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No-spank bill on way

Mike Zapler, MediaNews Sacramento Bureau, Jan. 18, 2007

SACRAMENTO - The state Legislature is about to weigh in on a question that stirs impassioned debate among moms and dads: Should parents spank their children?

Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, D-Mountain View, wants to outlaw spanking children up to 3 years old. If she succeeds, California would become the first state in the nation to explicitly ban parents from smacking their kids.

Making a swat on the behind a misdemeanor might seem a bit much for some -- and the chances of the idea becoming law appear slim, at best -- but Lieber begs to differ.

"I think it's pretty hard to argue you need to beat a child 3 years old or younger,'' Lieber said. "Is it OK to whip a 1-year-old or a 6-month-old or a newborn?''

The bill, which is still being drafted, will be written broadly, she added, prohibiting "any striking of a child, any corporal punishment, smacking, hitting, punching, any of that.'' Lieber said it would be a misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail or a fine up to $1,000, although a legal expert advising her on the proposal said first-time offenders would probably only have to attend parenting classes.

The idea is encountering skepticism even before it's been formally introduced. Beyond the debate among child psychologists -- many of whom believe limited spanking can be effective -- the bill is sure to face questions over how practical it is to enforce and opposition from some legislators who generally oppose what they consider
"nanny government.''

"Where do you stop?'' asked Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, who said he personally agrees children under 3 shouldn't be spanked but has no desire to make it the law. 

"At what point are we going to say we should pass a bill that every parent has to read a minimum of 30 minutes every night to their child? This is right along those same lines.'' 

One San Jose mother of three said she believes spanking is a poor way to discipline children, but she also wondered whether a legislative ban makes sense. Should a mom who slaps her misbehaving kid in the supermarket, she asked, be liable for a crime? 

"If my 6-year-old doesn't put his clothes in the hamper, I'm not going to whack him. He just won't get his clothes washed,'' said Peggy Hertzberg, 38, who teaches parenting classes at the YWCA. "I think instead of banning spanking, parents need to learn different ways of disciplining and redirecting their children.''

Lieber conceived the idea while chatting with a family friend and legal expert in children's issues worldwide. The friend, Thomas Nazario, said that while banning spanking might seem like a radical step for the United States, more than 10 European countries already do so. Sweden was the first, in 1979.

Nazario said there's no good rationale for hitting a child under 3, so the state should draw a "bright line'' in the law making it clear. 

"Why do we allow parents to hit a little child and not someone their own size?'' asked Nazario, a professor at the University of San Francisco Law School. "Everyone in the state is protected from physical violence, so where do you draw the line? To take a child and spank his little butt until he starts crying, some people would define that as physical violence.'' 

It's unclear how a spanking ban would be enforced. Most slapping, after all, happens in the confines of a home, and most children up to age 3 aren't capable of reporting it.

Doctors, social workers and others who believe a child has been abused are required by law to report it to authorities. Nazario said he and Lieber are still debating whether to treat slapping the same way, or simply to encourage those who witness it to report it. But in either case, said Lieber, the law 

"would allow people who view a beating to say, `Excuse me, that's against the law.' ''

Experts in child psychology disagree over whether spanking is a legitimate or effective way for parents to discipline their children. Professor Robert Larzelere, who has studied child discipline for 30 years, said his research shows spanking is fine, as long as it's used sparingly and doesn't escalate to abuse.

"If it's used in a limited way,'' the Oklahoma State University professor said, "it can be more effective than almost any other type of punishment.'' 

He added that children 18 months old or younger shouldn't be spanked at all, because they can't understand why it's happening.

As for Lieber's proposal, the professor said: 

"I think this proposal is not just a step too far, it's a leap too far. At least from a scientific perspective there really isn't any research to support the idea that this would make things better for children.'' 

But Lieber is optimistic that lawmakers will find her proposal hard to resist. For the record, she does not have children and says she was not slapped as a child. But she does have a cat named Snoop, which her veterinarian told her never to hit. 

"And if you never hit a cat,'' Lieber said, "you should never hit a kid.''

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