I bit my son. Once. A long time ago.
Some days I feel like I’m still making it up to him.
I am that ashamed. It left a mark on his little leg.
He was young enough so that he would probably not even remember it, but my guilt forces me to bring it up on occasion, just to let him know that I haven’t forgotten and still feel the guilt.
He was a biter at the time, as many 2-year-olds are, and he was sneaky about it, adding to the unpleasantness and pain by catching you off guard.
The red-headed ankle biter caught me by surprise one day while I was washing dishes. He got me in just the right spot on my ankle and he held on fast and hard.
I yelped and acted without thought, bending down and biting his leg and placing him in the corner for a time out.
My action probably didn’t meet the legal definition of child abuse, or maybe it did, but it certainly violated my own parenting code of conduct.
I make this confession in light of the latest conversation about what constitutes child abuse and whether it is ever OK to discipline a child with corporal punishment.
The debate, of course, moved to the forefront when Minnesota Viking Adrian Peterson recently was indicted in Texas for taking a switch to his 4-year-old son, leaving several bloody lash marks across the little boy’s legs and buttocks.
Laws in most states, including Maine, are pretty clear that it is within a parent’s right to use physical force on a child when it is done “reasonably” and for the purpose of discipline.
The word “reasonable” is open for interpretation by judges and juries and can result in a “mixed bag” of verdicts when cases are taken to trial, according to Penobscot County Deputy District Attorney Mike Roberts.
“I’d say we probably get a case a month that causes us to examine this issue and make a determination whether we move forward with abuse or assault charges or whether the act against the child was legal under our laws,” Roberts said.
The law is fairly general, and a lot of it hinges on the extent of the injury and why it occurred.
Like politics and religion, having a conversation about physically disciplining a child is one many may shy away from in a crowded room unless looking for acrimonious debate.
Attitudes on the issue are often deep-seated and generational, which Peterson acknowledged while trying to excuse his own behavior. His own “whoopin’s” saved him from becoming a bad-acting street thug, he said.
He may not be a street thug, but it’s hard to say whether the whoopings or a lucrative NFL contract saved him from that fate.
I personally might have to argue that repeatedly whipping a 4-year-old child actually does make you a thug, a thug in an attractive house rather than on the street perhaps, but a thug no less.
Ironically, laws in most states prohibit you from striking your spouse, your sibling or any adult, for that matter. You can get arrested, or at least charged, for spitting on your neighbor.
Yet it is perfectly legal with a level of “reasonableness” to strike a child. As long as the child is your own.
I was not spanked as a child, but I had friends, a set of siblings, who lived nearby that were. Their parents used a long stick. The end the parents held was wrapped in black electrical tape and the stick was always visible, propped up against the kitchen wall.
I just remember thinking those kids always seemed afraid. Heck, I was afraid when I was there — always cringing if someone raised their voice or if an argument broke out among us while we played.
I’m not happy that Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice’s wife got punched in an elevator and I’m certainly not happy that Peterson’s little boy took a beating. It shouldn’t take the fact that the perpetrators are famous football players to get us all talking about domestic violence and child abuse, but apparently it does.
Raising children is a tough job. It takes a lot of patience and great discipline.
I tell the story about biting my son from time to time to acknowledge my mistake and my own momentary lack of discipline. We all have cringe-worthy parenting moments and most certainly don’t need to be prosecuted.
The Peterson case, however, provides a perfect opportunity for us all to ask ourselves whether it really is ever OK and whether it is ever effective to hit, bite, kick or otherwise physically harm a child, regardless of what the laws say.
Renee Ordway can be reached at email@example.com.