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A Girl is Punished to Death in Alabama: Does Running Count as Corporal Punishment?


The following ran on the Feb. 24, 2012, edition of the Time magazine Healthland blog. Psychologist George Holden provided expertise for this story.

March 9, 2012

By Bonnie Rochman

Earlier this month, a Healthland story about spanking elicited 730 comments: disciplining children is clearly a subject about which parents feel strongly.
Some are convinced that living by the adage “spare the rod, spoil the child” is the way to ensure obedience. Others subscribe to time-outs or grounding. But personal philosophy aside, it’s hard to fathom how a grandmother and stepmother in Alabama thought it was a good idea to make a 9-year-old girl run for three hours as punishment for lying about eating a candy bar.
Savannah Hardin, a blonde third-grader, suffered a seizure last Friday after becoming severely dehydrated; she died Monday. A pathologist classified her death as a homicide, and her grandmother, Joyce Hardin Garrard, 46, and stepmother, Jessica Mae Hardin, 27, have been charged with murder....

It’s possible that Hardin and Garrard figured running was preferable to spanking, says George Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University who researches corporal punishment. He called the incident “another example of our misguided orientation to discipline.”
If you want to address the issue of lying, for example, it’s important to build a relationship on trust. “Instead of being punitive, they should try to reason with the child and and get her to understand their perspective,” he says. “That promotes a good-quality relationship so she would not be inclined to lie in the future. When parents are oriented toward punitive responses, the most common reaction is that the child becomes more secretive.”
That makes sense. If you know misbehavior will be greeted with harsh discipline, you’ll do your best to cover your tracks. Even children understand the concept of self-preservation. “Many parents feel the need to show their authority,” says Holden. “They come up with all kinds of creative ways of punishing children. The question is, Do you have to make a child suffer to get them to behave?”

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