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Rod rules

Parenting | Anti-spanking crusades have triggered bans around the globe and are taking aim at the U.S.-but some defenders of spanking say that many parents do it unbiblically

Issue: "Exit strategies," Aug. 5, 2006

When Susan Lawrence sent away for a complimentary copy of Home School Digest three years ago, she never expected a life-altering shove toward activism. But an advertisement in the magazine for flexible nylon spanking rods propelled the Massachusetts mother to launch a full-on campaign against corporal punishment.

She founded a website called Parenting in Jesus' Footsteps, encouraging parents to discard the methods of traditional Christian discipline in favor of simply modeling correct behavior. She is convinced that sparing the rod "would make society so much healthier, children happier. Children need to know that they are people, and it's a basic human right to not be hit."

Casting the issue in terms of human rights has prompted the former church music director to seek legislative remedies: Lawrence would never spank her children and believes it should be illegal for others to spank theirs. In countries like Norway, Germany, and Israel, it already is. Laws against spanking exist in 15 nations with two others, Belgium and Italy, close to joining those ranks.

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Lawrence is one of many committed activists driven to establish bans on corporal punishment in all 50 states. Her second website, stoptherod.net, sizzles with scathing condemnations of spanking and its effects, mirroring a host of other online campaigns such as stophitting.com, nospank.net, and endallcorporalpunishment.org. In June, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child adopted new standards against corporal punishment, requiring that member nations take immediate legislative action against "any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light." The committee declared that spanking is "invariably degrading" and a "form of violence."

That directive cannot bind the United States, which has refrained from adopting the UN definitions of human rights for children and continues to uphold the parental right to spank in every state. But such mounting international fervor is overflowing into U.S. courtrooms and child protection agencies, effectively tightening the standard for legally acceptable discipline.

In December of last year, the South Dakota Supreme Court upheld a determination from the state's Department of Social Services (DSS) that six spanks with a belt, which left no marks or bruises, constituted child abuse and neglect. The undisputed facts of the case, as outlined in the court's decision, reveal that an unnamed 10-year-old girl had stolen a CD from a local Kmart, lied to her parents about breaking the rules of her subsequent grounding, and thrown a fit when asked to clean off the green marker scribbles on the walls and carpet of her room. According to the decision, her mother's spanking, which immediately halted the fit and produced the desired behavior, amounted to abuse and neglect because the "mother did not attempt any other form of discipline before administering the six strikes with a belt."

Such rulings are not new. In a late 1990s case that made national headlines, a Superior Court judge upheld a DSS charge of child abuse against a Massachusetts minister who used the soft end of a belt to discipline his 9-year-old son. The boy testified that the spankings left his skin a pink color "that would last about 10 minutes and then fade." No marks or bruises were ever reported in connection with the discipline, which occurred roughly once or twice a month and was always accompanied by Scripture reading, hugs, and assurances of love.

Nonetheless, the judge agreed that the potential for escalation justified DSS action. Two years later, the Massachusetts Supreme Court unanimously overruled that decision, small vindication for the significant legal and emotional costs. Such prominent court cases, and the accompanying damage to parental authority for the parties involved, leave many parents wary of spanking their children-or at least of admitting it. But recent studies indicate more than half of parents nationwide still use spanking as a form of regular corrective discipline, as many as 90 percent reporting they have done so at least once. An ABC News poll from late 2004 found that 65 percent of Americans approve of spanking-a number reflecting little to no difference in attitudes from 15 years before.

How do Americans spank? Pastor Tedd Tripp, author of the popular Christian parenting manual Shepherding a Child's Heart, told WORLD that the problems commonly associated with spanking result not from the practice itself but the improper application of it. Parents often spank in anger or as a means to vent frustration-a direct violation of biblical principles. "Spanking is an expression of love. It's what God does when He disciplines us," he said, citing Hebrews 12:5. "What I'm advocating is a very careful, measured, gracious, and kind use of the rod that restores the child afterwards. The child is not in the doghouse."

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