Saturday, January 20, 2007

Out of Control (and Clueless) Nanny State

A childless legislator here in California (where else?) has proposed a legislative ban on spanking. Sally Lieber, Democrat (naturally) from Mountain View, which is in Northern California (why am I not surprised?) believes this is a proper function of state government.

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 San Jose Mercury News reports that child rearing experts generally do not agree with a ban on spanking. The "two-swat spank" has been extensively studied. Two swats on a covered bottom do not constitute child abuse, and in fact, can be an important adjunct to reasoning in disciplining a child. The Murky News (as the locals call it. Actually, it isn't a bad paper, as MSM outlets go) interviews one of the leading scholars of corporal punishment, Dr. Robert Larzelere.

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.''

I happen to have an article by Dr. Larzelere and some co-authors in my filing cabinet. It is relatively old, 1998, but still interesting, because it is a comparison of a variety of discplinary strategies: reasoning, and two types of punishment, non-corporal punishment, such as time-out, and non-abusive corporal punishment. Here is his summary:

Parents should use the least aversive disciplinary tactic that is likely to be effective in gaining compliance (i.e. reasoning). When that tactic does not receive appropriate compliance, then parents should back up the initial tactic with a slightly more aversive tactic (e.g. non-corporal punishment such as time-out). Only for continued defiant noncompliance should a parent resort to nonabusive corporal punishment to back up the noncorporal punishment.... (Citing another author) Roberts has shown that a back-up such as a two-swat spank is necessary to make time-out effective with the most non-compliant preschoolers.

(Journal of Marriage and Family, 60, No. 2 (May 1998) 388-403. Note to self: this study looked at children 25 to 38 months of age.)

In other words, if you are dealing with a sweet, even-tempered child who wants to please, you can reason with them and they will comply. But there are some little stinkers who need something a little firmer. When Dr. Larzelere wrote the above article, his affiliation was listed as "Boys Town." Presumably, he observed some troubled kids during his time there.
I too, have observed some troubled kids. There are indeed kids who will not comply with adult instructions, no matter how nicely you talk to them. (Parents who talk too much have been studied too. The experts call them "natterers.") The presumption that spanking is always and everywhere a form of child abuse or violence assumes that whatever harm the child endures in the spanking is more serious than the harm he endures by being allowed to continue in his defiance. This is the core assumption that has to be challenged.
In point of fact, preschool aged children need to comply with adult instructions. They do not need to learn to negotiate, or to find ways to evade authority. Children need limits and structure. The most disturbed kids need limits most of all. You can't heal the kids without setting limits.
As foster parents, we were prohibited absolutely from any corporal punishment. We coped. But there are plenty of kids who would have been much better off with the ocasional "two-swat spank" than they were with the systematic learning that they could defy adult authority with impunity.
Assemblywoman Lieber seems to think that the current standards of child abuse impose insufficient limits on parental behavior. The truth of the matter is that social workers are already, in effect, placing limits on parental behavior. I feel sure that people are inhibited about swatting their kids by the thought that they could be reported by a stranger or a vindictive neighbor.
So here is the essence of Sally Lieber's proposal. Otherwise competent parents will be presumed abusive if they swat their children. The parents will be put in prison for a year and the kids will be put in foster care. The parents of tempermentally difficult children will be the most likely to run afoul of this system. Those difficult kids will be given to foster parents, who will have more constraints on their disciplinary tactics, and more supervision by the state, but who have less direct interest in the well-being of the child. These difficult kids will be less likely, not more likely, to have appropriate boundary setting and limit setting in the absence of a) their parents' ability to swat them once in a while and b) the presence of the parents at all.
This benefits kids, how? This is a cost-effective use of state resources, how? This sends what kind of message to the parents of California?


Lisa said...

I am a former foster child and current youth advocate:

Democratic assemblywoman Sally Lieber is picking the wrong battle. Rather than adding to the foster care system through "spanking regulations," she should focus her efforts on trying to fix it.

She could start by addressing some of the challenges faced by foster youth aging out of care:

4,000 California foster youth age out of the system each year.With no adult help, their rate of success is minimal: 65% homeless, 51% jobless and only 3% attend college.

These children have often been bounced in and out of many abusive placements until their pysche has been basically destroyed.

In foster homes or group home placements, they are often denied ordinary rites of passage, like attending Homecoming, due to regulations.

And then, they go from a climate of restriction to complete and total freedom, with no adult guidance to help them, and no safety net to catch them when they fall.


Anonymous said...

excellent point lisa