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  • Natalie Taylor

Gabby Petito and the culture of disciplining children

Updated: Dec 27, 2021

I don’t know Gabby Petito, nor her family background. All I know is that a beautiful young woman is dead, a lovely smile erased forever, a life cut short. The speculations about her killer abound and one hopes that eventually the perpetrator will be found and faces justice. But this is not about the killer, not even about the killing itself; this is about the video footage showing unequivocally that she was part of an abusive relationship. It seems fairly clear from the video that she was struck, pushed, and slapped by her fiancée. This is the gist of my article—how one deals with physical abuse.

For a long time now I have been categorically opposed to corporal punishment of children. I write this knowing full well that I was guilty of it myself, and I am deeply ashamed of it. I did strike my children in anger when they “misbehaved,” and I threatened them with corporal punishment as well. Although these incidents were very few, I regret every single one of them. It’s easy to throw blame on the previous generation for one’s actions, but there is a difference in acknowledging where one learned them without censure. I recall only a few instances when my mother lifted a hand to me or to my brother; each one of them in a moment of anger and each of them followed by apologies from her. I do not recall my father ever hitting any of us. So I guess I was repeating a pattern set by my parents without ever analyzing what I was doing. It was not until I became a grandmother and saw how my children raised theirs—never a hand lifted, never a hit. And yet the grandchildren grew up well-behaved, kind to others, and disciplined. Seeing how children can be brought up and disciplined without a single instance of spanking was transformative. I became a passionate opponent of any kind of corporal punishment whatsoever.

This personal experience made me think of what it would be like if (in a perfect world) no child were ever struck again. Imagine growing up in a household where striking another would be as foreign, as abnormal as going to a public hanging (yes, such an atrocity was horribly normal once). Now imagine a young woman who comes from such a household, a household where hitting another is inconceivable. She then develops a relationship with a man who appears to be the ideal, the one she wants to share her life with. And then imagine that this man becomes angry one day and hits her. Let’s say it’s not a major hit, just a minor punch on the shoulder, not even a bruise-making hit. But to this young woman who has never, ever been struck this is an outrageous act. It would be terrifying and most likely a deal breaker. She knows, instinctively she knows, that one strike will inevitably lead to another, then another, and escalate into full physical violence directed at her and eventually to any children they might have. She realizes that what he has shown is unacceptable and as difficult as it is to accept, she leaves the relationship.

All this brings me back to Gabby. I said, and I repeat, I do not know her family background. I do not know if she grew up in a household where none ever struck her, or where a parent disciplined her with a hit in a fit of anger once in a blue moon, or whether she experienced ritual corporal punishment at the hand of one or both parents. But I would wager that if she grew up in the kind of environment I describe, where striking another is unthinkable, she could not have tolerated being hit by her fiancé. When the police arrived on the scene, she would have insisted on being taken away from his presence. And perhaps today she would still be alive.

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