First published in The Express, Berkeley, California, April 16, 1999
Decades ago Berkeley was nationally and internationally recognized as a city on the cutting edge of social change. Lately, though, Berkeley’s neighbor Oakland has stepped into the limelight as a cauldron of social controversy. Two years ago it was “Ebonics;” more recently it was Oakland electing Jerry Brown—himself a social controversy—as its new mayor. A couple of months ago the issue placing Oakland in the national spotlight was the Oakland school board’s refusal to cancel a teach-in on capital punishment centering on the pending execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal, even when the unfortunate timing meant it would coincided with the high profile funeral for a murdered policeman. And most recently the not-so-flattering attention of the national press has beendrawn to Oakland again, by another issue that has divided the city into warring camps—spanking.
Yes, spanking. This ordinary and seemingly reasonable parental practice was called into question earlier this year when Nate Miley, chairman of the city’s Public Safety Committee, floated a proposal to declare Oakland a “no-spanking zone.” Though that proposal was defeated after acrimonious debate, Miley decided to push ahead anyway, presenting the resolution to the full Oakland City Council. There it failed by a single vote. Even before the resolution was defeated in committee, national journalists and television crews descended upon Oakland. ABC devoted a segment of its evening news to the spanking controversy. Cnn ran a report, as did other national media outlets. Closer to home, local commentators found it difficult to take the matter seriously. “First we had Ebonics--now we have Spankonics," sneered the Chronicle’s Matier and Ross. Editors around the bay could not resist the sophomoric punning headlines: "No-Spanking Proposal Takes a Licking in Oakland," "Oakland Could Be Butt of More Jokes," “A striking proposal is beaten back by an Oakland City Committee.” Rumors flew—it was said that Oakland was considering “outlawing” spanking and creating a “spanking police” that would snoop into people’s homes and make spanking arrests. Horrified at all the publicity, Major Brown quickly distanced himself from the whole affair with a frosty pronouncement: “Child-rearing practices are the prerogative of the family. Other than to vigorously enforce the laws against child abuse, government has no business passing resolutions favoring some discipline practices over others.”
“Be it resolved that the City Council of Oakland declares that corporal punishment of children is not a recommended practice and the City encourages all of its residents to refrain from hitting their children.”
“He felt it would make the Council the laughing stock of the country once more,” explained Oakland City Councilman Dick Spees.
Why did the Public Safety Committee take up this issue against the expressed wishes of Mayor Brown and other members of the council? More often than not, the finger is pointed at Jordan Riak, who drafted the resolution. Because he lives in the town of Alamo in Contra Costa, not Oakland, the media branded him an “outside agitor.” Others –in the spirit of “Yankee go Home” –wondered why he didn’t take his resolution to his own city and leave Oakland alone. But Riak says he doesn’t deserve this label. He is a social welfare activist who for three decades has opposed physical punishment as a means of disciplining children in schools and families. He wrote the law against corporal punishment in California schools that was passed in 1987.
Riak is sturdy, white-bearded, friendly-looking man who on the day we visit his home is dressed in a casual, short-sleeved shirt. He has the kindly look of someone you would trust if he offered to help you repair your flat tire on the freeway. When asked about the carpetbagger label, Riak responds, “I was invited by Oakland residents to draft the anti-spanking resolution. Last fall I appeared on the local Oakland TV channel Soul Beat because of my authorship of the law banning corporal punishment in the schools. I was on every Thursday for six weeks in a row as the cohost. All we did was talk about the spanking issue. There was a lot of interest.” An Oakland resident named Thordie Ashley invited me to give a talk at her church. Soon thereafter Nate Miley got involved in the issue, reading up on the topic until he became a staunch anti-spanking advocate. Miley invited Riak to write a resolution.”
Riak is white, which raised suspicions (despite the fact that his local allies were African-American) that he and supportes were attempting to impose white middle-class values upon African-American communities by trying to legislate against spanking, a form of punishment perceived to be more common within communities of color than among whites.
The commonly held belief is that African-American families rely more heavily on physical methods of disciplining children, perhaps because of the legacy of slavery. “Because even seemingly small incidents could mean the difference between life and death, African-American parents didn't have the luxury of explaining the whats and whys of their rules. Children who didn't obey were usually physically punished, no questions asked,” reads an article posted on a black parenting Website. But William Grier and Price Cobbs suggest in their famous book Black Rage that the harsh treatment of children represents a kind of psychological continuation of past oppression: “Beating in child-rearing actually has its psychological roots in slavery and even yet black parents will feel that, just as they have suffered beatings as children, so it is right that their children be so treated,” they wrote.
"Beating in child-rearing actually has its psychological roots in slavery and even yet black parents will feel that, just as they have suffered beatings as children, so it is right that their children be so treated."-- William Grier M.D. and Price Cobbs M.D., Black Rage (1968)
Yet is spanking really more common among African-Americans? According to Riak, no: “Actually, the latest research that I saw on this subject is that poor white Protestant Southerners are the worst on spanking,” he says. Certainly spanking isn’t universally accepted within the African-American community. “The viewing audience of the [Soul Beat] show on which I appeared was 90 percent African-American. Believe me, we got loads of calls on the spanking issue, mostly from black callers, many of them supporting no-spanking.”
Joe deVries, an aide to Nate Miley, also brushes aside this notion that the anti-spanking resolution was aimed at black Oakland. “You know, people of every background have told me that spanking is part of their culture, and that we shouldn’t go against it,” DeVries says. “The first week the issue was discussed, I heard this from someone from an African American background, someone from a Chinese American background, another from a Mexican American background, and someone from an Irish background.” De Vries is right about the prevalence of spanking among all ethnic and racial groups in America. According to Irwin Hyman, research psychologist at Temple University and author of many studies and three books on the issue of corporal punishment of children, as many as 90% of Americans spank toddler children, and 75% use spanking at least as a “last resort” for older children. Penelope Leach, author of a widely used baby book, adds that her research shows that of those parents who do spank, two thirds spank frequently--once a week on the average.
If nearly everyone spanks, what’s wrong with it? Plenty, according to Nate Miley and Thordie Ashley. They regard spanking, defined broadly as any kind of physical punishment used on children, as a major contributor to the teenage and adult violence that plagues Oakland and every other American metropolis. To make their case, they can point to study after study that seems to confirm this link. To cite but one example, a recent article in the American Medical Association’s Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine concluded, “spanking children to correct or control their behavior may seem to work in the short term, but has the opposite effect in the long term.”
“If Oakland is about trying to reduce crime and violence,” Miley told us, “although corporal punishment is not the only cause, it is a factor that needs to be investigated and dealt with as part of an overall, comprehensive crime prevention effort. That is one of the main reasons why I pushed this resolution. “
Diminished academic performance may be another reason to oppose spanking. “It seems that kids who are not spanked end up smarter,” Joe DeVries says. “They have greater cognitive ability. According to a University of New Hampshire study, children who were never spanked scored higher on cognitive tests than did children who were often spanked or even infrequently spanked. That’s because parents who reason with their children at an earlier age and to a greater extent instead of using physical force to change their behavior teach their children to use logic and reason earlier. Yet this kind of reasoning was lost once word got out that the Public Safety Committee was going to hold a hearing on a “no-spanking” resolution. “People were saying, ‘What is this stupid thing? What are you guys, crazy?’ Some people reacted harshly negatively, some positively, but everyone reacted strongly. Councilmember Larry Reid said ‘ I spank my kids. My kids thank me for spanking them.’ And Councilmember Ignacio de la Fuente said, ‘I was spanked by every relative older than me; my grandma always had the belt in her hand--and thank God for it.’ People argued that it was a waste of time, or said that it’s not government business, or that we already have child abuse laws, or that the whole idea was silly.“
Why the outcry? One reasons is that everyone has their own idea as to what “spanking” means. The term is slippery. It can describe a smack on a child’s bottom but also a beating with a leather strap. The most common image of a spanking is the child over a parent’s knee, its buttocks being repeatedly smacked with the hand to teach it a lesson. (Ironically, often the lesson to be imparted in this way is to teach a child not to hit others). There are some who feel that a proper spanking has to be administered to a child’s bare buttocks, a practice that inevitably introduces a sexual dimension to the issue. Many of those who defend spanking as harmless would call the more extreme versions a “beating” and label it “child abuse.” Yet the line between spanking and child abuse has changed since our grandparents’ day, when a leather “strop” often hung in the kitchen as a tool to keep the children in line.
As Jordan Riak sees it, the distinction between a “mild” spanking and a beating is tenuous, at best. In his view, words like “spank,” “swat, “bop”, “pop,” or “paddle,” are euphemisms to disguise an act of hitting intended to cause pain that would be considered battery if it occurred between non-consenting adults “The reason there are so many euphemisms is that we are constantly running away from the real experience,” he says, “and we do this by finding cute words. For example, ‘paddling’ -- that’s what you do in a canoe; it has the aura of a pleasant, gentle behavior. But ‘paddling’ in this context means hitting a human being on the pelvic area with a wooden board. To Riak, abolishing spanking is no more than an extension of human rights to children.
Indeed, the vast majority of mental health professionals take the position that spanking is an abusive—not to mention counterproductive-- practice. No less than forty professional organizations—including the National Council of Teachers of English, the National PTA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child--have issued position papers opposing spanking as abusive. The UN Committee’s paper recommends "that corporal punishment be prohibited by law in the family, care and other institutions." The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry sent a letter to Nate Miley supporting the resolution before Oakland: “The costs of spanking have been known to health care professionals for a long time, but unfortunately that knowledge has never been adequately implemented on the public level. If your no-spanking resolution is adopted, not only will your city enjoy the benefits, but other cities may follow your example.”
Parents, however, generally do not agree with the experts. Spanking is a culturally entrenched child-rearing practice in America today, approved across boundaries of social class, race, and gender But Riak sees a parallel between current attitudes about spanking and former attitudes about spousal abuse. “Wife beaters formerly used exactly the same excuses as spankers use now,” he says. “It goes like this, ‘I love my wife, I’m a loving husband, I’m a law abiding citizen, I only give her a little smack when she is out of line and really needs it. Ask her and she will tell you that she appreciates me. Which may be true. Yet today, such hitting is not permitted. You can’t hit your wife.” Riak believes that spanking, like wife beating, should be illegal, and for the same reason: he sees it as an assault against a weaker, less powerful person.
Riak’s views may seem extreme, but in many European countries, any kind of corporal punishment of children is regarded as a form of domestic violence and has been made illegal. Twenty years ago, Sweden passed a law prohibiting the spanking or corporal punishment of children. Since then spanking has been outlawed in Norway, Denmark, England, Croatia (!) , Austria, and Italy also. Belgium and Germany are about to join with laws of their own. South Africa is considering the issue, as is Canada in our own hemisphere
The no-spanking resolution before the Oakland City Council was considerably milder than any law in Europe “Be it resolved,” the proposed resolution reads, “that the City Council of Oakland declares that corporal punishment of children is not a recommended practice and the City encourages all of its residents to refrain from hitting their children.” The resolution carried no legal force’ indeed, there was no mention of a “law” against “spanking,” nothing about curtailing parents’ legal rights to spank their children. The intent of the resolution, Miley says, was strictly educational: “We were not trying to legislate, to say that if you spank your child within the city limits of Oakland, you’re going to be fined, punished, locked up. We weren’t trying to tell children, ‘Turn your parents in if they spank you.’ Our aim is dialogue and education. What people overlook is that the resolution provides for parenting classes, and says that Oakland’s agencies and health care providers will encourage caretakers of children to think about and develop disciplinary alternatives to hitting them.” The idea of a stop-sign poster declaring Oakland a“no-spanking zone” was Riak’s, a gesture meant as a striking way of getting the message across. The resolution nonetheless raised the specter of government interference in people’s private lives. Dick Spees agrees with the anti-spanking idea, but he voted against the resolution because city government “doesn’t have jurisdiction over parental behavior.” Similarly, John Russo voted against the resolution though he agrees with its intent. “Even in a city as progressive and liberal as Oakland, there is still a very strong divide as to what people want and don’t want to hear from the government. There is a sense that government -- in terms of issues like smoking, drinking, all that ‘bad stuff’ -- has become something of a nattering nanny, and is telling people how to live their lives,” Russo said.
"There is a sense that government -- in terms of issues like smoking, drinking, all that 'bad stuff' -- has become something of a nattering nanny, and is telling people how to live their lives." --John Russo, Oakland City Councilman
Riak acknowledges that the privacy issues is a real one—but he points out that our right to privacy is not absolute: “There are a whole lot of things that you cannot do in the privacy of your own home today,” he says. “Incest is illegal, polygamy is illegal, wife beating is now illegal. Today you cannot smack your servant or cleaning lady if she breaks a dish. When my grandmother was a girl, you could. And when my grandfather was a young groom, he thought everybody who lived under his roof was subject to being smacked by him - his sons, his wife, his employees or servants.”
But those who opposed the no-spanking resolution when it came before the City Council were hardly persuaded by such logic. A shower of criticism rained down on Mildey both inside and outside his council district. He acknowledges that he is going against “strong cultural traditions in the community which say that if you spare the rod, then you spoil the child.” Yet he continues to believe that the city needs to take a public stand against the corporal punishment of children if it intends to lower the level of violence on its streets. “I’m not hard and fast in saying that people shouldn’t spank at all,” Miley says. “What I’m trying to suggest to parents is that there are alternatives, and that if you do spank, think about the consequences. I’m trying to get people to be consciously aware of the decisions they’re making about spanking.” Sure, spanking a child doesn’t necessarily have bad consequences, concedes John DeVries—but it might. Hhe points out that other practices once held harmless are now known to be harmful. “A lot of mothers smoked and drank during pregnancy,” he points out. “But we’ve learned that doing that is a bad idea. Which doesn’t mean that every kid born under these conditions will not turn out OK. It just means that the odds of not turning out OK are that much higher.”
Aster Tadesse, a counseling psychologist who left her native Ethiopia to live in Oakland 14 years ago is another vocal supporter of Oakland’s no-spanking resolution. Tadesse, who has directed a methadone clinic, currently teaches classes for foster parents and for Santa Rita prison parolees. She agrees with DeVries that spanked children are apt to do less well in school, and are more likely to get involved in criminal activity. “On a task or test, a child operating out of fear of punishment can tolerate less stress, and will not perform as well,” she told us. ”In the prisons I work with parolees—and they are and have been in their lives the most scared people. Afraid of abuse, afraid of abandonment, and of the tactics that have been used on them – mostly punishment, punishment, punishment. As children, they were not reasoned with. I have never met a prisoner who has not been physically punished a lot.”
"I treat foster families – it is against the law for foster parents to spank. Why do we condone corporal punishment on the part of biological parents, but not when done by foster parents?" --Aster Tadesse
”I also counsel foster families, and it is against the law for foster parents to spank. Where does that come from? Why do we condone corporal punishment on the part of biological parents, but not when done by foster parents?” she asksWhy, then, do people continue to defend its use by parents so vehemently? Tadesse says that in her experience, those who advocate spanking were invariably subjected to it when they were children: “I hate to say this, but a remark such as ‘I was spanked, but I turned out fine’ indicates to me that there is a lot of denial,” she says. People who were corporally punished as children -- they are unprepared to deal with this issue as adults. They don’t want to upset the precarious peace they’ve made with their parents. That would be too unsettling. So they defend the harmful punishments they themselves were subjected to, and go on to use them on their own children.”
For Tadesse, a parent’s propensity to spank often says more about themselves than about their child. “Feeling powerless in some other areas of their lives—at work, for example, or in their relationship with one another—parents take control where they are able t o, and with their kids they are able to assert their authority,” she says. “They feel,” ‘This kid is challenging me, and I won’t put up with it.’ Often, when spanking happens it is really the parent, more so than the child, who is out of control.”
To be sure, poverty and a education and employment opportunities are profoundly implicated in urban violence and crime. Riak, Thordie Ashley, Miley, and other supporters of the no-spanking resolution recognize that the corporal punishment of children is not the sole cause of Oakland’s crime problem. Yet it’s a contributing factor, and for that reason they feel that it is a practice that families should discontinue. And they believe that it is entirely appropriate for a government body such as a city council to take a leadership position on this issue by “recommending” against it.
Activists in other American cities appear to share this point of view. Leaders from cities such as Houston, Los Angeles, and Anchorage, Alaska, have requested that Riak send them copies of Oakland’s anti-spanking resolution so that they can consider submitting a similar resolution in their own city. “In twenty years,” predicts Riak, “there will be a law against spanking in every state of the Union. People will look back and will wonder at all this fuss. For them it will be as obvious that children shouldn’t be spanked as it is to us that blacks and whites have equal rights to sit at lunch counters.”
Also see GERMAN PARLIAMENT BANS USE OF CORPORAL PUNISHMENT IN CHILD REARING by Margret Schaefer.