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No need for a swat team

Legally banning parents from spanking their children is silly. The laws against child abuse are sufficient.

January 23, 2007

WHO KNEW THAT in her spare time, Assemblywoman Sally Lieber (D-Mountain View) has been glued to her television, riveted by episodes of "Supernanny"? On the program, British nanny Jo Frost marches into chaotic homes and teaches clueless, overwhelmed parents how to discipline their little hellions, kindly but firmly. (Frost never spanks.) The children eventually get straightened out, the parents eventually relax, and everyone is happy.

Lieber apparently wants to be the Jo Frost for all of California's children. In a trial balloon that could remove all metaphor from the phrase "nanny state," the assemblywoman announced plans last week to introduce legislation that would make it illegal for parents to spank their own children under the age of 4. Convicted fanny-slappers would face up to one year in jail or a $1,000 fine.

Lieber contends that a spanking ban would end the "ridiculous situation of having our law saying there's justifiable beating of children." But our laws say no such thing.

There are existing statutes against beating children. Teachers, peace officers and healthcare professionals (among others) are all mandated to report even suspected cases of child abuse that they come across. Lieber can't seem to distinguish between a swat on the behind and actual abuse. The first is none of the state's business; the second already is.

To state what should be obvious, spanking does not typically cause more irrevocable harm to children than splitting up their families by hauling their parents off to the slammer. One shudders to imagine how such a ban would be enforced.

This is hardly the first time a California legislator has threatened to take the state where no government belongs. Who can forget last year's AB 2360, informally known as the "Tom Cruise Law," which would have prohibited the sale of diagnostic ultrasound equipment to anyone but licensed healthcare providers.

But just because non-abusive spanking should be legal doesn't mean it's a good idea. Many child-development specialists agree with Lieber that it is an outmoded and counterproductive way of administering discipline.

The American Academy of Pediatrics -- which estimates that 90% of American parents have spanked their children at some time -- also maintains that the practice does more harm than good. Children under 18 months who are spanked have a difficult time making a connection between their behavior and the punishment. It may chasten them momentarily, but the lesson doesn't stick. And repeated spanking can lead to aggressive, anti-social behavior.

These are discoveries that society is making all by itself, without being threatened with jail time.

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