Jessica Beagley, the Anchorage mother whose 15 minutes of fame on Dr. Phil proved less fun than expected, was convicted of child abuse. From the AP :
A woman who squirted hot sauce into the mouth of her adopted Russian son for lying about getting in trouble in school was convicted Tuesday of misdemeanor child abuse in what prosecutors said was a ploy to get on the “Dr. Phil” TV show.
Jessica Beagley, 36, made a videotape of how she punished the boy and submitted it to the show. The tape shows Beagley yelling at the crying boy, then tipping his chin up and pouring hot sauce in his mouth.
Beagley then had the screaming boy stand in a cold shower for sword-fighting with pencils in school.
According to Beagley (and Gary, her Anchorage cop husband), they had tried more conventional methods of disciplining one of their adopted Russian twins, to no avail. What’s a mom to do?
Let’s be clear, the use of hot sauce (not to mention cold showers filmed for later television viewing) isn’t my idea of proper child rearing. To me, it goes way too far. But here’s the kicker: Who cares what I think? My sensibilities aren’t the dividing line between lawful and criminal conduct. Neither are yours. Or at least they shouldn’t be.
One of the fundamental requirements of a criminal statute is that it alert people to what constitutes a crime. Parents are entitled to, indeed, supposed to, discipline their children when they do something wrong. They can give the kid a time out, lecture them about the evils of whatever they think is evil. Some say it’s okay to spank a child, others not. But hot sauce will land you in jail?
As with so many other things we each believe we possess, though others may differ, like common sense, we each have our own concept of where the line should be drawn when it comes to appropriate discipline and child abuse. As with common sense, each of us is certain that we’re right, though everyone else disagrees (because they too are certain that they’re right). So there’s a bright line, but it’s different for everyone. Not much help.
For most people who hear about Beagley’s punishment, it’s a matter of religion that she’s on one side of the line or the other. What people don’t recognize is that they are merely judging based on their own sensibilities. Some people won’t wear white after labor day, while others think it’s a ridiculous rule. Of course, harming a child isn’t comparable to wearing white, but the rationale is similar: It’s just what we believe to be right.
Historically, we were a tough nation when it came to disciplining children. “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” was once the rule of thumb, but few of us have a woodshed out back anymore. Instead, we ponder whether to deny them the Gameboy, leaving them only with the X-box to keep them occupied. The Puritans shudder at our weakness.
It’s not to advocate more severe punishments, but rather to question where the authority of parents to decide how to punish a child gives way to criminal conduct. That Beagley tried lesser punishments without success, leading to increasingly harsh punishments, isn’t that unusual. Some parents find themselves with recalcitrant children, and they are at a loss for how to control them and, hopefully, teach them how to behave. We expect parents to do this, and their failure to teach their children well is a failure of parenting.
Certainly, conduct that causes real or permanent physical harm to a child, or anyone for that matter, exceeds the bounds of lawful conduct. While hot sauce may be a painful punishment, does it rise to the level of serious harm that demands sanction? It seems to be that a good whipping with a switch caused an awful lot of pain as well, not to mention the potential of permanent scarring. And yet this was a standard punishment in this country for centuries.
I don’t know where the line should be drawn. And that seems to be the problem, since without knowing, it’s impossible to limit one’s conduct so that we don’t cross the line. And that’s what distinguishes criminal conduct from merely going too far.