Last month, a mother in Utah cut off her daughter's ponytail in open court so the girl could receive a reduced sentence. The daughter's crime had been cutting off the hair of a little girl (whose mother approved this novel approach by the judge).
I first read about this case last week, but refrained from blogging about it right away because I wanted to think about my thoughts. My initial, visceral reaction was that this was a horrible thing for the judge to suggest. And while I am a firm believer in listening to one's gut instincts, I am also a firm believer in not giving in to those initial reactions but instead thinking and reasoning and coming to a better conclusion once the cloud of emotion has passed.
In this case, time and thought have not changed my view that this kind of sentence is inappropriate. Wrong, even. So many of the comments on stories about this case have referred to the concept of eye for an eye, have suggested that this young offender should indeed have done to her as she did to others. Yes, I even saw someone refer to this sentence as the Golden Rule.
But this sentence doesn't follow the Golden Rule. Certainly not the Golden Rule that I learned. The Golden Rule isn't license to treat people as awfully as they have treated you, but rather urges us to treat others the way we would like to be treated. Bullying a kid who has bullied others isn't the way to put an end to bullying. It just turns the rest of us into bullies.
The argument in favor of this hair cutting punishment is in essence the same argument for the death penalty, which you all know I don't agree with. I just can't get behind the idea that we should allow other people's behavior to justify our own. "She did it first so it's ok for me to do it now," shouldn't be a part of anyone's moral code. But a lot of people cite the biblical "eye for an eye" as justification for punishment that is perfectly in line with what the perpetrator did. (Even though Jesus said, "No, don't do that. Turn the other cheek instead." This is why I get a little confused when people insist that the Bible is the source of all morality, 'cause I don't know what to do with those two different verses. But I digress.)
I once attended a baby shower for an 18 year-old prospective mother. It was a depressing afternoon for many reasons, but the stand out incident at this shower was the conversation that followed the mother-to-be's proclamation that the way to teach a child not to hit is to hit that child who has hit someone. Because, see, then the child will know how it feels to be hit and so won't want to do it again. I don't think the adults in the room got through to this girl, so I have since worried about the future of the child. One hopes that a few years of dealing with an actual child has helped her learn some better parenting tools. But when a district court judge thinks it's a good principle to employ at sentencing, I lose some of that hope.
I'm all for judges putting some thought and new ideas into sentencing plans, especially for juveniles. I'm all about trying to reach people who are headed down a bad path and not just pointing them toward a better path but actively starting them on it and helping them stay on it. But putting a mother in the awful position of having to batter* her child in open court to spare her daughter a longer sentence isn't what I have in mind. And it isn't ok. There has to be a better way to teach the bully empathy and compassion without resorting to this knee-jerk idea of "let's bully her and see how she likes it." How about writing a letter of apology? How about doing community service with children who have no hair due to illness or working with some kind of anti-bullying program? Something, anything, other than doing to her the really bad, don't do it again thing that we're punishing her for doing in the first place.
*Batter means to touch someone in a rude, insulting, or offensive way. So, yeah, I'll call cutting off her ponytail rude, insulting, and offensive. I know I wouldn't like it if someone hacked off my hair at the ponytail holder currently in place.