REPORT TO FRIENDS--October 18, 1999

The original of the following letter attacking Plain Talk about Spanking was received by J. who is a school counselor and a regular used of that booklet. J. told me that the letter was sent to her by a teacher at one of her schools, and that the teacher had also circulated copies to colleagues. J. invited me to respond if I wished. She said that she would forward what I write to my unnamed critic and share copies with others at the school who had become interested. She assured me she had no intention of discontinuing her use of Plain Talk...


"I was offended when I read this book, Plain Talk About Spanking. I have rarely read a book more full of sensationalism and overt generalizations.

"Can you honestly believe that comparing spanking (and the word is spanking, not abuse!) to wife beating, or food poisoning, or adding a toxic substance to your child's food is justified. Worse yet, that it teaches a child that grown ups they depend upon are dangerous? Or that a child who is spanked is betrayed just like the child who is denied adequate food, warmth and rest?

"This book puts ALL spankings into the same category, and that is poor journalism at its worst.

"The very first Question and Answer area states that ALL juveniles delinquents have been raised by spankers. Come on! What a generalization! No one has ever done such a survey to ask ALL juvenile delinquents if they were ever spanked.

"And what is a spanker's description in this book? Is a well delivered spank on the rump, over the clothes with the hand being lumped together with the daily indiscriminate beatings with a belt or fists? This book implies it is.

"And, of course, we are also to believe that EVERY inmate on death row has also been spanked as a child. How ludicrous!

"I, for one, feel that this book was written and is being pushed by the "far left wing" of parents and educators (to use a familiar euphemism). I know very well your stand on this issue, J----- but I for one, do not agree. I think our prisons are more likely to be filled with children who have never known restraint and discipline in their lives. Children who grew up with a "spare the rod" and "let's talk about it" type of philosophy.

"Violence is wrong. Discipline is not. Some parents have been blessed with children who have never had to have a hand raised to them to get them to be disciplined and learn their lessons. Others of us have not been. I have three children. One would have killed herself and others as young children because all the talking or taking away of privileges or things meant absolutely nothing to her. Ritalin did nothing for her. Physical discipline was the only way to bring home the message. The second child would have followed the first, but feared the physical discipline enough to pull into line with just the threat of it. The third child has never even needed the threat of a spanking. She was born with a very different spirit and would pull into line with just one look. Parents and educators who have had children like my third one are the ones who have had the time to write such hogwash as Plain Talk About Spanking. The rest of us, with our imperfect children, are too busy and exhausted in just trying to keep them safe from harm to have such time on our hands!"

MY RESPONSE TO J. (10/18/99):
Dear J.,

Thank you for your call and for faxing me a copy of the letter you received.

Ordinarily, I don't respond to such criticism. If I did, I wouldn't have time for anything else. I learned long ago that any attempt to penetrate the intellectual armor of dedicated spankers is an exercise in futility. I am making an exception this time because I understand that others at your schools have taken an interest. Also, I have my own plans for the use of this material.

I'll refer here to your angry correspondent as "Smith."

SMITH: "I was offended when I read this book."
When I wrote Plain Talk about Spanking, I anticipated that spankers wouldn't like it. But I had to make a choice: would I speak frankly about the harm children experience by being struck, or would I soothe the adults who strike them? No contest there. The fact that Smith was so inflamed by what I wrote probably says more about her insecurity regarding her child-rearing practices than about the alleged defects of the booklet.
SMITH: "I have rarely read a book more full of sensationalism and overt generalizations."
In order to compress my subject into 8 pages, I had to generalize. I did not cite the research supporting each of my claims or qualify them by giving the margin of error. Plain Talk... was not written for publication in a scholarly journal. I wanted to produce something that an 8th grader with a B average could read and understand in 15 minutes and that would be consistent with current informed opinion on the subject. If the number of copies ordered since 1992 by schools, public health agencies, hospitals, women's shelters, family crisis centers, parent educators, rehab clinics, juvenile authorities, probation offices, prisons, military bases, health care professionals, parents, grandparents and others is any indication, that criterion has been met.

If Smith ever decides to examine the serious literature on corporal punishment, any competent university librarian can give her a very large reading list. Over the past 60 years, many researchers have explored the subject. However, for a short list, she only needs to turn to "Suggested Reading" on page 8 of Plain Talk... All the authors listed there are world-class authorities whose writings meet the most rigorous standard for scholarship.

SMITH: "This book puts ALL spankings into the same category."
Indeed it does. Though no two spankers do it the same way, with the same amount of force, or for the same reasons, they are all engaged in essentially the same behavior: the battering of a child. Similarly, shoplifting, petty larceny, and armed robbery are not all the same thing, but they belong in the same category. They are theft and they are wrong.
SMITH: "Is a well delivered spank on the rump, over the clothes with the hand being lumped together with the daily indiscriminate beatings with a belt or fists?"
In this rhetorical question, Smith slips in a few very specific qualifiers, based, I surmise, on her own method of spanking. But there is no universal agreement among spankers as to what constitutes a spanking. Those who use leather belts, wooden spoons, switches, wooden boards, hunks of garden hose, or rods inspired by Solomon to batter their children, or who do it on the bare bottom rather than the clothed bottom, are just as confident their way is the right way. Line up ten spankers and ask each of them in turn to describe the "correct way to spank a child," you'll get ten very different descriptions, all of them self-serving.
SMITH: "Violence is wrong. Discipline is not."
Here, Smith plays spankers' favorite word game: the mislabeling of a dangerous and destructive act to make it look benign and beneficial. In the recent past, husbands who hit their wives played exactly the same game. They argued that there is a big difference between wife beating and "reasonable chastisement of a wife by a loving husband, only when absolutely necessary, never in anger, and never with the intention of causing lasting harm." Thankfully, western society has come to recognize the truth behind the euphemism "family squabble," and no longer tolerates crimes of violence against women.
SMITH: "No one has ever done such a survey to ask ALL juveniles delinquents if they were ever spanked... And, of course, we are also to believe that EVERY inmate on death row has also been spanked as a child. How ludicrous!"
Smith ought to read any or all other following:
  1. "Severe Parental Punishment and Aggression: The Link between Corporal Punishment and Delinquency," by Ralph S. Welsh, Ph.D. in Corporal Punishment in American Education: Readings in History, Practice and Alternatives, Editors: Irwin A. Hyman and James H. Wise, Temple University Press, 1979 (pp. 126-42). It is online at
  2. "Delinquency, Corporal Punishment, and the Schools" by Ralph S. Welsh, Ph.D., From Crime & Delinquency, 1978, pp. 336 - 354. It is online at
  3. "Spanking Makes Children Violent, Antisocial--Effect same regardless of parenting style, socioeconomic status, sex of child or ethnic background," American Medical Association News Update, August 13, 1997. It is online at
  4. "Spanking by Parents and Subsequent Antisocial Behavior of Children," By Murray A. Straus, Ph.D.; David B. Sugarman, Ph.D.; Jean Giles-Sims, Ph.D., Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, August 1997.
  5. "The Influence of Corporal Punishment on Crime," by Adah Maurer, Ph.D. and James S. Wallerstein (1987) It is online at
In Part IV Consequences, subheading: "Aggression and Delinquency," of Spare the Child: The Religious Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse (1990), author Dr. Philip Greven writes:
"The overwhelming evidence now available from scholarship on the roots of delinquency and crime suggests that corporal a major factor in generating the rage, aggression, and impulses for revenge that fuel the emotions, fantasies, and actions of individuals, mostly male, who become active delinquents or criminals."
In their book, Unraveling Juvenile Delinquency (1950), based on a massive 10-year study of urban boys, Sheldon and Elenor Glueck write:
"All in all, the most marked difference between the disciplinary practices of the parents of the delinquents and those of the non-delinquents is found in the considerably greater extent to which the former resorted to physical punishment and the lesser extent to which they reasoned with the boys about their misconduct... [This] is a revealing commentary on the relative effectiveness of physical punishment as opposed to an appeal to reason in the control of child behavior... The lowest incidence of delinquency and antisocial behavior in adolescence and beyond is always found among males who were loved, respected, cared for and reasoned with in childhood."
During my visits to Folsom State Prison, some of the men are eager to tell me about the treatment they had received as children. In certain cases, I suspect I am the only person to whom they have ever revealed such obviously painful, even gruesome, memories. Since the men are only days away from being released, and will likely never see me again, no one can accuse them of telling me something they think I want to hear in order to gain some advantage.

At my last visit to the prison, I conducted an informal survey of my audience. I asked the men to give me a show of hands to indicate which ones were raised in non-spanking families. There were 60 men present. One hand went up. I asked again, just to be sure everyone understood. No change. The one man with his hand raised spoke up saying that his mom never spanked him, not even once. He went on to say that he was totally out of control as a kid, always in trouble, always in fights, always getting thrown out of school, always getting into bad stuff and being picked up by the police. I then asked him if he had big brothers or sisters at home who looked after him when he was little and kept him in line. He appeared to be thinking about my question when our conversation got sidetracked by others clamoring to say something and be heard.

In the 6 months I have been going to Folsom, I have seen about 350 men. Only one other inmate claimed to have grown up in a non-spanking household. If there were others, they didn't come forward. From now on, I intend to poll the men on this point.

SMITH: "Parents and educators who have had children like my third one are the ones who have had the time to write such hogwash as Plain Talk About Spanking. The rest of us, with our imperfect children, are too busy and exhausted in just trying to keep them safe from harm to have such time on our hands!"
Here, I'll take Smith at her word. Clearly, the role of being a parent has been exhausting to her, and I sympathize. But I question her underlying thesis that children are born with ready-made personalities, and that they require varying amounts of force to, as she puts it, "keep them safe from harm." Spankers typically seize upon this rationale because it exonerates them from any personal responsibility for how their children turn out, and it casts them in the flattering role of protector. It is not difficult to understand why parents who fear they may have botched the most important job of their lives will cleave to whatever theory of child development eases their guilt and sense of failure.

Smith, like every other defender of spanking that I've ever listened to, presents a favorite anecdote taken from her personal life as proof of the benefits of spanking. She might as well conclude that the earth is flat because that's the way it looks from her window. Autobiography is rarely trustworthy, never science.

In John Stossel's acclaimed documentary, "A Lesson They'll Never Forget," which aired on ABC's 20/20, October 30, 1992, Dr. Murray Straus said this about spanking:

"It's probably the best kept secret of American child psychology that spanking produces kids who are more trouble, more hassle for parents."
Straus, who heads the Family Research Lab at the University of New Hampshire, has spent more than 25 years studying American family life and is one of the world's foremost authorities on domestic violence.

I'm sending you a copy of "A Lesson They'll Never Forget." If the schools in your district have a staff development day, or something equivalent, you might consider offering it for viewing. I show it whenever possible at workshops and presentations. It's a staple at Folsom where it provokes a variety of responses among viewers including compulsive laughter, nervous chatter and stony silence. During one showing, an obviously distressed inmate jumped up from his seat and rushed out of the room. He later explained to me that he could handle the film, but couldn't handle his peers' reactions to it. It's very good. Smith should see it.

I hope this has been helpful. Let me know when you need more booklets.


Thank you, everyone who sent donations since my last mailing. The requests for free NO SPANKING ZONE posters are escalating steadily. More and more people are seeing the image on the Web, and whenever a poster goes up in a public place, it isn't long before somebody new sees it and wants one, or two, or a dozen. And free samples of Plain Talk... are in demand as always. Based on last month's postage expenditure, your donations covered the cost of about 3 weeks of mailing. I am very grateful for that support. Readers who are thinking ahead might wish to click on donr2.htm.

Sorry about not responding promptly to mail and e-mailed messages. I don't want anyone to think I am deliberately ignoring them. I try to read everything that comes in. But it's the urgent messages and requests for printed materials I deal with first. Friendly chat has to wait. Please understand.

Please include me in Project NoSpank's mailings.
Please remove me from Project NoSpank's mailings.

Jordan Riak, Exec. Dir.
Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE)
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