By Jordan Riak

Letter sent to several lists, September 3, 1998 and selected responses

I've just received a letter from D.Q. in which he hammers home the point that he is neither a perpetrator of child abuse nor a defender of child abusers. He says, "...Child abuse remains a horrible problem in this country... Governmental agencies are obligated to intervene on the public's behalf if a child is being abused ... I care very much about the welfare of children... I have never supported child abuse or abusive behavior by any stretch of the imagination... I have raised three children without once striking any of them. I personally do not believe in spanking..."

And then, after solidly establishing his credentials as a man of peace, he says, "I do not feel it my place to tell other parents what forms of discipline they should choose -- unless, of course, it crosses the line from 'spanking' to physical child abuse."

We've all heard of that mysterious line--the one that purportedly separates spanking from abuse. In fact, there is no such line except in the imagination of abusers who always deem their own behaviors to be on its safe side.

Dr. Trumbull, a physician often cited in pro spanking literature, talks about "a transient redness" of the buttocks as being the measure of a correctly applied, nonabusive spanking. How transient is transient? Five minutes? Five days? Well, that's for each spanker to decide. Furthermore, the spanker can't assess the tint of red or the degree of transience until after the act. At that point it is too late to undo it. If the spankee happens to be of African descent with very dark pigmentation, that further complicates matters. Apparently the good doctor was thinking about the color of his own children's bottoms. And without specifically addressing the issue, we know what he thinks about bare-bottom versus clothed-bottom spanking.

Then there is Alameda County Superior Court Judge Jacqueline Taber who, at the 1983 death penalty hearing for condemned murderer David Mason, opined that Mason "had the benefit of loving parents and a typical childhood." Court documents revealed that one of the disciplinary measures used by the senior Mason on young David was to tie him to a table top, gag him with a cloth, and whip him until he was unconscious. In Judge Taber's mind, the elusive line between spanking and abuse hadn't been crossed.

And there is the case involving a father who punished his son by hanging him by the ankles from the rafters in the garage. When the police, alerted by a neighbor's call, arrived on the scene, the astonished father told them he really only intended to leave the boy hanging there a few more minutes. This dad actually thought of himself as tending toward permissiveness, and certainly not as an abuser.

My point is, 'spanking' is a euphemism for battery of a child, and battery of anyone by anyone is an act of violence, and there is no safe threshold for violence. I am certain if Mr. Q. encountered a family in which all the children were unwashed, underfed and chronically ill and saw the mother feeding her infant spoiled milk from a filthy container, he'd speak out. He wouldn't hesitate. He'd give that mom an earful about basic hygiene and nutrition. He wouldn't be worried about infringing another's rights. But when it comes to parents hitting their children, the cat's got his tongue. What's his problem?

How quickly you saw through that post!!
Deb K.
Please remove my name from your email list. Please do not send any further emails.
Stephen H., M.D.
Jordan, your recent communiqué, Sin of Omission, was excellent: well-written and strong. Is the EPOCH group on your mailing list? If not, they should receive this. Thanks for your continued fine work.
My best, Alan B., Ph.D.
Why is it so hard to figure out there are ways to approach people who are abusing their kids? We are so afraid of offending people, that we avoid the conflicts the usually don't happen if we come from a place in the heart. Your work is so important. I have learned a great deal from your letters and web page. And have enjoyed sharing it in my parenting classes...all of whom are abusing parents or being "watched" by family court through a divorce. We have some very interesting conversations, but most of them go away realizing that there are a number of ways to work with their kids besides punishment (hate that word)... Keep up the good work.
Connie L.
I never asked to be on a mailing list...but I accepted these messages for a while because there was some interesting content. However, with your reply to D.Q. I must insist that you remove me from your mailing list. I quite agree with D.Q. I do believe that the vast majority of parents who spank should not be given the label "abuser" by self-righteous anti-spanking fanatics. Frankly, I do not see why, if our cause is legitimate, we would need to resort to demonization. It all rather reminds me of the rhetoric of the so-called pro-life movement. I remain opposed to spanking, but cannot stomach the hateful attitude towards decent, honest parents who continue to spank. It all smacks of an authoritarian witch-hunt. Take me off your mailing list. And feel free to post another note to all your readers about what a terrible person I am for not hating and vilifying parents who spank. Geez!
Thank your for your thorough and insight-filled post. We need more people in education to get involved with child abuse prevention, intervention, prosecution and holding the system accountable.
Portia D.
I always find it amusing that those who support an unpopular opinion always have to resort to the extreme, and sadistic, to make their point. The examples given by Mr. Riak are no exception. Dr. Spock used to say when it came to disciplining children just use common sense. That seems to be lacking more, and more, in our society. Whether it is the fault of society as a whole, or the schools, or the parents, or a combination of all three, may be somewhat debatable. The anti-spankers while coming up with examples of pure abuse in the extreme to show that "spanking" is evil, fail to bring up the cases of co-dependency, or hypochondria, that can be the result of over zealous "attachment" parenting. They refuse to recognize the lack of morality that can be the result of allowing a child to make up his/her own mind in "negotiation" parenting techniques. It is a wonder the human race ever survived as long as it has, and that America has become as strong as it once was, with all of those spanking parents raising children. Would it not be nice if we could just instill some good ol fashioned common sense in parents rather then trying to condemn the ones who are doing what they believe is right for their children? Do some parents use spanking as an excuse to abuse their children? Of course they do. Do some parents use alternative reasoning as an excuse to never discipline their children? Of course they do. What we need is just plain common sense.
Kenneth S.
In the member boards on a website called "ParenthoodWeb," there's a discussion about the child murdered in the casino, and the friend who did nothing while the other committed the crime -- certainly a sin of omission. Would you mind if I copied this e-mail that you sent and posted it to that forum with a link to your site?
Debbie M.
I enjoy your posts. Do you have any contacts in Ohio? Would you be willing to come to Ohio for a meeting to address accountability and immunity issues? These judges who say it is ok to injure children have got to be held accountable!
Please remove me from your mailing list.
I love it, especially the last bit about how parents can't identify spanking as abuse. Have you seen James Kimmel's piece on the Natural Child Project on punishment?
A quick response to your last memo. AMEN! Hitting is hitting, spanking is spanking and they are both abusive - any time another person (usually an adult) takes advantage and control of another's body (adult or child) that is abuse. How can anyone argue that point?? There is sometimes "hope at the end of the tunnel". A few months ago, I was giving a series of parent workshops on helping children and parents to cope in violent times. The parents were mostly Hispanic. After talking about using words and giving children choices, an immigrant father came up to me with his wife and said "Gracias, gracias" He said that he had only learned one way to punish a child and that was to spank. He learned this from his parents because that was their method of discipline - he thought that was the way to make children learn and respect others. I believe that he and other parents, when presented with the argument against spanking, will make a difference. P.S. I distributed your booklet which was much appreciated! Cheers and keep up your good work.
Sue H.
Thanks for sharing this fantastic response! Will it be on your site?
Jan H.
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