Some call it child abuse. Some call it tough love. Some call it sadism. Most call it spanking. Whatever its name, the method is entrenched as one of the many tools in the hierarchy of family discipline. Surveys routinely show that a majority of adults believe that children sometimes need a spanking, just as even larger majorities of adults say they were spanked as children.
If spanking is a near certainty at some point in most children's lives, so is the continuing debate over its values and dangers. The debate is as old as Quintilian, the first century Roman rhetorician (he'd be a columnist today) who termed spanking "a disgusting and slavish treatment which would certainly be regarded as an insult if it were inflicted on adults." And it's as fresh as James Dobson, the conservative Christian psychologist, who says that "the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely."
The latest round in the spanking battles was triggered late last week when a child development expert at the University of California at Berkeley declared that the occasional swat does no harm and may very well help to rear a better-behaved child. Berkeley, the closest thing to liberalism's fountain of youth, is hardly the sort of place that would tilt Dobson's way. But there it is: "When parents are loving and firm and communicate well with the child," Diana Baumrind, the expert, said at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco last Friday, "the children are exceptionally competent and well adjusted, whether or not their parents spanked them as preschoolers."
Baumrind studied 100 families' spanking history-- not enough to provide the final word on the subject, but enough to cause a stir at the association meeting and provoke punning headlines around the country ("Paddling study smacks idea that mild spankings are bad," a Texan paper blared, while Atlanta's Journal-Constitution called it "A switch"). And that's where misinterpretation sets in.
Is Baumrind's finding actually "a switch"? Not exactly. It restates, reasonably and with a series of qualifiers, what sensible parenting has been about since before Quintilian, and what even Benjamin Spock, the Oprah of pediatricians, would say about child-rearing. There are no absolutes except one: The means of child-rearing are less critical than the context, which must be one of unfailing care, love and trust. The problem with the "Spanking-is-OK" headlining of Baumrind's findings is that it cuts out the very context she emphasizes most. Reduced to simplistic headlines, her study can easily become a rallying cry for bad-faith advocates of paddling where paddling has absolutely no place schools and child care centers and where love and trust are not necessarily the first things on a disciplinarian's agenda.
Most western nations ban paddling in schools. So do 27 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Coalition to Abolish Corporal Punishment in Schools. But that still leaves 23 states, Florida included, where 458,000 students were paddled last year (or 1 percent of the nation's 45 million students), 12,800 of them in Florida. (Volusia and Flagler county school boards have banned the practice.) It's a vast improvement compared with 1980, when 1.4 million students were struck, officially, by school staff. But the goal should be zero.
Maybe spanking will be debated for the next 2000 years. But not as a disciplinary tool outside the home. In schools, children should be off limits even to the suggestion of physical violence.