Assemblywoman Sally Lieber hit a nerve when she mused publicly this week about making it illegal for parents to strike children younger than 4.
The Bay Area Democrat hasn't introduced a bill yet, but critical calls and e-mails -- including some personal attacks -- have flooded her offices since her local newspaper wrote about her intention.
Unbowed, Lieber said she would introduce a bill next week to make California the first state to make the hitting of a toddler or baby a crime. Language was still being drafted, but Lieber was considering making a violation a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in county jail.
"It would get us out of the ridiculous situation of having our law saying there's justifiable beating of children," Lieber said, "in the midst of a society where we say we value children and protect them."
Readers of the San Jose Mercury News blasted the idea -- "Although I don't believe in spanking, I sure do not need some media-grubbing politician to tell me how to raise my kids," wrote one -- but Lieber said she was confident that she would win Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's support.
In a Mercury News interview Thursday, Schwarzenegger described how as a child he "got smacked about everything" by his father, but has never spanked his own four children. He questioned how such a law could be enforced, but said he understood the desire to "get rid of the physical, the brutal behavior that some parents have."
Answering questions after delivering a healthcare speech Friday to Los Angeles business leaders, Schwarzenegger said he and his wife, Maria Shriver, quickly found that threatening to ground their children to do schoolwork worked well. "We can discipline the kids
Schwarzenegger's native Austria banned corporal punishment of children in 1989. Fifteen other nations have done so, most in Europe, according to the nonprofit Center for Effective Discipline in Columbus, Ohio. California is one of 29 states that ban corporal punishment in schools. Most states -- including California -- ban physical discipline in child-care settings.
Nadine A. Block, a former school psychologist who 25 years ago began pushing for an end to paddling in schools, said a Wisconsin lawmaker unsuccessfully sought 15 years ago to make all hitting of children illegal. A similar effort failed last year in Massachusetts, she said.
But the narrower scope of Lieber's bill and California's progressive tendency give it better odds of success, said Block, executive director of the Center for Effective Discipline.
"Most people know you should not hit babies and babies do not know right from wrong," she said. "Babies you have to distract, remove, supervise, protect."
Lieber's proposal promises to draw national media attention like that triggered in 1994 when then-Assemblyman Mickey Conroy, an Orange County Republican, proposed paddling juvenile graffiti vandals with an 18-by-6-inch wooden paddle. Conroy was sought by dozens of radio talk shows and TV news programs to talk about his bill, which was defeated in committee. Conroy died in 2005.
Lieber said she has gotten plenty of encouragement -- including from prosecutors -- but Mercury News readers rejected the idea in e-mails posted on the newspaper's website.
"The day that the [government] gives birth to my children, then they have a right to raise them," wrote Esther. "Till then they are mine to do with as I please. I will raise them the way I see fit. If I think that those little butts need a swat ... I will be the one to give it to them."
One reader called Lieber, who is 45, married and without children, "an old spinster."
Another advised her to steer clear of an area about which she knows "absolutely nothing."
Lieber called the personal attacks "predictable and a total red herring."
"Every time I've run for political office," she said, "the term 'childless' gets used, and I just think it's a little bit ridiculous. We legislate on a lot of different topics, like domestic violence, although I'm not in an abusive relationship; classroom teaching, although I'm not a teacher and I'm not in a classroom any longer."
"Most of the bills that we've done," said Lieber, author of a law that raised the state's minimum wage this month, "people say, 'You'll never get it out of the first committee.' "
She will be hard-pressed to get support from Republican lawmakers, who are typically wary of expanding government's role in family life.
"This isn't a bill that encourages parents to learn good parenting skills," said Assemblywoman Audra Strickland (R-Moorpark), mother of a 15-month-old. "This is a very deliberate step that says the government is better at parenting than parents are."
Spanking has long been a divisive issue among parents. The American Academy of Pediatrics takes the position that on balance, spanking children does more harm than good and that parents should find alternative ways to discipline.
John E.B. Myers, a professor at the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law in Sacramento, who published a book last year about the history of child protection laws, said research shows that roughly 90% of American parents hit their children at some point.
"The law is very clear, and has been for hundreds of years, that parents have the legal right to use reasonable corporal punishment for purposes of discipline," Myers said.
Prosecution of child abuse cases revolves around what is reasonable, given the age and size of the child and the degree of injury, he said.
In most child abuse cases, said Myers, who reviews appellate court decisions, accused parents say their attempts at discipline got out of hand.
"Most parents who use corporal punishment are perfectly good parents and the kid is all right -- most of us were spanked, right? -- but if we allow adults license to hit children, then child abuse will occur in a small percentage of cases," he said.
Myers said he supports Lieber's proposal as "progressive" and "inevitable."
"The law establishes acceptable forms of behavior," he said, "and people come around to behaving that way."