(First originally appeared on 1/25/07 in the San Francisco Chronicle)
Legislation proposed by Assemblywoman Sally Lieber that would make spanking a child under age 4 illegal has set off a maelstrom of reactions, mostly negative, from across a wide spectrum of state officials and the man/woman on the street.
Lieber, a Mountain View Democrat, echoing the growing chorus of anti-spanking advocates, says banning spanking in younger children follows the humanistic course of social evolution that abolished slavery, gave women equal rights and protected them from wife beating, and has virtually eliminated corporal punishment or paddling from public schools in the United States. The issue for me isn't about spanking -- it's about effective discipline.
There really isn't much of a pro-spanking voice in California. Rather than acknowledge that spanking isn't a preferred form of discipline for children, naysayers of Lieber's proposal challenge the enforceability or worry about governmental intrusion into the privacy rights of parents and families.
Even the anti-spanking league doesn't question the need for limits and rules for children, which keep them both physically safe and emotional secure. It's a question of how. Today, in America, the time-out is in and spanking is out.
Time-out can work great, but trouble occurs when a child won't go to or stay in the designated spot (the corner of the room, in a chair, a room). Here's where even the bible of the time-out disciplinary procedure, "1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12" by Thomas D. Phelan, fails parents. The usual advice to parents for the child who won't honor the rules of the time-out is to increase the time or add more delayed consequences (for example, no TV for the rest of the week).
But I can't tell you how many parents have told me they've tried this approach to enforcing time-out with their intense and persistent child (usually a boy) and that it didn't work. I usually give parents permission to use a physical intervention to enforce the rules of time-out. If the child won't go, the parents are allowed to carry or drag him there. If he doesn't stay (or tries to destroy his toys, kick walls, climb out on a second-story ledge while yelling out to the neighborhood), the parents are given the choice of going into the room and using the social worker-approved method of physically restraining the child for a period of time or alternatively giving him one swat on the thigh or bottom.
Even social workers, who worry the most about the physical abuse of children, recognize that some children require physical intervention. The "hold," as it is referred, is not that easy to deliver. Children have told me they hate the hold and prefer a spank (it's quick and then it's done with). It's really up to parents and I think they should have a choice.
Here is the rub about this proposed law and its chilling effect on parents' approaches to discipline. Confident and secure parents generally ignore the advice of experts and manage their children effectively. Uncertain parents with difficult kids are the most likely to be confused by the continuing negative publicity about spanking. As well meaning as Assembly member Lieber and other anti-spanking advocates intend to be, their efforts will have the opposite effect. More parents, struggling to maintain order or time out, will be afraid to use any effective physical means and be pushed to their limits. Then they will spank their children -- at the worst time, because they could be emotionally out of control and over do it. I fear we could see more, not less, child abuse as the result of this law, or even just because of the brouhaha surrounding it.
Scientific studies support my experience. The American Academy of Pediatrics, several years ago convened a major meeting to address the issue. Studies show an effective time-out procedure developed faster, with more success, when a spank was permitted. Overall, children whose parents used spanking as one part of a discipline armamentarium did slightly better (less juvenile delinquency and substance abuse in those families) than families who did not spank. Sweden (a society far more homogenous than our own), where spanking has been abolished since 1979, has seen an increase in juvenile violence, according to Swedish government statistics.
I am no more for spanking than I am for abortion as a means of birth control. Both should be allowed and people should not be made to feel guilty about either. I fear trying to criminalize or ban spanking in young children will fail just as another well-meant social movement of the first part of the 20th century, Prohibition. Its repeal in 1933 acknowledged that the cure was worse than the disease. Trying to criminalize or ban spanking in young children will fail. We should all work to end the abuse of children. Trying to ban spanking, however, will make things worse.