Leigh Bailey will never forget the day her daughter, then 2, pulled her small hand away and darted into a busy street.
Brakes screeched. Bailey ran to her. Then came the consequence.
"I got her back to the sidewalk, I took her over my knee and spanked her and said, 'Don't ever, ever do that again.' "
The Berkeley mother of two said that was one of very few times she has spanked her children. "To keep my daughter safe," she explained, "I had to make sure she knew it was wrong and dangerous."
But was what Bailey did equally wrong?
The emotional debate over spanking reignited in California when Assembly Speaker Pro Tem Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, said she plans to introduce a bill this week outlawing anyone from swatting children age 3 and younger. Violators could face up to a year in jail or a $1,000 fine.
The public reaction to her announcement has been fierce. Lieber has been swamped with requests for national media interviews, her staff said. Her opponents are telling the legislator, who has no children, to butt out. The harshest critics have been calling her office and cursing at interns who answer her phones. Her supporters, meanwhile, are saying a slap on the rear can cause irreparable harm.
The only consensus so far is that Lieber faces an uphill battle.
"Almost everyone has been spanked as a kid, and they say, 'Well, I've been spanked, and I turned out OK,' and most of them have spanked their own kids," said University of New Hampshire sociologist Murray Straus, who has studied spanking since 1969.
State statutes and case law throughout the nation allow reasonable physical punishment of children by members of their families. Most states ban physical discipline in child-care centers, and 29 have banned corporal punishment in elementary and secondary schools.
By agreeing with a spanking ban, people would "have to admit they were wrong," said Straus, who favors outlawing physical punishment within families but said the bill will be tough to pass.
"This is part of our cultural tradition," Straus said. "Spanking has a long history. People once thought it was character-building. And, going back even further, people thought they literally needed to drive the devil out of children."
Straus said his research has shown that spanking is traumatic and demoralizing and can lead to aggression, disruptive behavior in school and depression in adulthood, and it correlates with adult criminal activity. He based his conclusions on surveys of thousands of parents and children he has conducted over the years.
On the other side, UC Berkeley Professor Diana Baumrind concludes that spanking isn't so bad.
"The short- and long-term consequences of corporal punishment is no more or less harmful than a mild scolding, time-out or other developmentally appropriate level and kind of punishment," said Baumrind, who conducted a long-term study following about 100 families over a dozen years.
She added, though, that it is pointless to spank or withdraw affection from a child under 2 because toddlers won't understand.
The debate is likely to take on religious as well as academic tones. The Bible includes a handful of proverbs on the benefits of spanking, as in "Thy rod and reproof give wisdom," which gave rise to the expression, "Spare the rod, spoil the child."
And James Dobson, leader of the influential Christian group Focus on the Family, has written on his Web site that "spanking typically works best with ages 2 to 6." Pain teaches a child to avoid making the same mistakes again, he wrote, and God created this mechanism as a valuable vehicle for instruction.
Spanking opponents worry that most child abuse starts as a disciplinary swat that gets out of hand.
"The current law says parents or guardians can use any physical discipline that is not unjustifiable," Lieber said. "California's parents might need to give up that privilege for the sake of those who might use it repeatedly each day."
A common refrain among parents who want to reserve the right to spank is that they hit their children only if they misbehave in a most serious and perilous situation.
San Francisco mom Shelli Rawlings-Fein said she generally opposes spanking, but her 19-month-old daughter still got slapped on the hand when she reached for a hot stove.
"And she hesitates now before going to the stove," Rawlings-Fein said.
Bailey, whose daughters are now 12 and 17, added, "You can't have a logical conversation with toddlers about why it's not safe to run into the road."
It is increasingly common, however, to find parents who pledge not to hit their children, thanks in part to public education campaigns on child abuse and popular parenting books on so-called positive discipline.
San Francisco preschool teacher Robin DiJoseph said the 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in her class have no idea what spanking is.
The subject came up recently while the children listened to "Bedtime for Frances," in which a precocious badger can't settle down for the night and her father threatens a spanking as a last resort.
A student raised his hand and asked, "What is spanking?"
"Here is a generation, at least a classroom full of kids, who weren't really sure what spanking is," said DiJoseph, who teaches at Children's Day School.
Child advocacy groups have pushed to end spanking for years and suggest a raft of alternatives.
Start by erasing the idea of "discipline" from your mind and instead think about "teaching" a child, said Nadine Block, director of the Center for Effective Discipline and co-chair of EPOCH, End Physical Punishment of Children, based in Ohio. The group sponsors a national SpankOut Day every April 30.
"Try to teach kids empathy -- how their behavior affects you and others," Block said.
Inbal Kashtan, who directs the Peaceful Families, Peaceful World Project at the Bay Area Center for Nonviolent Communication, suggested teaching children trust. They aren't going to trust you if you use your greater physical power to make them cooperate, she said.
Even if Lieber's bill doesn't gain legislative approval, it will bring attention to the problems of spanking and children's rights, Block said.
"Do we say it is an abuse of a husband's right to prohibit him from hitting his wife?" Block said. "No. We're talking here about the rights of children, and it's a more difficult thing for people in this country to see."
Alternatives to spanking
The Bay Area Center for Nonviolent Communication offers these tips for dealing with misbehavior:
The Center for Effective Discipline, in Ohio, and other child advocates also suggest:
Spanking by the numbers
17 nations that have outlawed corporal punishment of children by family members: Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Israel, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Norway, Romania, Sweden and Ukraine.
29 U.S. states that have banned corporal punishment in schools.
61% of surveyed university students in the United States who said they were spanked as children.
74% of surveyed students in Tanzania who said they were spanked, the highest rate among 32 nations polled. Sources: EPOCH-USA (End Physical Punishment of Children), University of New Hampshire.
E-mail Ilene Lelchuk at email@example.com .
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