Paternalism to the Nth Degree

A new bill proposed in Massachusetts would make it illegal for parents to spank their children. Much of the discussion centers on spanking and how harmful or effective it is. Toddlers don’t have the ability to reason as adults can, and they cannot comprehend why certain behavior should be avoided (often for their own safety). Spanking is a visceral tool parents can use to teach their children which actions are unacceptable.

This line of reasoning however, neglects the bigger issue at the heart of the debate: Regardless of whether or not spanking a child’s gluteus maximus is effective, the government does not have the right to interfere in this matter. Kathleen Wolf, the nurse who penned the bill, cites the fact that domestic violence laws apply to everyone in the house but children. She fails to note federal and state child abuse laws already exist across the nation. For domestic abuse, authorities can intervene only after the victim files charges or police find enough evidence to file their own charges. For child abuse, again, enough evidence must be present before the authorities can step in.

If it is child abuse, why does Massachusetts need a separate law to address spanking? The answer is, that it isn’t physical abuse. The reasoning seems to be that spanking is mentally abusive to children, therefore there wouldn’t be any evidence. Trying to regulate mental abuse is dangerous new territory for lawmakers. Ask any psychiatrist and they will probably tell you that in order to avoid mental abuse, the government would have to prohibit a good 90 percent of parental behavior (or they wouldn’t say anything to avoid losing customers).

How far can legislation like this go? There really is no limit. Will the state eventually try to regulate how hard parents can hug their children or what games they can play? Once they have a foot in the door, like nosy relatives you can’t avoid, regulators can interfere in any part of our “private” lives.