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.