The Bottom Line on Spanking at Home, in School

Times Staff Writer

At home, it’s called spanking. In school, it’s called corporal punishment. In the dark excesses of anger and rage, it can be called child abuse.

Following recent movements against child abuse, the controversy over spanking has resurfaced along with a bill--now awaiting action from Gov. George Deukmejian--which would outlaw corporal punishment in California public schools. If Deukmejian approves the bill this month, California will become the ninth state to ban public school spanking along with New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Maine, Hawaii, New Hampshire and Vermont. Several cities and school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, have already banned corporal punishment.

More child experts, even those who once approved of spanking, are speaking out against using physical pain or force to discipline children.


“Child abuse is hitting. That’s what child abuse is,” said Irwin Hyman, director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment, set up 10 years ago at Temple University in Philadelphia by the American Psychological Assn. and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Yet studies show at least 83% of American parents continue to spank their children at home. A recently released U.S. Department of Education survey estimated that in 1984 11,800 California schoolchildren were paddled at school--all with parental approval. Under current state law, spanking--though not allowed in preschools or foster care homes--may be used from kindergarten on with district and parental approval.

“A lot of parents insist, ‘Spank ‘em.’ Usually the administration goes along,” said Edward Krass, superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District, which in 1984 spanked 1,280 students, according to the U.S. Department of Education study, which sampled 219 districts in the state. Most often they were boys in the intermediate grades who had been disrupting the class or fighting, Krass said.

Krass explained the spankings are administered with a wooden paddle in the presence of a witness and after parents have been notified. The district has never had a call complaining or commenting on the practice, he said.

In the Capistrano Unified School District, Assistant Superintendent William Eller said when students become troublemakers, parents are called in. Then, he said, the student “gets a licking as soon as he steps out the school doors.”

The bill to ban corporal punishment in California has the support of, among other groups, the PTA, the National Assn. of School Psychologists, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Civil Liberties Union and the California Medical Assn.


Usurping Local Control

Opposition has come from the California School Boards Assn. and others mostly on the grounds that the state would be usurping local control, an association spokesman said.

A few, however, such as the Rev. W. B. Timberlake, president of the Sacramento-based Committee on Moral Concerns, believe force or the threat of force is needed to discipline unruly children. “They say spanking your own child is child abuse. I don’t believe it and I know a whole lot of parents don’t believe it. Education many times in extreme cases has to come at the bottom of the child,” said Timberlake, a Southern Baptist minister who now heads the 10,000-member organization.

Despite the recent surge of child abuse regulations, American society generally condones swatting children, said Hyman, who is also a licensed psychologist and professor at Temple University.

“In our Western culture, the major philosophical orientation toward hitting is the biblical conception of children being born into sin,” he said. “An often quoted phrase is ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’ by Solomon meaning if you don’t use the rod of correction, the child won’t obey you,” he said. “In the fundamentalist view, children are basically evil, we need to control them and teach them character as opposed to the more contemporary view that children are born with the potential for good.”

Moreover, he said, “You have to remember, early American schools were not pleasant. Children had to sit on hard benches and learn by rote memory. Historically in American education, there’s been a struggle between teachers and kids. If the teacher was not big enough to physically handle the kids, the kids often threw the teacher out.

“Not all cultures have hit children,” he said. “American Indians thought we were barbarians for hitting children.” In Sweden, it is against the law for parents as well as teachers to hit children and England recently banned the practice of “caning” in its public schools, he said.


Hyman said several studies have shown that when schools eliminate corporal punishment, problems do not increase. To the contrary, discipline improves in schools that replace spanking with a discipline training program for teachers.

Hyman said the main reason people spank, swat or paddle children is that they themselves were hit when they were growing up, regardless of whether they are parents, teachers or even psychologists.

Like many experts, however, Hyman believes spanking does not work in the long run. “Any kind of punishment only temporarily suppresses behavior, it does not teach new behavior. Lots of research supports that,” he said.

One parent who was spanked as a child said he had spanked his daughter when she was small. It didn’t work, he said. “She just cried more and I felt bad.”

“The bottom line is it’s a natural response, but it just doesn’t work,” said another father, who has two young children. “I don’t think anything does. At one point my son said ‘Go ahead and spank me.’ ”

Pete Mehas, a former high school principal who is now a Sacramento lobbyist for consortium of 31 Central California school districts that opposed the bill, said he spanked one of his daughters but not the other. “The dilemma is, one would respond to reasoning and the other wouldn’t. I tried all kinds of methods, bribes, everything,” he said.


Disagrees With Premise

In one situation, he said he was cutting the lawn and didn’t want her to get her hand cut off in the lawn mower. “I can recall vividly the look in her eye when she wanted to come close. So I paddled her with my hand on her behind. The issue is, did I abuse her emotionally? Did I teach violence? . . . I disagree with that premise.

“Now she’s 11 and I wouldn’t consider touching her,” he said. “But in that situation, it was effective.”

According to a 1985 study conducted by the University of New Hampshire’s Family Research Lab in a Eastern seacoast town, 83% of the parents of first through third graders spanked their children. Of those who did, 40% said they considered it seldom if ever effective, said sociology instructor Barbara Carson. Other studies have shown up to 95% of American parents spank their children, she said.

“Among those who said it was ineffective and did it anyway, the majority said they spanked because they themselves were out of control,” she said. “They had had a bad day, they were frustrated. For the most part, they said nothing about what the child did.

“Children can come up with some very creative things to do to aggravate parents,” Carson said. One 3-year-old climbed on a shelf and knocked antique plates down into the baby’s playpen. The next morning, he got 18 eggs and threw them on the counter. “The mother knew if she hit the child, she would zing hard. So she picked him up and put him in the corner. He stayed there for two hours.”

‘Close to Child Abuse’

When spanking is used to communicate anger, she said, “It seems awfully close to child abuse.”


Dr. Benjamin Spock, who wrote in the first editions of his classic “Baby and Child Care” that spanking clears the air of angry disapproval, changed his position in the most recent edition. Now he believes even one swat on the behind can cause some psychological damage. “I think physical punishment teaches children that might makes right,” he said in a telephone interview. “We’re a very violent nation with an appreciable number of quite brutal people.

“The fact that there is much more murder on the part of Americans when they get angry is partly encouraged by a feeling that if you’re bigger, you can be brutal,” he said.

‘I don’t think for a minute that one swat on the behind by an indignant parent is going to have any devastating effect,” said Spock, 83, who said he once swatted his oldest son. “But if you say it’s all right for a parent or teacher to hit children, it’s hard to draw a distinction. If one is OK, what about two? Or four? What about eight? There’s no point of saying 50 is all right, but 70 is too many. How can you draw a line?”

The point where spanking becomes abuse is a “hard one to call,” said Sgt. Dick Bowman, an investigator for the Irvine Police Dept. “You can spank a kid and accidentally leave a welt. There are no guidelines. It’s more of a gut reaction as far as what the individual investigator feels is outside the limits.

“Personally, I like a kid being spanked,” Bowman said. It worked with his daughter, he said. “The majority of people here spank their kids. God only knows if that’s what keeps them on the straight and narrow.”

May Be Appropriate

With a young child, spanking may be appropriate, according to the County of Orange Child Abuse Registry handbook, “What You Should Know About Disciplining Your Child.” But it should never be more severe than “a couple of quick swats on the backside. Never hit a child’s head or face. Never strike a child with intent to physical harm. Don’t prolong the spanking. Always explain to the child why the spanking is being given and assure the child of your love through a hug.”


Often alternative methods of discipline such as reasoning or giving rewards for good behavior don’t work because parents or teachers don’t really believe in them, Hyman said.

The Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment offers workshops for teachers and parents that helps them match discipline to their own attitudes. After answering a questionnaire, adults are grouped into six groups such as those who believe in authority and control, those who believe in offering warmth and understanding, or those who believe a child’s background causes misbehavior. Then they are taught a method that fits, he said.

For example, he said one inner-city third-grade teacher had been working with the school psychologist to solve behavior problems. “The psychologist had her use a behavior modification approach. We found she really didn’t believe in reinforcement. She would try things the principal was telling her and say, ‘See? It doesn’t work.’

“We worked with her, gave her the test and found she was ecologically (authority) oriented.” She was also disorganized and yelled to get attention, he said. Instead of rewards, he said, they helped her reorganize the classroom and change to a more pleasant, softer voice. The children’s behavior improved without having to use rewards, he said.

A better alternative than fear of punishment is old-fashioned guilt, according to child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim who recently advocated in an article in The Atlantic Monthly that parents instill “the pangs of conscience” to encourage good behavior. Japanese mothers, for example, do not admonish their children to “Stop that, or else!” Instead, he noted, they ask a question such as: “How do you think it makes me feel when my child runs around as you do?”

Guilt Lingers

However, many American parents in the Family Research Lab study said they wished they had been spanked instead of having to live with the lingering effects of guilt, Carson said. Even Spock said in a sense he would have preferred being spanked to the intense disapproval used by his own mother. That was one reason he had at first written that spanking “clears the air,” he said.


“I was throwing that as a sop to parents who believe in, or can’t help from hitting their children,” he said. “Now we are trying to get rid of physical punishment . . . It isn’t fear that makes children or adults behave. It’s love.

“I certainly don’t think a parent should be made to feel guilty for feeling like hitting. What was done to you in childhood comes naturally unless you try very hard to change. It’s very difficult.”

But he said: “I’ve known hundreds of families that never used physical punishment. Their children are at least as well behaved, motivated, polite and cooperative as children who are hit. In general, they are better behaved. And it was all done with kindness and respect.

“How can you say hitting is necessary when there are children around who are really ideal citizens who have never been hit?”