It may be some measure of the times we live in that one can watch old television shows and find sinister new meaning in old innocuous dialogue. Take for example this chestnut, between two youthful siblings on any one of a number of ancient family sitcoms: “Boy, are you gonna get it when Dad gets home…”
Get what? Yelled at? Perhaps grounded? Maybe that tasty free ride known as an allowance is going away for a while. Certainly we were never meant to think that Dad would get violent. Maybe we thought Dad might spank somebody. And that’s not violence. That’s parenting. Or it was. Or it might still be. Or maybe soon it will be against the law.
“Spanking” is one of the all-time great opinion piece topics because the issue is personal and quite possibly irresolvable, cumbersome at best. Yet we all think we’re talking about the same thing when we say “spanking”… and clearly we’re not. That might explain why there was so much reaction last week when California State Assemblywoman Sally Lieber started talking about an anti-spanking measure.
Lieber has floated a notion that California might make the hitting of a toddler or baby by parents a misdemeanor if the child is younger than four. (California is one of 29 states that ban corporal punishment in schools.) The thinking seems to be that after age four, kids know right from wrong. And then, I guess, it’s open season. See, that might provoke you and yet we’ve barely dived into this. And I’m not even a parent. In fact, neither is Sally Lieber. Maybe you’re steamed about all this, and you’re not even a parent!
Some of that might be at the core of our contemporary dilemma over spanking. An authority can blow steady for some time on the psychological and social ramifications of spanking. But a parent with a toddler will tell you that, hundreds of times in a day, you have physical interactions with your child. Your curious kid picks a filthy bottle cap up off the sidewalk and looks to be putting it in his mouth. You intercede quickly. To the non-parent watching from across the street, does it look like you slapped it out of his hand?
And things go from fuzzy to sticky when you begin talking about rights. John E.B. Myers, a professor who authored a book on the history of child protection laws, was quoted in the LA Times regarding the clarity of “hundreds of years” of law reinforcing that “parents have the legal right to use reasonable corporal punishment for purposes of discipline.”
Somewhere in the area of “rights” is where it all goes from sticky to a swamp. Last week I read about 12-year-old actress Dakota Fanning appearing in a film where her character is raped. Yeah, yeah, editing and protective camera angles, she’s very mature for her age, yadda yadda. But was it absolutely necessary to our understanding of the world to make that film and put that youngster through that specific acting experience, however delicately handled? Based on what I’ve read, the female writer-director would say, “Yes.” And at $3 million a picture, Ms. Fanning’s parents have “rights.” As do many stage parents who, however well-meaning, often remodel a childhood into a period where their kids become chattel.
Not that any sense of ownership is exclusive to show biz. Regarding Lieber’s proposal, a female reader e-mailed this to the San Jose Mercury News: “The day that the [government] gives birth to my children, then they have a right to raise them. Till then they are mine to do with as I please. I will raise them the way I see fit. If I think that those little butts need a swat…I will be the one to give it to them.”
So what bothers us most when we argue about spanking? A curbing of our “rights?” The implication that we’re prone to abuse our children unless supervised by law? Or is it the very idea that others would tell us how to parent? In fact, parents are on their own with decisions to spank or not spank. Yet that “right” has the daunting feature of almost always being exercised during sudden and unexpected moments of great emotion, making it one of the most delicate issues in parenting. Then, just about the time you’ve navigated all that, they become teenagers.