Standing in line at the library yesterday, I watched a young parent whap a child's backside. When the child cried, she was ordered to stop, and when the crying didn't stop, the parent hit her again.
Usually, in these situations, I'd watch now and feel guilty later. But this time, I spoke out. Politely, I said: "Hitting doesn't work. There are better ways to teach children how to behave."
The child stopped crying and looked at me with wide-open eyes. The glaring mother shouted at me to mind my own (expletive!) business, then picked up her child and hurried off.
Fifty years ago, it was almost universally accepted that parents had the right to hit their children. My grandfather unshakably believed that hitting his son was necessary for the child's intellectual and moral growth. My father often wondered whether he should have hit me but never did. And I will never hit my child.
Today, the old gospel of using force to control children is rapidly losing disciples. Although the diehards and hit-hards remain unconvinced, how we perceive our children and their welfare has moved overwhelmingly toward a more humane and nonviolent perspective.
But if our consciousness is changing, our laws are lagging far behind. Right now, in America, there are no laws to prevent 26 percent of our population -- the 70 million persons under age 18 -- from being corporally punished (smacked, spanked or hit) by their parents.
In this respect, other nations are far more advanced. Twenty years ago, Sweden became the first to pass a law forbidding the corporal punishment of children. What happened next? Parents found gentler and wiser ways to work with their children. Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Latvia, Norway and the United Kingdom soon followed Sweden's example.
Ironically, our schools are better protected than our homes. Corporal punishment is banned in the schools of 27 states. That may reflect the work of a number of child-protection organizations devoted to the elimination of physical violence against children.
Two of the most active of these are the Philadelphia-based National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives, directed by Irwin Hyman, and Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education, directed by Jordan Riak.
Riak will certainly make national headlines on Jan. 26, when he plans to propose to the Oakland, Calif., City Council that the city become the nation's first "no-spanking zone." The proposal would not outlaw spanking but simply spark Oakland to fund a massive education campaign aimed at eliminating spanking in public places.
As you might expect, many parents are fighting to retain their freedom to hit, and their right to harm their child in whatever way they see fit. But their arguments are weakening in the face of testimony from physicians, psychiatrists and academic researchers.
Evidence indicates that hitting children is more than ethically wrong, that it hurts them for years afterward and in many complex ways. Physical punishment harms the child physically and emotionally. Hitting children increases their hostility and teaches violence. And because hitting creates a frustrated and unhappy child, hitting increases, not decreases, the child's antisocial behavior.
Murray Straus, in his book Beating the Devil out of Them, writes that if we cease corporal punishment, children will reap many benefits. They will be less likely to engage in alcohol abuse, adult violence or masochistic sex. They have a lower rate of depression, a greater probability of completing higher education, and a better chance of earning a higher income.
One day in this young nation, children will be seen not as possessions to be manipulated by their parents' whims but as one-of-a-kind individuals who deserve the utmost respect. Until then, those who care about children must work to make our laws protect each child's body and natural rights.