Are we ready to stop spanking our kids?
Last month, Oakland came close to saying "yes," narrowly turning down a chance to become the country's first "no-spanking zone." The measure was defeated by a City Council vote of 4 to 3.
To Jordan Riak, the activist behind the measure, the Oakland defeat was but a small slap in the growing anti-spanking cause.
"The proposal is not limited to Oakland anymore. It's now national and international," Riak says. Similar measures are being promoted in Los Angeles, Houston and Anchorage, Alaska.
Thanks to all the publicity, the Oakland defeat was really a win for anti-spanking forces. Rush Limbaugh made jokes about it; the "Leeza" daytime talk show asked for an interview; newspapers ran stories and editorials.
Riak, founder of Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education, has been deluged by mail and requests for his "no spanking zone" posters from hospitals, stores, schools and offices.
The measure would not create a Bureau of Spanking Prevention or have any force of law. It would launch a public education campaign by posting the "No Spanking Zone" signs (also available in Spanish) that warn that "spanking teaches children ... that hitting people is OK and that violence works."
Riak says the Old Woman in the Shoe had it all wrong -- and it's time to say so, just as we've decided that it's not OK for husbands to beat their wives.
On the no-spanking side, you'll find pediatrician organizations and most child-rearing experts, including psychologist Penelope Leach. On the pro-spanking side you'll find some social-conservative groups and a handful of child-rearing experts. The most widely known is psychologist John Rosemond, whose syndicated column appears in about 150 papers nationally.
Right now, the anti-spankers have the floor, at least in the Bay Area.
On a sunny Saturday morning, Riak drives from his home in the Contra Costa County community of Alamo to speak to about 16 members of the Bella Vista Neighborhood Group in Oakland.
The 64-year-old retired photography teacher looks professorial in dark jacket and tie, his face framed by half-glasses and a gray beard. He stands out among the Birkenstocks-and-jeans audience.
"We are melting the wall of silence today," Riak says. "The fact that we're here talking about this issue today, we're way ahead of where we were five years ago."
The discussion that follows is emotional -- as always. If you want to see sparks, just bring up spanking in conversation.
Maybe corporal punishment just hits too close to home for comfort, especially in a country where just about everyone has spanked or been spanked.
"I think they shouldn't be telling us how to raise our children. Time out doesn't work for every child," says one woman, in an exasperated and angry tone. She leaves the meeting before Riak gets going.
Ken Knudsen, a 56-year-old neighborhood group member, has a very different reaction. He says he has had to face his own mistakes and discuss them with his sons, now 30 and 35.
"Yes, I did hit them, and I'm deeply ashamed of it," he says, quietly. Knudsen says he learned how from his father.
"I see so much abuse on the bus and on the streets," Knudsen says. "This is a big social problem; everybody in prison has been spanked. I really go ballistic when I see it treated as a joke."
The neighborhood group ends its meeting with a decision to look into posting some "no spanking zone" signs in public areas.
Riak is happy with his morning's work. He appears to welcome any chance to make his pitch. He spent countless hours promoting the City Council resolution at an Oakland supporter's request.
He is a full-time anti-spanking crusader. His home garage is Crusade Central. He has an extensive Web site -- http://nospank.net -- which has among its postings resolution language for no-spanking zones, free for the downloading.
Riak has been on this crusade for a long time. As an unspanked, only child, the schoolyard in his native New Jersey gave him his first, indelible taste of fear -- and a desire to fight back.
"I was terrified of bullies when I was little, and I resolved that I would get even. And what worse bullying is it than for a parent to batter a child?"
His activism came to the fore when he lived with his wife and three sons in Sydney, Australia. One of the boys, then 9, came home from school with tales of the cane that teachers would use to strike an offending student's outstretched palm.
Riak successfully organized parents to splinter the cane tradition. He once confiscated a cane from a flabbergasted headmaster, buried it in his back yard, made the befuddled local police arrest him for the theft, and then exhumed the cane for TV cameras.
He recounts the incident with pleasure. He's nonviolent, but that doesn't mean he doesn't enjoy the battle.
Later, after moving to California, Riak took on another fight -- drafting a bill in 1985 that led to a ban on corporal punishment in the state's public schools two years later. Today, 27 states have banned corporal punishment in schools.
Texas, however, is still a paddling state. Jimmy Dunne of Houston is trying to change that.
He whacked a few students when he taught math in middle school. Until he decided it was ineffective -- and worse.
"I used to do some paddling myself, and I saw it didn't really work," he says. "I also saw some teachers getting some sadistic pleasure."
In 1982, Dunne started "People Opposed to Paddling Students." He heard about Riak when Rush Limbaugh made fun of him. Now, Dunne is lobbying Houston to adopt a similar measure.
Can such measures make a difference? Yes, says Irwin Hyman, a professor of psychology and founding director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives at Temple University in Philadelphia.
In Sweden, Norway and Denmark, corporal punishment for children has been outlawed at home, as well as in school. Child abuse appears to have declined in these countries.
Numerous studies by Hyman and others, particularly Murray A. Straus, a professor of sociology and co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, make the case that spanking is bad for kids. Among Straus' findings: Kids who are never, or rarely, spanked are better behaved and score higher on intelligence tests; kids who are spanked misbehave more, do not feel sorry for misdeeds and are more likely to be violent.
Yet, surveys show that at least 75 percent of American parents spank regularly, and at least 90 percent have spanked each of their kids at least once.
"I work with parents all the time who hit their kids," says Hyman. "They're not bad. They don't know any better."
But attitudes are changing. In 1992, a poll showed that 38 percent of parents used timeouts and preferred them to spanking, an increase of 18 percent since 1962.
"Slowly we're moving in the direction of culturally not approving of physical punishment by parents. That's good, because physical punishment is not all that good for children's attitudes about themselves," says psychiatrist Aubrey Metcalf, president of the Northern California chapter of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. (The group supported the no-spanking resolution in Oakland).
Even John Rosemond, often cited as a leading champion of spanking, doesn't seem all that much pro-spanking in his book, "To Spank or Not To Spank" (1994, Andrews and McMeel). He writes: "Children who are spanked a lot do not stop misbehaving. They misbehave not only more and more, but also more and more cleverly."
Rosemond believes in spanking, but by his rules. It must be done swiftly, occasionally, privately, in anger but not in rage, with the hand, on a clothed rear. It's most effective for children between ages 2 and 10. You're spanking too often, he says, if you do it more than once a week for a toddler, once a month for a 4- and 5-year-old, and every few months for kids 6 and up.
Under California law, parents may discipline their children as they wish. However, if it leaves a mark, such as a bruise, it may be abuse and must be reported, according to the Child Abuse Prevention Council of Sacramento.
Most child-rearing experts recommend not spanking. They endorse reinforcement techniques: rewarding both good behavior and the lack of misbehavior.
Riak envisions a future in which spanking is shunned. He's trying to bring it into focus, brochure by brochure, sign by sign, meeting by meeting. It's a life's work that has been amply rewarding, especially when parents tell him they've stopped hitting their children because of him.
"I know I've protected a lot of kids," he says.