Guest Post: Crime and Punishment?

Friday, April 13, 2012

I met writer Colleen Oakley back in my magazine editor days. She was always quick with smart ideas and totally respected deadlines. A priceless combination when it comes to journalist. Although we’ve never actually met met, as in eye to eye, we’ve long stayed in touch, especially after we both moved into The MommyHood.  I’m delighted to have Colleen writing a guest post on Ms. Mary Mack. Have a read and, as usual, let us know what you think. Weigh in down below in the comments section!


My son Henry is 21 months old. He has a hitting problem. More accurately, he hits me when I say something he doesn’t want to hear (“We’re done with the slide. Time to go in for lunch!” SMACK). My husband and I tried to curb this behavior by using the age-old method of Time Out. We set up a portable crib in the guest room and whenever Henry hit me, he went directly into said crib for 60 seconds. The problem? My child doesn’t mind being alone. When he was in Time Out, he giggled to himself, he sang songs and when I went to collect him from his solitary confinement, he even started to say “Bye Mom!” As in, “I don’t need you to come get me. I’m having fun in here.”

Keeping Henry's hands full and busy.

And the hitting didn’t stop. I was at wit’s end, so I did what every modern parent does when they can’t find a solution to their child’s problems—I scoured the Internet. I found a bevy of solutions ranging from praising good behavior (Tried; he still hits), to having him direct his anger at a pillow (Hmmm … I teach him not to hit by having him hit something else?), to hitting him back (NEVER!).

I settled on a Supernanny technique of the naughty corner. Now, whenever Henry hits me he must stand facing the corner for 60 seconds. I didn’t have much faith in the tool, thinking it was too similar to Time Out, but lo and behold, Henry HATES it. He wants his stuffed doggie, he screams and cries and by the end of 60 seconds when I kneel down and tell him that he can’t hit mommy because it makes her very sad, he gives me a big hug and says “sorry!”

The past few weeks since I’ve employed the corner technique have been nearly hit-free and I think that Henry is finally getting the message. But the big parenting message I’ve learned is that punishment is a very subjective thing. And as a parent, my job is to keep going until I find the thing that works for my child. I want him to grow up to be a responsible, respectful man — and to not hit his boss in the face when she says something he doesn’t want to hear.

We live in a society that, according to recent books and op-eds, has gotten slack in our parenting. Recently our lax American ways have been sharply contrasted to Tiger Moms and the perfection and simplicity of French parenting. We’re criticized for having wild and unruly kids, for having no authority, for raising a generation of entitled, lazy, spoiled miscreants.

It’s a war cry often heard when American kids make the news for bad behavior — stealing cars, setting fire to things, bullying — “It’s the parents’ fault! Kids need consequences for their actions!” Which is why I’ve been perplexed at the recent rash of American mothers who have been arrested for … drumroll, please … giving their kids consequences for their actions.

Let’s take a look at the two latest cases:

1. A 10-year-old Arkansas boy lost his bus privileges for the fifth time for causing a disturbance on the bus. As punishment, his mother made him walk the 4.6 miles to school. A security guard saw the boy walking across a parking lot on his own and called the cops. The mother now faces a $1,000 fine and possible jail time.  Seriously? I don’t know the area they lived in. Perhaps it’s a dangerous place for a 10-year-old to be by himself.

When I was 10, I rode my bike 5 miles to my friend’s house on a regular basis. My mother was never arrested. But I do know, that that mother was likely at her wit’s end and was trying to find the one consequence that would stick with this boy and teach him how to behave properly on a public school bus. A lot of mothers probably would have marched up to the school and stuck up for their son — How dare they suspend my angel from the bus? He surely would never do anything wrong! But this mother appears to believe in taking responsibility for your actions, and wanted to teach her son that very valuable lesson. And now she has a record.

2.     In January, an Atlanta mother was arrested for locking her two children (ages 9 and 11) outside of their apartment at 11 p.m. The children were barefoot. A neighbor called the police when she heard the kids banging on the door to be let back in. The weather was rainy, but it was in the 50s, not cold enough to be a serious health threat. Now, should these children have been in bed? Yes. Should a mother lock her own kids out of their house? Probably not. But can’t most mothers understand that feeling, when your kids have just driven you to the brink of sanity and all you want to do is get them out of your house? I know my brother, sister and I drove my mom to that cliff more than once in our childhood.

I’m not arguing that this woman chose the right punishment for her kids. However, can’t we have a little more understanding? Couldn’t the neighbor have knocked on the door and asked if everything was OK? Perhaps she could have taken the kids for 30 minutes while the mom collected herself. Did the cops need to get involved?

Obviously, child abuse is a serious and unfathomable offense. And people guilty of it should be arrested. But where is the line between punishment and crime? When is giving children consequences for their actions tantamount to child abuse? When they’re beaten senseless? Yes. Child abuse. When they’re forced to walk to school? I’m not so sure about that.

Could the mothers above have chosen different disciplinary actions for their kids? No doubt. Did they deserve to go to jail for the ones they chose? I just don’t think so. Parenting is hard enough, and while I may not agree with others’ parenting choices, I don’t feel like we have the right to judge them anymore than I want to be judged for my parenting choices.

The bottom line is: there’s no guidebook to perfect parenting. (If there is, please send me a copy!). I think most of us mothers and fathers have the intention to raise productive, responsible members of society — but how we get there is sometimes a roadmap of bumps, wrong turns and dead ends. And I think it’s frightening that we seem to have gotten to a place where a seemingly innocuous parenting mistake could land you in jail.

That’s much worse than 60 seconds in the corner.


For more on Colleen Oakley, please check out her writer’s page on Facebook.


1 Comment
  • 1
    Holly Davis says:

    Colleen is so right. How times have changed. I am a 42 year old who had much worse punishments and I turned pretty ok and no one went to jail.