Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Diversity Dilemma

with 10 comments

It’s Friday morning, and I’m sitting in the computer lab because–well, because virtually nobody showed up for my eight o’clock class.  It’s Friday at the start of a holiday weekend, and the other schools in the area have the day off–but still.  I have to wake up at a ridiculous hour to get in for this class. They could come.

No, I’m not going to go on with that.  Not today.  But I’m REALLY annoyed.

But I was thinking of the comments to yesterday’s post, and it occurs to me that what we are seeing is what I think of as the diversity dilemma.  Real diversity–not the candy-sprinkles kind, where everybody looks different but thinks essentially the same, but real diversity of ideas and philosophies–causes a whole raft of problems, and we tend to ignore the fact that they’re there.

Let me start with the issue of whether children have “rights.”  Of course they do, the same rights as any other citizens under the U.S. Constitution.

But rights under the U.S. Constitution are negative only–they are restrictions on the power of the government to regulate your behavior. 

Children have the same rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion and freedom of assembly as do any of the rest of us, meaning they have the right to be free of government interference in those issues in their lives.  They also have rights to due process.

In reality, of course, the courts and society routinely deprive them of all these rights.  The SCOTUS has said that schools may limit student speech in any way they want (but not universities–interesting point), and juvenile courts usually operate on a system that denies the right to trial by juror and that allows judges to jail minors for things that are not in fact crimes (like running away from home).

But when people want to know whether or not children have “rights,” they aren’t usually talking about actual rights.

Instead, they’re talking about expectations or entitlements–they think that children should be able to expect certain things from the adults around them, and that they are entitled to certain kinds of conditions and behavior on the part of the people who take care of them.

And that’s where the diversity dilemma comes in.

I’ve found the discussion around “beating” and “corporal punishment” insteresting on a number of levels, not the least of these that jem defines such terms different than I’ve heard them defined elsewhere.  Most of the discussions I’ve been involved in, and most of the written material on the issue that I’ve looked at, have defined “corporal punishment” as any hitting at all, from the mildest spanking to the most severe beating.  I’ve never heard it used to mean only those cases when you hit a child with an implement.

Jem is also somewhat at a disadvantage in that a number of people who post here once took part in a series of discussions on the subject of spanking on an internet secular humanist list, and in that discussion the people opposed to all forms of corporal punishment repeatedly referred to any such form–including the mildest of spanking–as “beating” a child. 

So everybody is sensitive to the terms used, and a lot of us here tend to react rather strongly to any discussion of “beatings.” 

But the simple fact is this:  the issue only comes up when different segments of society have different ideas about the practice.  In a society where everybody opposed hitting children, there would be no such discussion.  In a society where spanking (not beating) was considered not onlhy normal but probably a good thing (as it was in the Forties and Fifties in the US), there would be no discussion either.  The only reason there is a problem is that we have–well, actual diversity.

In terms of the discussion of children’s “rights,” what we’re almost always discussing is whether all children are entitled to our particular idea of what is good for them. 

On the same discussion list on which we had the argument about spanking, a poster declare that children had a “right” to a secular education, and that therefore all religious schools and homeschooling should be banned.

The poster was a librarian, and she was appalled at a “home schooling mother” who wouldn’t allow her son to take out the Lemony Snickett series.  They child had a “right” to explore different opinions in his reading!

You can find a larger discussion of this whole thing here, the first essay I ever wrote for the internet:


But, of course, the child had no such right.  What was really under discussion was who had the right to make decisions for the minor child, and that is in fact what is usually at issue when people start talking about children’s “rights.”  A six year old has neither the knowledge nor competence to know if he wants a “secular education.”  The question is who has the right to decide what kind of education he gets.

The issue becomes very complicated in the Humanist community and among secular people generally because of the elephant in the middle of the room:  religious people are far more likely to have large families than secular people are.  Hell, they’re more likely to have any children at all.  That means that a majority of children in any American community are likely to be raised by parents who strongly disagree with many, if not most, of the norms of secularists in general and of secular professionals in particular.

But even the majority is not necessarily a majority–parents who think proms and football games are the best part of high school are appalled at parents who forbid their children from taking part in either; parents who forbid their children taking part are appalled at the parents who allow it and therefore risk their children having early sex or falling down on their schoolwork and not getting into the best colleges and universities. 

The issue of faith healing and children is not as clear as it seems for many reasons.  For one thing, most faith healing families spend their entire lives without ever seeing serious harm come to any of their children.   Treating Susie diabetes with prayer may have grave consequences, but treating Tommy’s cold will not, even if we assume prayer has no efficacy whatsoever.

Second, it is indeed the case the medical science loses patients too, and not always for incompetence.  There are still plenty of diseases we don’t really understand–many forms of cancer, for instance–and don’t really know how to cure. 

Third, we can only act on what we know.  Faith healing parents do not forgo standard medicine because they’re neglecting their children.  They forgo it because they think it doesn’t work (at best) or that it is downright dangerous.  They may be wrong, but to charge them with “neglect’ or with homicide in these cases is ludicrous.  There is neither neglect nor homicide here. 

My own personal solution to this is that parents should be the soul authorites allowed to make any decision for their minor children as long as that decision is not most likely to result in permanent physical disability or death.

That particular formula would allow states to prosecute parents for things like not giving diabetic childen insulin while pretty much keeping the state out of things like whether or not the kid gets to watch television (real case in the early 1980s) or goes to a religious school that teaches creationism.

As long as we live among people whose ideas are different from ours, though, these cases will come up.  What seems natural and just and right to some of us will not seem natural and just and right to others.

I’m going to go see if anybody is bothering to show up for my second class.

I’m just going to end with this addendum:  Jem asked, in the case of the woman jailed because she wouldn’t go to the hospital to deliver her baby, what the odds were that by not going the baby would be harmed when born.

My response to that is–I don’t care.

It is not acceptable to me–ever–to incarcerate a person for an act she might commit in the future, and especially when that act isn’t even a crime.


For any reason.

No exceptions.

I feel the same way about regulating the behavior of pregnant women to “safeguard” the health of the fetus.

The fetus has no standing whatsoever in American law.  It is not a legal person.

And even if it were, the general rule is that no person can be compelled to provide the use of their physical body (blood and skin and bone) to the benefit of another human being against her will.

The pregnat woman should have no interference from the state no matter what she’s doing, and that includes snorting crack.

Well, you don’t want me to get started on that one.

We’ll be here all day.

Written by janeh

April 2nd, 2010 at 8:47 am

Posted in Uncategorized

10 Responses to 'The Diversity Dilemma'

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  1. Most of the discussions I’ve been involved in, and most of the written material on the issue that I’ve looked at, have defined “corporal punishment” as any hitting at all, from the mildest spanking to the most severe beating. I’ve never heard it used to mean only those cases when you hit a child with an implement.
    This is what I wrote:
    “Spanking, as a form of corporal punishment, consists of a slap with the hand on the child’s leg, bottom, etc. While not preferable as a means of discipline, I don’t consider it abuse unless the spanking is harsh enough to case welts or bruises. Corporal punishment, even for purposes of discipline, can consist of striking a child with a belt, switch, or other objects”
    I spoke of spanking as a form of corporal punishment. In my last sentence I said that corporal punishment can consist of using an implement to strike a child. Both are forms of corporal punishment. From one extreme to the other. And, from what I’ve experienced (in a mild form) and what I’ve observed in others subjected to harsh forms of physical discipline, its result is negative. It made me very fearful and angry. My ex-husband and my roommate were violent to varying degrees when they were younger. No more, thank goodness. Again, if one adult assaults another he can be charged with a misdemeanor and when that same adult assaults a child it is called discipline.


    2 Apr 10 at 9:42 am

  2. Yes, but defining one adult slapping another as assault (which generally doesn’t happen – you need more than a slap) and calling it discipline when it’s an adult slapping a child is, well, it’s what’s happening.

    One adult does not have the right to direct the behavior of another adult, Fred Phelps notwithstanding (did anyone else read what his son Nate wrote about their family dynamics? Holy shit).

    But parents do have the right, or responsibility, to teach their minor children how to behave. If they use spanking, well, I can’t see that it’s either all that harmful or my business. My mother didn’t spank me more than once – she didn’t need to. I wasn’t harmed by that experience. Mom made her point. But if another adult were to try the same thing now, I probably would call the police. They have no responsibility for my behavior.

    The problem is drawing the line between spanking and beating, but Jane’s definition seems the most sensible to me. Most people will draw the line at permanent physical harm. Take your kid to the ER with enough broken bones and people will ask questions.


    2 Apr 10 at 10:14 am

  3. I can’t see that “it’s what’s happening,” as a justifiable reason. And what proof do you have that most people draw the line at permanent physical harm? If you read the papers, particularly in Florida, there’s plenty of information that they don’t. Evidently, what you’re saying is that anything short of inflicting permanent physical harm in the guise of corporal punishment on your child is just fine. In Africa and some Middle Eastern countries, female circumcision, removel of the clitoris, is what’s happening, too, to children between four and eight. Parents decide on this as best for their girl children. Is that okay, too? A six year old may not be mature enough to decide what’s best in all circumstances but they definitely can feel physical pain. And you say that the one spanking you received did you no harm. One spanking is rarely the extent of it.


    2 Apr 10 at 11:53 am

  4. I’d say that female genital mutilation would fall under “permanent physical harm”. And short of actual physical damage, how do you know what really happened? Are you going to remove any child from it’s parents’ custody based on no physical evidence?

    Yep – I’m one of the ones Jane referred to who had this argument in another forum….


    2 Apr 10 at 1:28 pm

  5. First, sorry I remembered your comment incorrectly. I usually respond to them a full day after I’ve read them, and I don’t always get it right.

    But two things–

    The standard of “permanent physical disability or death” would in fact make it possible to outlaw FGM, since FGM, by removing the clitoris, makes it impossible for a woman ever to achieve orgasm, and in the more elaborate forms permanently complicates childbirth and delivery.

    Second, the issue isn’t what is or is not “just fine.” That’s a moral judgment, not a legal one.

    The issue is what the government should or should not be allowed to regulate in the private lives of its citizens–and I would insist that that be very little.

    As for what proof we have that most parents who spank stop before doing anything severe–we’ve got the lack of evidence of anything else. Spanking was, up until this generation, the method of discipline in the majority of families.

    My father was considered very odd for opposing it.

    But the majority of children did not end up in emergency rooms, or with welts or bruises visible on their bodies.

    And the majority most definitely do not exhibit such things now, when there is far more scrutiny.

    Parents are the best people to make decisions for their own children, and their right to do so should not be taken away except under exceptionally egregious circumstances and with the accused parents being given full due process of law.

    Which, by the way, does not happen now.


    2 Apr 10 at 1:32 pm

  6. If you’ve not been subjected to spanking or other corporal punishment, I don’t see how you can say with any credibility what damage it does or does not do. And even if a majority of children –51%? less, more?– subjected to corporal punishment do not end up in an emergency room with bruises or welts, why does that sanction the practice? Hitting to teach a child to refrain from a particular behavior teaches that hitting is okay. I’ve seen too much evidence to the contrary. And, parents brought before family court on physical child abuse charges, at least in Florida and Alabama, are offered the option of taking positive parenting or anger management classes. Removing children from their parents is the last of many steps, not a first resort.


    2 Apr 10 at 1:48 pm

  7. Well, first, my standard wasn’t “harm,” which is far too vague, but “permanent PHYSICAL DISABILITY of death.”

    And any actions on the part of parents severe enough to cause a permanent PHYISCAL disability would end up in the emergency room or the doctor”s office< and would in all likelihood to be fully observable by teachers and coaches. Second, no, my parents didn't spank, and neither did I--but my husband was from a working class Italian family, and HIS family did. Ne not only didn't think it harmed him, but that it helped him--and he isn't the only one from that particular kind of background who feels the same way. I won that particular fight with our children--because I always won any fight with Bill if I really wanted to win it--but I'm not about to say that Bill and all his cousins, plus the cousins on one side of my family, plus a majority of the people I grew up with are all deluded about their childhoods. Third--that's nice, parents are "offered the option" of taking positive parenting classes. After their guilt has been determined--how? Were they first given a jury trial? Were they allowed the right not to incriminate themselves? Did workers have to get a warrant to enter their houses? A number of my students are in or have been in the family services system, and their families were afforded none of those rights, which our Constitution says should be afford to any US citizen accused of a crime. I don't see why family courts get to trash the Constitution, not just with parents accused of abuse and neglect but of the juveniles themselves, who can still be jailed for things (running away) that are not in fact crimes. I find most people's ideas about parenting absolutely abhorent--but I also find them none of my business. Whem my sons were children and teenagers, they were not allowed to watch television or play video games AT ALL during the school terms--not even on week-ends. My right to make that decision rests on your right to make a different one. But what makes me even more uncomfortable is that most of what I see of this system consists of white middle class social workers preaching the latest child rearing doctrine to poor black parents--in a situation in which the cultural norms of the two groups are literally night and day. Today's faddish ideas of what makes "positive parenting" may be right--or they may be as wrong as the last six versions we discarded over the past several decades. There needs to be a strict standard of what the government may interfere with and what it may not, and a standard of determining guilt and punishment that accords to the Constitution. And, trust me, being forced into "positive parenting classes" under threat of having your family destroyed if you disagree IS punishment.


    2 Apr 10 at 2:29 pm

  8. Well, I was spanked as a child. Not often, and certainly not enough to cause permanent physical damage, or even temporary bruises or whatever. I wasn’t strapped in school, but others were. I can’t say it did me or my siblings any harm at all – getting, risking, observing corporal punishment. I have no children of my own, so I never had to decide whether or not to spank them. I suspect my decision would depend at least partly on the child.

    Children have said – as children and as adults years after the fact – that physical punishment can be preferable to a lot of verbal punishment – verbal abuse, insults, nagging, continuing put-downs and reminders of how terrible the child is and was and always will be. A spanking and a fresh start could be far less damaging in the long term than that sort of approach.

    I’m not terribly concerned about ‘beating’ unless it is severe enough to cause permanent injuries, or merely one component in those horrible child abuse cases you hear about where children are not only beaten, but starved, locked up, prevented from getting to the toilet and so on.

    And sometimes – with some children – a smack seems to be the only thing that gets the “DON”T run into the road” into their heads. It depends on the child. Some wilt at a harsh word, others to a single smack on the backside. But there are times that most of them need something to remind them of what to do or not do.


    2 Apr 10 at 3:32 pm

  9. I’m a childless bachelor and am reluctant to comment on disciplining children. But children must learn that breaking rules has consequences and that the consequences can be severe.

    We’ve just had a case of a 16 year old learner driver with 3 weeks experience who “borrowed” her parents car and took 4 friends for a drive. The rule is that a learner can not drive without an adult with full license supervising.

    Result she crashed the car and all 4 friends were killed.

    Was she spanked as a child? I have no idea. But she certainly didn’t learn to think about rules and the consequences of breaking them.


    2 Apr 10 at 7:27 pm

  10. The last time I spanked my son, he was about 10–and had wandered away from me without a word in a crowded shopping mall. I got his attention, and that never happened again. I am unconvinced that it would have been better parenting to scold him severely and have him get lost permanently next time. I’m with Jane on this one: there are a LOT of parenting practices I disapprove of, but short of physical harm I’m not much interested in governmental intervention.

    But we’re pursuing a side issue. If you have real diversity–beliefs and practices, not just skin tones–under a single government, you can cope by libertarianism or (sometimes) by federalism. To micromanage cultural practices in a diverse population is to invite endless “culture wars.” This seems to be the path the West has chosen, and I expect the conflicts to be long and brutal. They will not stop until either the diversity or the micromanagement goes away.


    2 Apr 10 at 7:38 pm

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