In my day, and my day was not so very long ago, boys respected and even feared the fathers of the girls whom they dated. Growing up, I went out with a lot of Italian girls. I knew that their fathers ruled their households, their daughters, and me when I was with their daughters. If I wanted a second date or, in some cases, if I wanted to survive to manhood, I also knew that I had to behave myself. Now reports come from Stillwater, Oklahoma, about the ordeal of police sergeant John Jerkins, disciplined for slapping the boy he discovered having sex on his living room sofa with his 17-year-old daughter.

Jerkins believed that a state law gave him the right to punish a juvenile in his home. Actually, the law permits parents to use “reasonable force” only against their own children. Nevertheless, District Attorney Robert Hudson refused to prosecute Jerkins, believing that he could not secure a conviction. “We know the climate in Oklahoma,” Hudson said. “People think that is conduct you might expect from a parent.” Police officials were neither so discerning nor so acquiescent. With the support of the city attorney, they demoted Jerkins to patrolman and docked him $705 in pay and $350 in pension benefits every month. He in turn appealed for reinstatement.

Of course, there followed the inevitable assault on Jerkins’ character. A veteran with 19 years of service to his community. Jerkins has an unblemished record and a reputation for poise and self-control. Those accomplishments, however, did nothing to prevent city administrators from questioning aloud Jerkins’ qualifications and temperament following the incident. The most asinine commentary came from the City Attorney Mary Ann Karns, who said: “If this officer for some reason can no longer maintain the control he is famous for, he’s at risk on the street.”

Whom does Karns think she is fooling? Does she expect a father who has just stumbled upon his teenage daughter in the midst of sexual intercourse with her boyfriend to remain calm? Wasn’t Jerkins’ outrage justified, especially since he and his wife had confronted both the couple and the boy’s parents three weeks earlier to insist that their carnal activity cease? Does Karns believe that most persons cannot distinguish between how an experienced policeman might behave on the street and how an angry father might respond to shield his daughter, particularly when the young lady did not have sense enough to protect herself?

Far from being deranged by this episode, as Karns’ remark implied, Jerkins’ sense of reality seems unimpaired. “This isn’t just about me,” he asserted. “It’s about parents and what their duties and responsibilities are, and what they can legally do in their own home.” Jerkins and his wife appear to take seriously their obligations to raise their children themselves, knowing that only they can determine the kind of persons their children will one day become.

Complaints about children gone astray are legion. The cry “Where were the parents when this was happening?” is an endless lament. Well, John Jerkins was exactly where he should have been: at home, making certain that his children were obedient and safe. He tried to preserve what remained of his daughter’s innocence and his family’s name, and he was rebuked for his efforts.

Fortunately, common sense and good judgment have prevailed, sort of. Jerkins has been reinstated with full pay and benefits. A final disposition of the case, however, was not likely to come until after we went to press, when an arbitrator would decide whether Jerkins is to be suspended for one week without pay, as city officials prefer, or whether he will be fully exonerated of all charges. The outcome turns on Jerkins’ willingness to admit he erred in his interpretation of a state law that allows parents to discipline only their own children. Not until an earlier arbitration hearing to protest his demotion did Jerkins concede the point. “That’s when he made the kind of statements everyone had been looking for,” said Stillwater city attorney Mary Ann Karns. “We began discussing a settlement.”

“The law,” wrote Oliver Wendell Holmes, “is the witness and external deposit of our moral life.” The case of John Jerkins suggests that Holmes’ conviction no longer prevails. In his Charles Evans Hughes Memorial Lecture of 1980, Irving Younger offered a more accurate description of the law: “Our generation has thirty times more law than our great-grandparents’ generation, most of that increase attributable to legislation. . . . Will anyone venture to contend that with thirty times more law we are thirty times happier or wiser or better governed or more contented than our great-grandparents were?” Younger might also have asked whether this inflation of the law has rendered us any more secure.

When I was a boy, any adult who lived in the neighborhood could discipline a mischievous child. Parents generally welcomed these efforts, knowing that from them their children would learn the rudiments of civilized behavior and would develop a healthy respect for legitimate authority. They also knew that the neighbors’ supervision would help to keep their children safe. John Jerkins acted as any responsible parent would have done, and yet he was punished for it. Perhaps it is the members of the Oklahoma legislature whose judgment ought to be under scrutiny.