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Domestic CP - September 2001

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Los Angeles Business Journal, 10 September 2001

Parents May Be Ones Needing Spanking

By Leonard Pitts

I hate to tell you this, but your kid is spoiled. Mine aren't much better.

That, in essence, is the finding of a recent Time/CNN poll. Most of us think most of our kids are overindulged, materialistic brats.

If you're waiting for me to argue the point, you're in the wrong column.

No, I only bring it up as context to talk about a controversial study released late last month. It deals with corporal punishment -- spanking -- and it has outraged those who oppose the practice while re-arming those who support it.

It seems that Dr. Diana Baumrind, a psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley, followed 164 middle-class families from the time their children were in preschool until they reached their 20s. She found that most used some form of corporal punishment. She further found that, contrary to what we've been told for years, giving a child a mild spanking (defined as openhanded swats on the backside, arm or legs) does not leave the child scarred for life.

Baumrind, by the way, opposes spanking. Still, it's to her credit as an academic that her research draws a distinction other opponents refuse to. That is, a distinction between the minor punishments practiced by most parents who spank and the harsher variants practiced by a tiny minority (shaking and blows to the head or face, for example).

Yes, children whose parents treat them that severely are, indeed, more likely to be maladjusted by the time they reach adolescence. And, yes, the parents themselves are teetering dangerously close to child abuse.

But does the same hold true in cases where corporal punishment means little more than swatting a misbehaving backside?

For years, the official consensus from the nation's child-rearing experts was that it did. Maybe that's about to change. We can only hope.

For my money, there was always something spurious about the orthodoxy that assured us all corporal punishment, regardless of severity, was de facto abuse. Nevertheless, we bought into it, with the result being that parents who admitted to spanking were treated as primitive dolts and heaped with scorn. They were encouraged to negotiate with misbehaving children in order to nurture their self-esteem.

But the orthodoxy was wrong on several fronts.

In the first place, it's plainly ridiculous -- and offensive -- to equate a child who has been swatted on the butt with one who has been stomped, scalded or punched. In the second, the argument that reasonable corporal punishment leads inevitably to mental instability always seemed insupportable and has just been proven so by Baumrind's study. And in the third, have you ever tried to "negotiate" with a screaming 5-year-old? It may do wonders for the child's self-esteem, but, I promise, it's going to kill yours. Your sanity, too.

Don't get me wrong, contrary to what its proponents will sometimes claim, corporal punishment is not a panacea for misbehavior. Rearing a child requires not just discipline, but also humor, love and some luck.

Yet the very fact that spanking must be exonerated by a university study suggests how far afield we've wandered from what used to be the central tenet of family life: parents in charge. Ultimately, it probably doesn't matter whether that tenet is enforced by spanking or other corrective measures, so long as it is enforced.

I've seen too many children behave with too grand a sense of entitlement to believe that it is. Heard too many teachers tell horror stories of dealing with kids from households where parents are not sovereign, adult authority not respected. As a culture, we seem to have forgotten that the family is not a democracy, but a benign dictatorship.

Small wonder our kids are brats.

So the pertinent question isn't: To spank or not to spank? Rather, it's: Who's in charge here? Who's teaching whom? Who is guiding whom?

The answer used to be obvious. It's obvious no more. And is it so difficult to see where that road leads? To understand that it is possible to be poisoned by self-esteem, and that a spoiled child becomes a self-centered adult ill-equipped to deal with the vagaries and reversals of life.

Some folks think it's abuse when you swat a child's backside. But maybe, sometimes, it's abuse when you don't.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist with the Miami Herald.

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