On the Beating of Children and Other Apparently Fine Things

On the Beating of Children and Other Apparently Fine Things
Illustration for Atoms vs. Bits by Helen Leon

Note: These claims are about US schools and society

You rise before dawn to make it on time to your government-mandated job. Despite having a medical condition that means you need significantly more sleep than average, compulsory work starts early and it’s still dark out when you catch the commuter bus.

In the hallway to your office, you see that a subordinate has displeased his boss; something about his uniform not being to spec. He’s violently shoved through the wall of a cubicle with a laugh while others hurry past, hoping to escape notice. The victim dusts himself off and scurries away, for that exchange counted as getting off relatively easy. Once, after transferring departments, you’d gotten beaten up by nearly the entire C-suite.

Your day consists of boredom punctuated by intense dread, the only real relief being lunch. On the way there you remember to take the long way around to avoid the accounting department, which is always a likely place to get jumped.

After lunch, as you sit browsing excel sheets, a passing colleague stops by to call you a sand n*****. You briefly remember HR’s suggested reply of “I know you are, but what am I?”, but alas, this colleague is not in fact a sand n*****, so you sit silent, defeated.

It will be several more years before you’re allowed to resign.

That’s not a dystopian future, it’s just an office-worker version of what many kids go through daily. Adults take for granted how much being a kid can suck, so let’s count the ways:

1. You might have to fight Shaq

The story illustrates the level of violence we accept amongst children in otherwise non-violent societies, but it gets even worse: differing speeds of development lead to huge differences in size and strength, meaning bullying is often like getting picked on by a Shaq-like giant.

**Figure Tooltip**
Shaq drinking a regular-sized water bottle

(I remember there was a bully in middle school who was taking steroids given to him by his older brother. Most of us hadn’t even hit puberty yet, but our overlord was running supraphysiological levels of testosterone. I wouldn’t want to fight that kid now.)

2. You receive adult responsibilities, but not adult rights

We often teach children that rights and responsibilities are connected: they don’t have the responsibility of paying rent, but they also don’t have the right to pick their room.

This is the general principle on which we deny rights to children, but also the mentally ill or intellectually disabled. However, unlike those latter two groups, for children, showing competence or character will almost never result in rights “restored”.

It’s possible for a child to do something sufficiently heinous that they’re treated as an adult by the courts and receive life in prison, while there’s nothing so noble that a child can do where they’ll receive some comparable adult right. You may say that there isn’t a good equivalent to callously killing someone, but wouldn’t heroically saving another’s life be the symmetrically good act? Why can responsibilities be issued, but not rights, when a child has demonstrated that their character warrants it?

(Children are occasionally emancipated, but generally, this requires parental permission or parental negligence. An emancipated child is almost never purely the result of that child’s own good deeds.)

If you are potentially subject to a type of responsibility, it really just means that you have that responsibility. The legalism of being “tried as an adult” is a decision to evoke the responsibility that a child has always carried.[1]

Potential life imprisonment may be the worst, but unfortunately, not the only adult responsibility we’re happy to foist onto children without any reciprocal gain of rights. We’ll assign child support obligations (even in the case of statutory rape!) while denying them the right to marry without parental consent. 17-year-olds are even on the hook for the U.S. Militia despite being unable to legally sign a contract themselves.[2]

(Perhaps this is why adults choose to bleat on about how tough having a mortgage is, it’s because kids are already subject to other, much more serious, adult responsibilities.)

This alone is so egregious that it singularly makes the entire point as far as I’m concerned.

Yes, in the developed world “corporal punishment” (literally “bodily punishment”, an eloquently Latinized euphemism for “beatings”) is on the decline, but if a 19th-century person told you that though wife-beating was still legal, it was on the decline, you’d look at them at least a little bit askance.

Corporal punishment, while permitted for children, is never allowed for adults, even for convicted murderers. It's legal to beat a child for talking out of turn, but not for adults who have repeatedly, viciously, murdered people.

Countries that do beat people for talking out of turn are universally regarded as brutal dictatorships, just so long as those beaten include grown-ups.

4. You must be Christ-like, while adults are Pilate-like

Children are expected to never resort to violence. If on the playground they’re hit, they should not hit back, but find an authority figure instead. Generally, this authority will do nothing meaningful, and the only result will be the status penalty of being labeled a tattle-tale, resulting in an even more vulnerable personal position.

The effect is that in the face of violence there are only two practical choices: 1) do as the adults say and have Christ-like equanimity by “turning the other cheek”, or 2) defend yourself and reap the consequences (for, like in prisons, two-way violence causes too much of a commotion for authorities to ignore). In the latter case, almost assuredly, both parties will be punished, often under zero-tolerance policies.[3]

Meanwhile, if a reasonable adult simply feels threatened, such as from having popcorn thrown at them, they can shoot someone to death.

(You see for grown-ups, facts do care about feelings, particularly in regards to shooting people in the face.)

5. Lying to you is socially acceptable

The value of truth as a virtue and liars as dishonorable is universally held, except when speaking to children. The lies fall into 3 categories:

Innocent lies

Lies like Santa Claus or the tooth-fairy are told mostly because we prefer that children be innocent, but also perhaps because we think it’s more fun for them. These are probably the least harmful sort of lies, though they normalize lying to children more generally.

Noble lies

The most common version of this lie is compressing complex topics into black-and-white directives. When I was in school it took the form of abstinence-only sex education and the “drugs are bad, m’kay?” DARE program.

The problem with these simplistic lies is twofold:

  1. Once the facts eventually emerge, children learn to expect only lies around anything contentious.
  2. These lies may actually make bad outcomes more likely, not less likely: kids DARE lied to went on to do more drugs.

Deluded Lies

There are too many of these to list, but the most fundamental of these is that being a kid is really great and just wait until you get to the real world. I hope I’ve shown that going to an office could be much worse and that mortgages are an optional obligation that never results in your lender beating the crap out of you.

The corollary lie is that adults understand at all what some kids may be going through, or have any useful advice to give them. They’ll describe countermeasures fit for environments where HR polices micro-aggressions because macro-aggressions, like being stuffed into a locker, are unheard of.

I’ve thought to myself that we treat children exactly how you’d expect we’d treat a group that wasn’t allowed to vote and we weren’t accountable to. This may sound disheartening, but at least it means we have a model for reform:

Domestic violence was once legal, normalized, and depressingly common. While it still exists, at least it’s illegal and taken seriously by some.

By contrast, which would cause more alarm: a child reporting that another kid hit them in school, or an adult reporting that they'd been struck by their boss or spouse? The latter would result in calls for charges, firing, or divorce while the former…might start a conversation with a guidance counselor?

But who’s actually more vulnerable here? We won’t give kids coffee because it could mess with their development, yet dismiss actual violence against them.

So if you’re wondering where’s the next frontier in human rights, as a guideline, try starting with who it’s still legal to beat.

  1. Another example of this is that freedom of expression contingent on the expression’s content just means you don’t have freedom of expression. ↩︎

  2. I’ve also learned that apparently I and every other American male age 17-to-45 are in the U.S. Militia. I knew I could be drafted, but it turns out I’m actually part of something! ↩︎

  3. In Georgia, Henry County Board of Education v. S.G. did affirm a student's right to self-defense, but this is not the norm. ↩︎

Thanks to Uri and Kaamya for feedback on drafts of this.

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