George Holden envisions a world without spanking. No more paddling in the principal’s office. No more swats on little rear ends, not even — and here is where Holden knows he is staring up at a towering cliff of parental rights resistance — not even in the privacy of the home. When it comes to disciplining a child, Holden’s view is absolute: No hitting.
“We don’t like to call it spanking,” said Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University and head of a newly formed organization aimed at eliminating corporal punishment in the United States. “Spanking is a euphemism that makes it sound like hitting is a normal part of parenting. If we re-label it hitting, which is what it is, people step back and ask themselves, ‘Should I be hitting my child?’ ”
For centuries, of course, the answer to that question has been yes for a huge majority of families. We’ve been unsparing of the rod, spanking our children just as we were spanked by our parents. And there’s precious little evidence to suggest we feel much differently today. While the percentage of parents who say it’s okay to occasionally spank a child has declined marginally in recent years, that “acceptability level” still hovers between 65 percent and 75 percent nationally.
And surveys that measure actual behavior reveal even higher rates of moms and dads willing to whack. Depending on how you ask the question, most surveys show that between 70 percent and 90 percent of parents in this country spank their kids at least once during childhood. In 2013 America, spanking a child is about as common as vaccinating one.
But Holden and a growing number of children’s advocates still believe the time is right for a serious effort to end corporal punishment. For some in the burgeoning stop-hitting movement, the goal is nothing less than a total legal ban on spanking in all settings, as has been passed by 33 nations in Europe, Latin America and Africa (soon to be 34 when Brazil becomes the largest country to outlaw spanking in final action expected this year).
So far in this country, even limited anti-spanking laws have gone nowhere. A 2008 proposal to make it illegal to spank a child younger than 3 was greeted with howls of nanny-state overreach in the California Assembly before being withdrawn. In 2011, a bill targeting some of the more extreme physical discipline measures that have been considered “reasonable corporal punishment” — hitting with dangerous objects, punching with closed fists, shaking toddlers younger than 3 — was hooted down in the Maryland Senate.
“I had legislators telling me that they had not been spared the rod when they were young and look at them now,” said State Sen. Jamie B. Raskin (D-Montgomery), the bill’s chief sponsor. “It’s really entrenched in the culture. I do think we need a social movement against violence in the home.”
And that is just what most of the new paddling prohibitionists have in mind. Knowing how Americans would recoil at the idea of Big Brother stepping between the parental palm and the child’s bottom, their goal is to drive spanking out of the culture. They want to tarnish spanking’s image as a normal part of American life with a sustained behavior change campaign along the lines of the ones that cut smoking rates in half and made drunken driving a national taboo.