A photo of a parent holding a belt. A child is crying in the distance.

child abuse

U.S. to the World: We Are Good With Abusing Kids

Under Trump’s reign, the USA—the "global leader" in human rights—is the only holdout on the UN’s anti-violence initiative protecting women and children. Surprised? You shouldn’t be.

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American politicians have always boasted about our being a global leader on human rights, wagging our exceptional fingers at the rest of the world for their failure to protect the basic human rights of their most vulnerable citizens. Yet, it comes as little surprise that American diplomats from the Trump administration are currently fighting tooth and nail to block United Nations anti-violence initiatives that bolster protections for women and children. 

According to a recent report from Foreign Policy, the U.S. is the only holdout on this resolution, which declares that “it is never okay to use violence against children,” including corporal punishment. “The fight played out in closed-door UN negotiations, with a legalistic U.S. approach meant to defend states’ rights under the U.S. Constitution, including the right of parents and schools to physically discipline children.” 

Despite a creeping-downward trend over the last four decades, America is still an ass-whupping country. Every state has a law, which defines how to appropriately hit a child’s body. With the exception of Iowa and New Jersey, every state allows corporal punishment in private and charter schools, and 18 states still allow kids to be paddled in public schools, with immunity clauses that shield teachers and administrators from prosecution should they injure a child during the act. This method of punishment is primarily used against Black students and students with disabilities, according to data from a 2009 study by the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch.

Foreign Policy, virtually the only major media outlet that reported on the UN negotiations held earlier this month, noted that “U.S. conservatives view the UN’s efforts to increase children’s rights as threats to their national freedom and parental control—including the right to spank their children.” A UN delegate told Foreign Policy that the U.S. wants to replace the language “all forms of violence” with “unlawful forms of violence.” According to the delegate, “U.S. government lawyers say they need to use the term ‘unlawful’ in order to safeguard States’ rights.”

Even the 30-plus countries that allow minors to be whipped, flogged, and caned haven’t made a stink over the UN resolution, and none of them are supporting the U.S.’s position.

The U.S. government is not even pretending to care about the safety of children, or trying to save face in front of the international community.  In other words, while the rest of the world is working to end the use of corporal punishment (some 53 nations already), the Trump administration, not surprisingly, sees making America great again as only possible through a domestic war on vulnerable communities and preserving the rights of American parents and schools to hit children.

But what’s really behind the U.S. opposition to preventing violence against children? Why does this opposition exist?

America has a tradition of small government and minimal interference in family matters. The basic assumption is that parents know better than some distant politician what is best for their children. Conservative Americans already resent elected officials making decisions, let alone foreign politicians with customs, traditions, and understandings that are very different from our own.

Conservatives fear that the child’s right treaty will eliminate parental rights and give the UN authority over the education, health, and general welfare of their children. They don’t want an unelected group of foreign nations making decisions that they feel will limit their parental rights. Those who oppose this anti-violence treaty appear to be paranoid, seeing a conspiracy in everything.

The conservatives, long suspicious of the federal government, view the UN as a serious threat to U.S. sovereignty. This present American resistance to the U.N. resolution and to federal positions ending violence against children historically appeals to those insisting on “states’ rights,” and is as irrational as denying climate change.  

This latest political maneuver of the Trump administration is coming from a very cynical, self-interested elite that is trapping this country into guaranteeing the proliferation of violence for generations to come—motivated in large part by the changing racial and immigration demographics of this country. As with their embrace of more police and prisons, their call for more military and the construction of walls along the borders, the embrace of corporal punishment is about controlling and brutalizing bodies of color. An America that is browner requires maximum coercion and violence at every phase and stage of life, in every institution, from the family to the school.

The Trump administration, its right-wing supporters, and Christian groups falsely claim that this international law would increasingly intrude on parents’ rights. This opposition is part of the U.S.’s decades-long refusal to ratify the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

According to UNICEF, CRC defines the legal requirements for the world to protect its most vulnerable citizens. It “spells out the basic human rights that children everywhere—without discrimination—have: the right to survival; to develop to the fullest; to protection from harmful influences, abuse and exploitation; and to participate fully in family, cultural and social life … The convention protects children’s rights by setting standards in health care, education and legal, civil and social services.” 

The CRC also spells out the rights of children in criminal cases. “No child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment … The arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child shall … be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time,” it says. Additionally, it seeks to protect children from forced labor, child marriage, grants children the right to health care, education, and freedom of expression.

While the Trump administration has clearly expanded the war on the young, particularly children of color, none of this new or unique to his administration. Right-wingers and some Christian groups have long feared that this binding international law would lead to legions of children choosing their own religion. State governments would have to spend more on children’s welfare than national defense, ensure paid leave for parents, grant access pre- and post-natal health care, improve education, and reduce child poverty. And heaven forbid, children would have the “right to be heard.”

The U.S wants to be shielded from international law when it comes to the treatment of its children, especially children of color. The GOP’s vision of America requires an endless supply of underfed, undereducated, traumatized underpaid children ready to work below subsistence jobs, or young people who turn their pent up rage onto their communities and then fed into the prison industrial system.

Efforts to protect corporal punishment allow for the continuous control of a rapidly browning America. It empowers a nation and its institutions to harm its children, stamping out their empathy, critical thinking, sense of security, self-esteem and cognitive skills through violent discipline and coercion. The underlying premise is that we must use violence to keep citizens in check, which means raising children to be susceptible and accustomed to violence and fear. This grooms them to be much more easily controlled as adults.

Research shows that children who experience violence are more likely to accept violence as an indicator of authority. Many people rationalize the violence they experience as children as necessary for maintaining an orderly and civilized society. This belief initiates those children into the idea of justifiable violence against the masses. But these children grow into damaged adults and a justified violence against the masses. And in a nation that is segregated by race and economics, the damaged people will further damage others like themselves, or scapegoat even more marginalized groups for their rage. Their suspicion, fear, hatred of outsiders is reinforced by their underlying hatred of self.

These conservatives and their government representatives know that if a generation of children is NOT raised to believe that violence is right and normal and required, they will not be likely to accept a fundamentalist interpretation of Christianity, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia and xenophobia. They won’t be as easy to manipulate or to control—and therefore not as willing to be oppressed.

The U.S. opposition also comes on the heels of a horrific international report on violence against children. A recent UNICEF report found that, “Three quarters of children aged 2 to 4 worldwide—close to 300 million—are regularly subjected to violent discipline (physical punishment and/or psychological aggression) by their parents or other caregivers at home, and around 6 in 10 (250 million) are subjected to physical punishment. Worldwide, around 1.1 billion caregivers, or slightly more than 1 in 4, admit to believing in the necessity of physical punishment as a form of discipline. To date, only 60 countries have adopted legislation that fully prohibits the use of corporal punishment at home, leaving more than 600 million children under 5 without full legal protection. This lack of legal prohibitions is a clear sign that violent discipline remains a largely unacknowledged form of violence against children.”  

It is clear that the U.S. does not agree, not even symbolically, that children should be free from all forms of violence or entitled to the same right to bodily integrity as adults, or afforded compassion and respect. 

While the U.S. loudly and proudly claims its position as a global leader, as a shining city of the world’s hill, and as an exemplar of human rights, its embrace of policies that harm children, from the school-to-prison pipeline to corporal punishment, its resistance to global protections of children tell a different story. You cannot claim to be concerned with protecting children when: you routinely buy products made by enslaved children throughout the globe; eat food harvested by children under horrible conditions while chanting “build the wall”; sit silent while Black children are suspended from preschool, brutalized by police, and sent to prison.     

We must challenge the profound hypocrisy that sees a nation celebrate children as “angels” while treating so many kids— those of color—as pariahs unworthy of empathy and protection. We must challenge the fundamental belief that violence toward children is a normal, natural requirement of parenthood and good governance. Otherwise, we’re co-signing our own destruction and the damage of future generations to come.

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