Jim Ott's Blog

This blog is a collection of columns I've written for Bay Area News Group newspapers serving the East San Francisco Bay region.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Spare the rod and spoil the child?

When Danville resident Frank Hanna was growing up in a small Texas town, his mother used to swat him with a limb from a backyard peach tree for misbehaving.

“My mom kept a peach switch on top of the refrigerator,” said Hanna, 46, who speaks with a Texas accent. “One night after everyone fell asleep, I climbed up and broke that switch into about 500 pieces.”

Hanna was abruptly awakened the next morning by the whacking of a new peach switch his mother simply pulled from the tree.

“As she administered the punishment, she suggested I never again break her switch into pieces,” he said, smiling.

Hanna’s experiences echo the memories of many who grew up with some form of corporal punishment, whether by teachers or parents.

Wayne Yeaw of Pleasanton recalls that in the 1950s his father used a long stick, carved with little faces like a totem pole, to punish him and his siblings when they stepped out of line.

“My dad would line us up,” he said, “and if whoever was responsible for whatever happened didn’t confess, he would swat all of us.”

Whacking youngsters and even adults to encourage better behavior dates back many centuries. In the Middle Ages, corporal punishment was common in Europe and authorized by religious leaders who viewed the practice as a healthy way to discipline the wayward human body. This philosophy found its way into medieval schools, and was introduced into America with the first settlers, spawning in this country more than three centuries of discipline by such methods.

California banned corporal punishment in public schools in 1986, though only after it was made illegal in child care centers, youth authorities, and state prisons. This meant for a period of time in California a prison guard couldn’t swat a convicted felon, but a teacher could paddle a youngster. In fact, only by a narrow margin were legislators persuaded that children are unable to learn effectively when threatened by physical punishment.

Approximately half of the population in the United States believes that modest corporal punishment is an acceptable method of disciplining a child, including 22 states that allow their schools to administer some form of such punishment.

In fact, just over a decade ago in response to growing behavior problems in California schools, conservative Republican legislators in Sacramento—led by a feisty 68-year-old retired Marine from Orange County named Mickey Conroy—sponsored two bills, one to reintroduce the option of corporal punishment into the classroom with certain limitations, and a second that would allow a judge to order a parent or bailiff to paddle a juvenile graffiti vandal up to ten times with a wooden paddle.

Both bills met with strong Democratic opposition, especially the corporal punishment bill. Opponents pointed to studies showing that paddling and other forms of humiliating physical punishment create resentment and teach children that violence is acceptable. The bills were defeated.

Still, Hanna observed that his fellow high school students did benefit from the occasional whipping by his Texas football coaches, and he does credit his loving mother’s peach switch with amending his own occasional errant behavior.

In the end, though, corporal punishment only goes so far.

“When I was about 12,” Hanna said, “my mother used one of my dad’s belts to give me a whipping. Regardless of how hard she swung that belt it just didn’t hurt much.”

Hanna remembers looking at his mother when suddenly they both burst into laughter.

“We nearly died laughing as we realized whipping me was no longer going to be effective.”

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