Is spanking the same as physical abuse? This question lies at the center of proposed legislation in Massachusetts that would outlaw all corporal punishment. Written by a nurse named Kathleen Wolf, the proposal was debated on the state Legislature's floor Wednesday before a standing-room-only crowd. According to reports, the bill has little chance of passing, but it may open a dialogue that's worth having.
Also this week, the Minnesota Supreme Court heard arguments about the limits of physical abuse after a 12-year-old turned in his father to authorities after he was hit with a wooden paddle 36 times. According a Star Tribune report, the hearing delved into the ugly details of what's considered "acceptable violence." The lawyer representing the boy argued that 12 blows were "completely admissible" but the subsequent 24 blows were not. The lawyers for the defense suggested the punishment remained within reasonable limits, since it left no scars or bruises and the beating "was not a decision made in haste or anger" but "planned discipline."
Americans tend to be relatively libertarian when it comes to parenting. The government mandates that parents enroll their children in school unless those parents decide to home-school, which might mean unschool, depending on the philosophy of the parent. Most states require us to vaccinate our children, unless we don't believe in vaccination. Some states outlaw consensual sex between 15-year-olds, unless the parents consent to the child's marriage. So perhaps it shouldn't surprise us that we have guarded our spanking rights like a precious civil liberty.
Although 29 states have banned corporal punishment in schools (the pro-paddling states are clustered in the South along with Colorado, Idaho and Indiana) and many more in day-care centers and foster care homes, parents still enjoy the privilege of paddling in the privacy of their homes. If Massachusetts decides to pass an anti-corporal-punishment ban, it would become the first in the nation to make spanking a criminal offense for parents. (Some consider Minnesota's combination of statutes to add up to a virtual ban.) But if a spanking ban makes Massachusetts an anomaly, it will have plenty of company internationally. According to Stop Hitting, a nonprofit dedicated to banning all forms of corporal punishment, 20 countries now outlaw all forms of corporal punishment: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Israel, Italy, Latvia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Sweden and Ukraine.
As a parent who, in three or four moments of excruciating frustration, has resorted to a single swat to the rear, I would welcome a ban. It's not that I think I'm an abuser who needs to be (ahem) slapped down by the long arm of the law. But I don't believe in corporal punishment any more than I believe that wives sometimes deserve to be slapped around by their husbands.
On the other hand, sometimes kids can drive you crazy. I know one mom -- an elementary-school teacher, all-around earth mama -- who found herself regularly spanking her out-of-control 4-year-old after she had twins. Neither of my doting parents believed in corporal punishment, per se, but on a couple of occasions I too drove them to butt-whack me -- never hard, never ritualistically. But as I ran screaming through the house, gleefully taunting them about one something or the other and threatening to break a family heirloom, they sometimes "lost it" by issuing a light slap to the flank. I can't say it fazed me, and it typically ended with my parents feeling so guilty. I got my way when I probably shouldn't have. As a parent, I know how ineffective any physical manifestation of anger can be. Like uncontrolled yelling or even a mean tone of voice, it's a sign of the parent's lack of impulse control, not effective communication or discipline.
Most of my personal experiences with spanking involve parents who have relatively few hardships in their lives and don't believe in corporal punishment. They don't administer a spanking. There's no belt or paddle or multiple blows. What happens when you add serious circumstances -- poverty, mental illness, truly frightening child behavior and a biblically sanctioned belief in the righteousness of the rod? Then you get guys like the Minnesota dad who shamelessly claims beating a 12-year-old with a paddle 36 times is good Christian discipline. With loving parents like this, who needs criminals?