish me. She cooked the egg. And when I stole a chicken, she said, ‘Don’t steal,’ but then she cooked the chicken.
“Then a duck, then a goat and then sheep, and she never punished me,” said the thief. “I stole a horse. She said nothing. Then I stole money and killed the man, and now you’re going to hang me.”
That’s just what they did. They put the rope around his neck. And then the mother screamed for the second time that day.
It doesn’t take a village to raise a child. It doesn’t take inviting cops and the government into your kitchen to give you the seal of approval.
What it takes is time and love.
And it takes parents.
(John Kass is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune who also hosts a radio show on WLS-AM. His e-mail address is [email protected], and his Twitter handle is @john_kass.)