Spanking mad

A California bill could make spanking a crime. But when did a swat on the bum become child abuse? And how far should the government go in telling parents how to raise their children?

Published February 5, 2007 1:08PM (EST)

When I was a kid, I got hit with all kinds of things. My father would take his leather belt off and make a snapping sound with it before coming up the stairs; my mother chased us around the house with spatulas, wooden spoons, whatever was within reach when she hit her boiling point. Despite the occasional welt on an arm or leg, I survived. I didn't grow up to be a violent person and I still love my parents. That said, I'd never do something like that to my own children, although I've certainly lost my cool and behaved in ways I regret. It may not have happened often, but in moments of frustration, exhaustion and anger, I have hit. Maybe because it happens rarely, or maybe because I follow the slap with 45 minutes of apologies, I bristled when California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber announced Jan. 17 that she planned to introduce a bill making spanking a crime. Get a law like that on the books, I thought, and my slap could land me in handcuffs, dragged to court to face a judge (who knows nothing about me or my family).

I am not the only one with strong feelings about the bill; in the two and a half weeks since Lieber made her announcement, critics on both sides of the spanking issue have gone nuts. Bloggers railed against Lieber, child psychologists weighed in passionately, morning talk shows begged her to be their guest. Of the proposal, state Senate Minority Leader Dick Ackerman said, "I'm trying to pick a word other than crazy." And a survey of 500 Bay Area adults conducted by CBS 5 in San Francisco reported 57 percent opposed the bill (only 23 percent supported it).

At its root, Lieber's not-yet-introduced bill, though it has only a slim chance of passing, raises the question of how far the government should go in telling parents how to raise their children. Is it any of the state's business how we choose to discipline, as long as an essential line isn't crossed (that line being spanking vs. child abuse)? Hitting a child with a baseball bat -- yes, there should be a law against it. And there is; the state has well-established, long-standing child abuse laws, and corporal punishment is already prohibited in California schools, day-care centers and in foster care.

As for what sparked Lieber's decision to introduce a bill about spanking, it wasn't a rash of emergency room visits from 3-year-olds with sore bottoms. The San Jose Mercury News, which first reported the no-spanking story, wrote that Lieber "conceived the idea while chatting with a family friend and legal expert in children's issues worldwide." That friend was University of San Francisco Law School professor Thomas Nazario, who fiercely opposes corporal punishment. "It was my idea and I was primarily responsible for coming up with the final draft," he explains. (Which makes Lieber sound more like Nazario's pawn than a legislative leader, but I digress.)

"Twenty-two countries in the world have similar laws, many more expansive than this. In 1979 Sweden outlawed all forms of corporal punishment regarding children, and then developed educational programs to help parents come up with alternative ways of parenting," says Nazario. Studies of what happened in Sweden since 1979 show much less violence in the Swedish home. But so far, the reported content of Lieber's bill does not include parent education programs or anything else that might empower parents.

Nazario, who is a parent, says he has never hit his kids. Gov. Schwarzenegger said two weeks ago that he and his wife, Maria Shriver, have never hit their children. Lieber has never hit a child, not because she's opposed to spanking but because she has no children. She has never had a child throw a tantrum for more than an hour because she asked her to put on her shoes, or had a child sneak into the bathroom, close the door and pour all the shampoo in the house down the toilet. She has never had to discipline her own kid, because she doesn't have one. Lieber does have a cat named Scoop, whom her veterinarian told her not to slap. "And if you never hit a cat," she's been quoted as saying, "you should never hit a kid."

Well, sure, that makes sense. The majority of parents love their children and spend most of their waking hours trying to prevent harm from coming to them, not causing it. And the state and federal governments already have a legal definition for child abuse, though not every parent (or non-parent or legislator) necessarily agrees with its boundaries. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines physical child abuse as "any non-accidental physical injury to the child, and can include striking, kicking, burning, or biting the child, or any action that results in a physical impairment of the child."

But one person's abuse is another person's firm tug on the arm -- indeed, perhaps it is that difference of opinion that lies at the root of Lieber's legislative attempt. I once yelled at my 3-year-old when she threw a tantrum in a food market, at a time when my younger child had colic and I hadn't slept in four days. An older woman singled me out, and publicly lectured me for 10 minutes while I was waiting to pay, accusing me of bullying my daughter. No one was hurt or even crying -- except me, by the end of it -- but she clearly felt I had crossed some line of parental decency. I felt just the opposite, though: that I had actually employed extreme self-control, considering my state of mind. Her line and my line were miles apart.

But will criminalizing a swat on the bum really reduce child and infant deaths from child abuse? Nazario defends the effort this way: "We're talking about infants and toddlers, these are the most fragile human beings we have, and a lot of parents hit kids out of frustration. I am trying to get people to think twice."

It's hard to imagine any sane person disagreeing that very young children shouldn't be hit. But that doesn't mean the state should intervene, especially when we're not having a statewide spanking crisis. Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, a Republican from Irvine, offered the voice of rationality last week when he said that although he agrees children under 3 shouldn't be hit, that doesn't mean it needs to be a law. "At what point are we going to say we should pass a bill that every parent has to read a minimum of 30 minutes every night to their child?" he said.

DeVore isn't the only one worried about that slippery slope. "The thing that really bothers me about this, is that it could open the door for all kinds of legislation promoting one parenting philosophy vs. another," one blogger said Sunday on the Web site Silicon Valley Mom. "Most experts agree that breastfeeding is nutritionally optimal for a newborn. Should we legislate that? If you decide not to breastfeed your kid, should you be in violation of the law?" she asked. The government has intervened many times in the past to protect children, enacting laws governing child labor, safety and education. The state also provides lots of free advice, like what to feed children (recall the old food pyramid that is now a customizable MyPyramid), how not to overfeed them (recall the recent childhood obesity/diabetes campaigns), how much exercise children should get, how much reading they should do, how often parents should be eating dinner with them, how to keep them away from strangers trying to lure them into cars with puppies or candy, and how to say no to drugs, sex and alcohol.

The result of this -- and of being part of a society so saturated with information that if any child anywhere in the developed world is harmed, we know the details whether we want to or not -- is that we have become a generation of parents whose most distinguishing characteristic is anxiety. In a 2002 survey from Public Agenda, a nonprofit public policy research group in New York City, a whopping 76 percent of parents said they found raising children today "a lot harder" than when they were growing up; 17 percent said they felt "overwhelmed" by it. Steven Mintz, a fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford University and a leading authority on the history of families and children, called today's society "child obsessed" in an editorial titled "How We All Became Jewish Mothers." As we obsess over rearing the perfect child, we're driving ourselves crazy. Criminalizing spanking is only going to make us more paranoid and hypercritical. What about hair yanking -- will that be next? Or arm grabbing? Gritting teeth? Yelling?

"Anxiety is the hallmark of modern parenting," Mintz wrote to me in an e-mail. "Today's parents agonize incessantly about their children's physical health, personality development, psychological well-being, and academic performance. From birth, parenthood is colored by apprehension." In his editorial, Mintz wrote that contributing to parental anxiety are "three decades of panic over children's well-being. Since the early 1970s, there has been recurrent alarm over stranger abductions, poisoned Halloween candies, childhood obesity and pedophiles."

Child and family therapist David Anderegg, author of "Worried All the Time: Overparenting in an Age of Anxiety and How to Stop It," said in an interview with that parents now tend to over-research, overthink and overworry about even the most routine matters. "The problem with over-researching is that experts often don't agree. At some point," says Anderegg, "parents just have to trust themselves." Unfortunately, the government won't let us.

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Child psychologist John Rosemond, a syndicated columnist who takes a "traditional" approach to parenting and the author of "To Spank or Not to Spank," calls Lieber's bill "fascistic." "These people are fascists," he says of Lieber, Nazario and anyone else who supports the bill. "They want to insert the state into how families operate. Parents exercising reasonable discretion and discipline should not be interfered with by the state. And there is absolutely no research that justifies this bill, and I've looked at all the research." Rosemond says Lieber keeps using the term "beat" instead of "spank" and her rhetoric is obscuring a line that is extremely clear. (Nazario said the line is vague and that "the truth is parents don't really know where the line is.") Rosemond scoffs at the suggestion that most parents -- and the vast majority of parents, he says, are well-intentioned and love their kids -- have trouble distinguishing the difference between a beating and a spanking. "This is not a fine line. Two swats on the rear end is on one side, beating a child with a belt is on the other. It's not a fine line, not at all. It's a Grand Canyon," he says.

Rosemond doesn't advocate spanking, but says if you do spank, spanking appropriately -- not in anger and sparingly -- is the way to go. He admits many parents use spanking too much, but not necessarily because they are physically hurting their children, but because it becomes just another ineffective disciplinary tool. "If it's a one-note approach -- doesn't matter what the note is, spanking, timeouts -- if you do the same punishment for everything, you immunize the child against it," he says.

Research on spanking is notoriously suspect and unreliable, with plenty of data to support both sides of the issue. A recent study of 168 white, middle-class families found that occasional, mild spankings don't hurt children. Child psychologists Diana Baumrind and Elizabeth Owens conducted the study. Owens is a research scientist at the Institute of Human Development at the University of California at Berkeley and says the paper and its findings haven't been peer reviewed yet, but she feels confident in the analysis the pair has done up to this point. As a parent -- Owens has a 3- and a 5-year-old -- she is "morally opposed to spanking." But as a scientist, she says, "I like to quote Diana [who could not be reached for this story]. She says a blanket injunction against spanking is not warranted by the data. If you look at the causally relevant evidence, it's not scientifically defensible to say that spanking is always a horrible thing. I don't think mild, occasional spankings in an otherwise supportive, loving family will do any long-term harm," says Owens.

Gail Heyman, a child psychologist and associate professor at the University of California at San Diego, takes a more negative scientific view of the practice. She says the best studies show children who are spanked regularly tend to have more behavior problems later. "There tends to be poor moral internalization, which means kids are getting the message that you do things in order to avoid getting in trouble, rather than just doing the right thing. And when these kids aren't being monitored, they are less likely to do the right thing," she says. But Heyman also believes that making spanking a crime is a big mistake. "If you make it illegal, parents are going to be more afraid than they already are to talk to people about it. They will have to hide their behavior from others, including their pediatrician. The people being arrested will be those without resources; is this going to help the child or the parent? It will just make the child's life much worse, having their parents in legal trouble."

Most of us have already tried a dozen different disciplinary tactics by the time our kids are in school, and still aren't sure what works and what doesn't. The landscape of child discipline is a confusing one because there are a mind-boggling array of theories and tools out there, and way too many books with titles like "Who's in Charge?" and "Teach Your Child to Behave: Disciplining With Love" or "Setting Limits With Your Strong-Willed Child." It can be exhausting and frustrating to control your temper in the face of behavior repeated again and again that often doesn't make any sense. Heyman is the first to acknowledge this. "I have three kids and although I haven't hit them, believe me, I understand the stresses of parenting. If I didn't have the support I have, who knows what would happen," she says. Her suggestion for helping parents avoid hitting their children is better support, not criminalization. "So let's give them parenting classes, a way to get breaks, give isolated parents someone to talk to. Parents need a whole toolbox of strategies," she says, "because parenting is very hard."

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Even if Lieber's law is introduced to the state Legislature and manages to pass, wouldn't it be overturned because of privacy issues? Thomas Nazario, the bill's architect, admits that how parents choose to discipline their children is still perceived as a private decision. "I don't want to lie, there is some truth to that," he says. "But that doesn't make it unconstitutional." Robert Weisberg, a professor of law at Stanford and director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center, agreed. "Look, you can make a constitutional argument out of anything," he says, "but the broadest argument you could make here -- that there is a core of family privacy that can't be violated -- won't work. There is an old Supreme Court doctrine that says there is some core of family autonomy which the court can't touch. But that mostly applies to religion and education, not discipline."

Yet a no-spanking law may not make much of a difference. Weisberg says most states have laws against assault that contain exceptions for parental discipline. "Spanking a child is assault, but these exceptions permit some battery against a child, if you define battery as unwanted, harsh physical contact. So would an anti-spanking law make anything different?" he asks. "It probably won't advance things beyond the situation that exists today." And legal experts say enforcing the law would be nearly impossible, involving an enormous amount of individual discretion and flexibility in interpretation, because most spanking occurs privately, inside the home.

But if it does become law, it could cause states like Massachusetts and Wisconsin, whose efforts to pass similar bills failed, to resurrect them. Or it could strengthen the resolve of pro-spanking states like Oklahoma, which actually amended its child abuse laws in 1999 to grant parents the right to use paddles and switches to spank their children. It was a response to the Columbine High School shootings and broadened the rights Oklahomans already had to spank their kids. Nevada passed a similar law. At the time in Oklahoma, Democratic Sen. Frank Shurden told Reuters, "I feel like the lack of discipline has led to what we are into now, total chaos and disrespect. Back when I grew up, we got our tails whipped at school, then got it again when we got home. And we didn't have shootings." Maybe not, but that doesn't mean those whippings were a good thing.

The best course of action is likely somewhere between Shurden and Assemblywoman Lieber. Child development specialist Lynne Reeves Griffin, executive director of Proactive Parenting in Boston, offers some suggestions, especially for parents who feel that hitting is sometimes the only way to drive a point home, like when a child runs out into moving traffic. "Parents should predict that the 2-year-old walking ahead won't recognize the danger when the car comes around the bend, but the small action of taking their hand, or picking them up -- even if this is met with resistance -- is better than hitting. Some could argue the hit delivers the message, but so too does the parent's small, logical, in-control action of containing the child. If it's not negotiable to walk across the street without holding hands, the parent should take their hand," says Griffin.

That kind of information is useful to parents -- particularly new parents -- but there need to be education programs in place to get it disseminated. To be clear, Lieber hasn't said anything about including a parent-education campaign to prevent spanking in her bill. And with a host of studies showing that somewhere between 50 percent and 90 percent of parents spank their kids, it's hard to imagine how making it a crime will make things any better. Or that the rest of the country will copy California and begin pursuing their own laws to squash spanking. One trip to Paramus Park in northern New Jersey, and you can see California's logic isn't going to fly everywhere. Every time I'm back there -- usually with my mother -- walking through the mall where I worked during high school, I see young women whacking their screaming kids on the behind with one hand while holding a cigarette in the other. And I think back to when my kids were preschoolers, and the moments when I was overwhelmed and reached for whatever body part was closest, and roughly -- perhaps too roughly -- yanked them back into the stroller or the car seat. Should any of us be doing these sorts of thing? Of course not. But should we be arrested for it? Probably not.

By Eilene Zimmerman

Eilene Zimmerman is a journalist based in San Diego whose work has been published in national magazines and newspapers including The New York Times, Glamour, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Christian Science Monitor,, CBS, Crain’s NY Business, Wired, Harper's, and others. She writes the "Career Couch" column monthly in the New York Times Sunday Business section.

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