Down here in Texas, spanking is in the news. And I'm not talking about the Texas All-State Spanking Party, a "three-day Spankapalooza" that was celebrated by a couple of hundred of committed adult spankers this summer in Dallas. — No, another "spanking party" took place in nearby Springtown, when a male assistant principal at a public school paddled two teenage girls, leaving them with bruised behinds. Parents complained, not about the spanking but because the principal violated the district's same-sex spanking policy.
In the face of the complaints, the district promptly changed its policy. Now males are authorized to spank females and, presumably, the reverse.
There's something vaguely creepy about grown men spanking pubescent girls, even -- or especially -- for the purpose of correction. If you doubt this, do an Internet search for something like "men spanking girls," and you'll discover one of pornography's most prominent and popular sub-genres.
But that's between the spankers and their psychiatrists. I'm more interested in why 19 states, including Texas, still allow public schools to spank children in the first place.
In our culture, we're fond of hitting each other. But mostly we do it vicariously. We prefer watching it, in the movies and on TV, on the football field and in sports like boxing and mixed martial arts.
For the most part, it's against the law to hit someone else. We've even become more enlightened about wife beating, a wretched practice encouraged for centuries by tradition, by the female's inferior strength and by tendentious misreading of the Bible.
Now, however, the only members of our society that we can still strike with impunity are the most defenseless: children.
And we do hit them, a lot. A prominent study of this subject by Elizabeth Gershoff of Columbia University reports that over 90 percent of Americans were spanked as children, which belies the common complaint that modern children are undisciplined and disruptive because they haven't been spanked enough.
In 2002, Gershoff produced an extensive study of spanking titled "Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences." This hefty document is a meta-analysis of 88 studies of corporal punishment conducted over the previous 62 years.
Gershoff carefully focuses her analysis around a narrow definition: "Corporal punishment is the use of physical force with the intention of causing a child to experience pain but not injury for the purposes of correction or control of the child's behavior." She systematically excludes from her study behaviors that most people would consider physical abuse, punishment techniques like beating, kicking, burning, punching and shaking.
Gershoff is also careful not to assert a simple cause-and-effect relationship between spanking and subsequent child behaviors. She speaks, rather, in terms of associations. What did Gershoff find in the 88 studies that she analyzed? An overwhelming association between ordinary spanking as commonly practiced in American households and later aggression, violence, disruption of the parent-child relationship, anxiety, depression, delinquency, alcohol and drug abuse and many more undesirable behaviors.
Other studies since Gershoff's have compiled a significant case against even the most seemingly benign forms of spanking. It's no surprise that the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as other professional organizations, strongly opposes spanking in any form.
Still, in the face of considerable evidence that spanking does more harm than good, many of us cling to the conviction that nothing is better for a child than, as my students put it, a "good whuppin'."
We imagine that spankings can be administered in a careful, measured and loving way. That's probably possible, but Gershoff finds a strong correlation between ordinary spanking and instances of child abuse. Most of the time spankings are accompanied by anger and frustration.
Historically, mankind has inflicted many horrors upon its children, despite -- or because of -- their vulnerability. We've managed to rid ourselves of many of the worst of them. It's time to quit the regular, systematic and culturally sanctioned practice of hitting them.
(John M. Crisp teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.)