It is not lost on me that under other circumstances, the famous Baltimore mom might be in jail for child abuse.
By now you have seen the headlines praising Maryland mom Toya Graham for her smackdown of her masked 16-year-old son who was among the rioters in Baltimore, throwing rocks at the police. “Baltimore Riot Mom is Mother of the Year,” gushes the New York Post. “White House Applauds Baltimore Mom For Beating on Riotous Son,” reports Jezebel.
Count me heartily in the camp that is applauding Ms. Graham for snatching her kid out of that situation and shaming him for his bad behavior. However, it is not lost on me that if she had delivered a much milder swat, say, for her tween or young teen acting up in a grocery store, Child Protective Services would have gotten involved in no time, amid allegations of child abuse, and the public would tsk-tsk at the bad mother who hits her child.
Somehow, over the last several decades, it has gotten to the point that there is almost no circumstance that allows a parent to slap or spank a child without risking loss of custody and a criminal record. About 20 years ago, a co-worker told me his story: his toddler, as toddlers are wont to do, suddenly toddled away at high speed straight for the road. The father, in a panic over the immediate danger, rushed after the child, snatched him back from the edge of the road, scolded him and gave him a whack on his thickly diapered bottom. A couple of days later, he was surprised when Child Protective Services came around to interview him on the say-so of a nosy neighbor. They found no wrongdoing on the father’s part, but his name was nonetheless entered into a database of potential child abusers. “So I’m in that database for the next 10 years,” he told me. “If anything else comes up with my kid – if he gets hurt and goes to the ER – they can pull my name up and see that I’m a potential child abuser, that I was previously reported.”
My co-worker’s story illustrates why so many parents today are afraid to spank their kids, even if they themselves see nothing wrong with the occasional swat on the rump. It only takes one nosy buttinsky with a cell phone to wreck your family life and traumatize your kids with CPS interventions. More than half the parents I know, in my generation and younger, staunchly insist that they do not believe in spankings, ever.
And yet, the public’s immediate reaction to Toya Graham is – with relatively few exceptions – applause. Why the difference? Is it because the child is nearly grown, and taller than his petite mother, so that we don’t see him as a helpless little victim? Is it because he is about to engage in a serious offense? Or perhaps we see him in his black clothing and his mask and we identify him as a thug, and see her as a heroine standing up against thuggery, pulling her young son back from the brink of actually becoming a criminal.
But… does it make any sense to applaud smacking a 16-year-old who is misbehaving in a very serious, public way, while simultaneously believing that two-year-olds who are misbehaving in a very dangerous way should never be smacked, not even just a quick spank to the diapered bottom?
As with other parts of our culture, America is schizophrenic on the issue of spanking children. Gone are the days of “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Ironically, in shaming parents who spank their little children for childish offenses, we perhaps are helping to create the situation where we laud parents who spank their near-adult children for adult offenses.