Family Matters

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

Savannah Hardin, 9, dies after being made to run for three hours for lying about eating a candy bar. With her grandmother and stepmother charged with murder, will parents consider anew how to punish children?

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Etowah County Sheriffs Office / AP

An undated photo released by the Etowah County Sheriff's Department on Wednesday shows 9-year-old Savannah Hardin.

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.

MORE: Why Spanking Doesn’t Work

To add to the story’s already lurid details, Hardin gave birth on Wednesday to a baby who will ostensibly be placed in protective care, along with her 3-year-old surviving child. The baby and the 3-year-old are Hardin’s biological children; their father is Robert Hardin, who was working as a government contractor in Pakistan while his wife and mother-in-law were meting out punishment to his other child, Savannah. Savannah’s biological mother lives in Florida and did not have custody.

There are so many questions to consider that it’s hard to know where to start. If Savannah lied to her grandmother about eating a candy bar and it aggravated her reported bladder condition, why didn’t her relatives take her to a doctor for follow-up? With Savannah’s father in the Middle East, had her advocate left the building? And why didn’t her biological mom at least share custody?

Every day, of course, stepmothers forge caring relationships with their stepchildren. Yet this is not the first newsworthy case in which a child whose biological mother had given up custody fared poorly in the care of her stepmother. Last year, Elisa Baker was sentenced to 18 years in prison for the murder of her stepdaughter, Zahra Baker, a disabled girl who had battled cancer. Zahra’s Australian mother blamed postpartum depression for her decision to cede custody to Zahra’s father, who subsequently married Baker.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question is this: who in their right mind would make anyone — even a professional football player, let alone a child — run for three hours?

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.”

MORE: The First Real-Time Study of Parents Spanking Their Kids

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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