A group of church families were camped nearby during the first week we were here. Lots of kids. Lots of rowdiness. A little girl just a year older than Eliza, who came over to play pretend games on the second afternoon.
That second night, I overheard a father and a crying child in their tent across the street: "I told you to put on your pull-up, and I told you AGAIN to put on your pull-up, and when I turned around, you were lying there with your legs out and you had NOT put on your pull-up. You have to learn to do as you're told!"
Ah, I thought, commiserating with the father: I sure do know what that's like, to be driven to frustration and/or insanity by your irrational child and something as small as a pull-up diaper!
But then I realized that the sickening sound I heard next, followed by the child's scream, followed by several more of the same sickening sounds, was: Flesh On Child.
And again and again, throughout the week, this girl was punished with fairly vigorous blows, audible from across the street (along with her cries, whimpers and screams): for infractions possibly small and definitely numerous, but most especially for her continual disregard for authority. "You have to learn to listen to grown ups!" this child was told repeatedly, while being hit. And hit. And hit again.
Tent walls are thin. Nobody tried to hide what was happening. We were told: this girl was one of three adopted kids from a "trauma background." Her adoptive parents advertised their religion on their cars and campsite signage.
Over the course of several days, we saw: this girl still wore diapers, at the age of five. She took Eliza's special ring, when Eliza wasn't looking, and watched cooly while Eliza cried and hunted for it. (I was worried she'd incur a punishment if I questioned her.) (Two days later, the girl brought the ring back and handed it to Eliza.) She, maybe - or maybe not - most especially among the children next door, couldn't or wouldn't follow the rules. She, for whatever reason, got hit the most.
The tiny slice of disturbing drama played out for days. Why did no one call The Authorities? Why didn't I? What would I have said if I'd called?
According to an online source:
'Corporal punishment for children in New York is legal. However...N.Y. FCT. Law 1012...holds that a child (that is, a person under the age of 18) could be considered "neglected" when his physical, mental or emotional condition has been impaired or is in imminent danger of becoming impaired due to his parent or caregiver "unreasonably inflicting or allowing to be inflicted harm, or substantial risk thereto, including the infliction of excessive corporal punishment."
'...The state's criminal law, specifically N.Y. Pen. Law 35.10, is a bit narrower in its definition of justification for use of physical force against children. This law states that a parent, guardian or person entrusted with the care and supervision of a person under the age of 21 can use physical force (but not deadly physical force) upon such person when and to the extent that he reasonably believes it necessary to maintain discipline or to promote the welfare of such person.'
Who should decide how parents raise their kids? Who says that religious beliefs/discipline theories trump a child's physical safety? Who says the child was being hurt, really? Is it better to smack a child often but calmly, in punishment, vs. to hit a child occasionally, in the heat of anger? How should parents channel the insanely continuous challenges and frustrations of raising children? How should misbehavior be quantified? Are there many other institutions besides churches that even try to support frazzled parents? Does corporal punishment affect naturally compliant children differently than it affects "spirited" ones? What about traumatized or developmentally delayed or mentally ill kids? Where should the line be drawn between a child's autonomy and a parent's authority? Was this child being disciplined or abused? What is the role of an Outsider when a family is grappling with (or ignoring) these questions?
I try to consider dispassionately: those times I feel such anger and frustration and work hard NOT to hit my child. I feel both shame and exhaustion when this happens. A friend who has older kids once told me: "Anyone who says they have never hit their child - assuming their child is older than a baby - is lying." Should even the FEELINGS be considered problematic? How does one ultimately decide which of our human impulses are worth acting upon or thwarting?
Of course, hitting out of desperation is different from condoning corporal punishment as a discipline method. But you might say that both scenarios are fraught with Issues.
In between trying to reason with my own children all week (without, I now realize, the key ingredient that allows a parent to have the ability to threaten a child into Good Behavior!!), I was somewhat haunted by these thoughts. At which point a park ranger came by and told Ben to stop climbing a tree: "Sorry, buddy, but we don't want you to get hurt!" he said. "C'mon down now!" (Because obviously I, Ben's mother, standing right next to him at the time, DID want him to get hurt)...
It's a crazy-ass world.