OAKLAND — Tired of hearing about punitive paddlings and bruised behinds, a retired college teacher is planning to urge the City Council this week to declare Oakland the nation's first "no-spanking zone."
On Tuesday, Jordan Riak, 65, is scheduled to bring his proposed resolution before the council's public safety committee. The measure carries no legal sanctions or other punishment for adults who spank children, but it is intended as a symbolic gesture to raise public awareness.
If approved by the full council, it would allow Riak to post anti-spanking posters in public buildings and spaces.
"I've never liked bullies," said Riak, who taught photography in New Jersey and Australia before moving to California 15 years ago. "And I don't think a child should live in fear, whether it's bullies on the street, bullies at school or bullies among their parents. Fear is disruptive, and spanking is particularly disruptive."
Riak, a resident of nearby Contra Costa County, said he brought the issue to Oakland because he wanted to set an example in a major American city. The traditionally liberal Oakland, which in 1996 toyed with the idea of using an African American vernacular called "Ebonics" as a teaching aid in public schools, is no stranger to controversial issues.
But reaction from council members has been mixed, even dismissive. Local politicians are already debating whether government has a right to dictate how parents discipline their children.
Although California is one of 23 states that ban corporal punishment in public schools, no U.S. state or city government has ever issued sanctions against such practices in the home. For precedents, one has to look to Europe, where six countries, beginning with Sweden in 1979, have banned spanking.
Views Vary Widely
Supporters of Riak argue that spanking is tantamount to child abuse, while critics see the proposed resolution as another instance of government encroachment into the private sphere.
"Child-rearing practices are the fundamental prerogative of the family," Oakland Mayor Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr. said in a statement. "Other than to vigorously enforce laws against child abuse, governmental entities have no business passing resolutions restricting some disciplinary practices over others." The mayor could veto the measure, and a two-thirds council vote would be required to overturn that.
Some on the City Council are openly opposed to the resolution. Among them is council President Ignacio De La Fuente, who said he has thanked those adults who spanked him while he was growing up. Others have treated the proposal as a joke.
But Councilman Nate Miley, chairman of the public safety committee, said he would like to see Riak's resolution passed. If the committee approves the proposal Tuesday, the full City Council would probably vote on it two weeks later.
"I support it but need to ascertain from testimony and documentation what exactly constitutes spanking," Miley said. "Is it just a tap on the butt, or is it more than that?"
A definition of spanking remains elusive even among experts. But most clinical psychologists and social workers contend that such acts often reinforce violent behavior among both parents and children. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has endorsed Riak's proposal.
Still, Riak and other supporters say they have often met with bruising hostility from parents.
Irwin Hyman, a psychology professor at Temple University and author of "The Case Against Spanking," said Riak's resolution is unlikely to pass because much of the American public believes in spanking despite what he describes as its detriments.
"There are no real positive benefits to spanking, except it does temporarily stop behavior," Hyman said. "It's got a lot of long-term negative consequences. It's often associated with depression, low self-esteem and conduct problems."
Riak, a New Jersey native and father of three grown children, said he was never spanked as a child. He calls the anti-spanking battle part of a 25-year quest to end corporal punishment in the home and the classroom.
He said he first became aware of the issue when he taught college in Sydney, Australia, for 10 years. There he and supporters started a campaign to end corporal punishment in schools after his sons told him about what he called "Dickensian practices," such as teachers whacking students' open palms with canes.
In 1985, after moving to California, Riak helped then-Assemblyman Sam Farr (D-Carmel), now a congressman, draft a bill to abolish corporal punishment in the state's public schools. The bill was voted into law in 1987.
Riak's ultimate goal is to turn the United States into a spanking-free nation. He already has several supporters across the country, including a group in Columbus, Ohio, that staged the first annual Spank Out Day U.S.A. last April 1. The event was intended to urge parents across the country to quit spanking.
Riak has also been in touch with David and Blythe Daniel, husband-and-wife psychologists who teach at Los Angeles City College. The Daniels said they plan to campaign for a similar resolution by the Los Angeles City Council.
"Spanking communicates to everyone that children have no rights, that they don't get the respect that other human beings get, and it's horrible," David Daniel said.