Raising A Hand (Or More?) To Kids

COMMENT

May 02, 1993|By BRIAN SULLAM

To spank or not to spank. That is a perennial question parent face.

Haim Ginott, a well-regarded child psychologist, tells a wonderful story that captures the inherent contradictions of corporal punishment.

A mother is working in the kitchen frantically trying to cook dinner. Her 5-year-old son and his 3-year-old brother are playing with some toys on the floor nearby. The two boys start fighting over a toy and the older boy delivers a roundhouse punch to the head of his younger sibling, knocking him to the floor.

Seeing the blow, the mother stops her cooking, wipes her hands and grabs the older boy by the arm. She delivers a strong swat to his bottom and says, "You should never hit someone smaller than you."

Spanking children has always been difficult because of this unavoidable mixed message. Kids are told early on that hitting is wrong and is an unacceptable method for settling differences. Yet, as a parent, I know there are times when spanking is the most direct and effective disciplinary tool available.

America's new-found interest in child abuse only serves to confound parents who are wrestling over the appropriate use of corporal punishment. Whipped up by the television talk shows that carry stories about parents wrongly accused of child abuse after a spanking, some people believe government officials are intent on removing parents' ability to discipline their children. Some even have even accused county departments of social services of using corporal punishment as a pretext for removing children from their parents and placing them in foster care.

A bill introduced by Sen. Larry Haines (but never passed) during the recent General Assembly session is a manifestation of this hysteria. Although the bill's purported purpose was to allow parents to use corporal punishment, it would have muddled the state's clear definition of child abuse.

Under current law, child abuse is defined as "the physical injury . . . that results from inhumane treatment or the result of a malicious act." For purposes of determining whether abuse has taken place, social workers and physicians look for such signs as cuts, welts, bruises, broken bones and internal injuries.

Contrary to many preconceptions, Maryland law is silent on parental use of corporal punishment. Parents are free to spank, paddle or switch their children as long as they don't injure them.

Senator Haines' bill would have redefined abuse so that the meaning "does not include the reasonable use of corporal punishment as a means of discipline."

If this language had been adopted, "reasonable" would have been the operative word in determining abuse. But there is no universally accepted notion of reasonable corporal punishment. In fact, there are profound differences among purported child development experts.

James P. Dobson, a Southern California psychologist and author of "Dare to Discipline" and "The Strong-Willed Child," says that parents should never use their hands to spank children. Discipline, he writes, "should be administered with a neutral object; that is, a small switch or a belt. . . ."

Ted Klein, another author on childhood development, reaches the opposite conclusion. Spanking "should be done with as little anger as possible, and never should anything but a hand be used. Belts, hairbrushes, sticks, paddles and other implements of punishment are sadistic and dangerous."

Senator Haines' bill died in committee, but he has said this

legislation is needed to protect Maryland parents who use corporal punishment to discipline their children. He says there have been too many cases in which parents have spanked their children and end up facing charges of child abuse.

The reality of the situation differs from the rhetoric. Out of the 720 child abuse investigations in Carroll County last year, officials recall six involved spanking and six involved using a switch. So far this year, there have been three complaints.

It is not the findings that seem to disturb Senator Haines. The fact that DSS investigates cases involving spanking is what really troubles him.

Ironically, even if Senator Haines' language on corporal punishment had been part of existing law, DSS would have had to conduct the same number of investigations. Under Maryland law, DSS is obligated to investigate all complaints of child abuse.

There is no way to determine the origin of these complaints because these records are confidential, but in many of them, allegations of abuse are just a pretext for the complaint. Often parents will use charges of abuse to their advantage in custody battles. Estranged couples will allege abuse in an effort to "get even" over some real or imagined slight. Social workers even talk about cases of a parent's hitting a teen-ager, and the youth's complaining to DSS.

An investigation of child abuse doesn't automatically mean the parents lose custody of the child. In most cases, social workers use counseling to help the parents develop other, more effective ways of discipline.

Parents also have to remember that the goal of discipline is learning -- not inflicting pain and humiliating a child.

It is clear that parents who judiciously use corporal punishment don't have to worry about the heavy hand of the government infringing on their right to discipline their children.

Brian Sullam is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Carroll County.

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