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cpThe possibility of a comprehensive ban on corporal punishment in U.S. schools has the issue back in the spotlight where it belongs.

I wrote about corporal punishment quite a bit in 2007 and 2008, noting among other things that I once spanked my kids. Though seldom and long ago, I’m still aghast and ashamed in the face of the evidence against it — evidence that made me stop on a dime.

A quick rehash of those thoughts before we look at the new developments:

Every time a parent raises a hand to a child, that parent is saying You cannot be reasoned with. In the process, the child learns that force is an acceptable substitute for reason, and that Mom and Dad have more confidence in the former than in the latter.

A second failure is equally damning. Spanking doesn’t work. In fact, it makes things worse. A meta-analysis of 88 corporal punishment studies compiled by Elizabeth Gershoff at Columbia found that ten negative outcomes are strongly correlated with spanking, including a damaged parent-child relationship, increased antisocial and aggressive behaviors, and the increased likelihood that the spanked child will physically abuse her/his own children. The study revealed just one positive correlation: immediate compliance. That’s all. So if you need your kids to behave in the moment but don’t care much about the rest of the moments in their lives–hey, don’t spare the rod!

(From “Reason vs. the Rod,” Humanist Parenting column, Oct 17, 2007)

I later addressed the well-meaning but false claim that the Bible’s reference to using “the rod” is about guidance, not beatings, and linked to a very nice piece by a Christian parent who decided not to spank her children and gave the reasons why.

Still, influential Christian parenting author James Dobson is one of several voices on the religious right continuing to applaud the practice. In his book The New Dare to Discipline, Dobson writes that “Spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause genuine tears” (p. 35). He recommends painful squeezing of the trapezius muscle on the neck to obtain “instant obedience” (36) and using paddles to hit children as young as 18 months old. He advises parents to hit a toddler whenever he “hits his friends” (66), and if a child cries more than a few minutes after being spanked, Dobson says, hit him again (70). “When a youngster tries this kind of stiff-necked rebellion,” he adds, “you had better take it out of him, and pain is a marvelous purifier” (6).

His advice frequently lapses into sneering contempt for the child. “You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his bony little toe across it,” he says (p. 21). “Who is going to win? Who has the most courage? Who is in charge here If you do not conclusively answer these questions for your strong-willed children, they will precipitate other battles designed to ask them again and again.”

Carefully avoiding reference to actual research, Dobson prefers to blame the media for the growing consensus against corporal punishment. “The American media has worked to convince the public that all spanking is tantamount to child abuse, and therefore, should be outlawed. If that occurs, it will be a sad day for families . . . and especially for children!”

We now return to the sane(r) world, currently in progress.

In Spring 2008, I was asked to draft a resolution on corporal punishment for the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU). On June 8, 2008, the resolution was passed unanimously by the General Assembly of the World Humanist Congress in Washington DC. Humanism now has a formal consensus position on this important issue, and I am honored to have been a part of that.

This year, on the heels of new research suggesting that regular spanking has a measurable negative affect on IQ, Congress is due to consider the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act this year. The proposal would “prohibit the Secretary of Education from providing education funding to any educational agency or institution that allows school personnel to inflict corporal punishment upon a student as a form of punishment or to modify undesirable behavior.”

mapThirty states currently ban corporal punishment in public schools. Only two of those ban the practice in private schools. Over 220,000 kids were subject to violent punishment in U.S. schools during the 2006-07 school year, with three states managing to do more than half of the total damage: Texas (49,100), Mississippi (38,100), and Alabama (33,700).

The federal act would ban the practice in all public and private schools that receive federal funds of any kind, which is virtually all.

The big news is the inclusion of religious schools in the ban. But despite recent warnings of pushback from that direction, there’s been very little. Though the practice was common just a generation ago, many religious schools have voluntarily joined public schools in abandoning corporal punishment abandoned hitting as a punishment. “Whether you believe it’s right or wrong, it’s just too big of a liability or legal issue,” said Tom Cathey, a legislative analyst for the Association of Christian Schools International, in a recent RNS article.

So we can and should oppose the undue influence of Dobson et al in the debate. At the same time, we should notice the quiet progress of the mainstream, both religious and secular, toward the obvious. It’s how most social progress happens.

[Hat tip to Secular Coalition for America for great work on this issue!]

-My Nov 2007 interview with Elizabeth Gershoff
-Learn about the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act, contact your representative
-Resources from Center for Effective Discipline (incl. alternatives to corp. punishment in schools)
-Dobson’s views fascinatingly juxtaposed with those of actual experts in the field

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.