Politics & Policy

A Victory for Parents in the Great Spanking War

New York rules that it’s okay for parents to spank their children.

Befuddled parents of New York, do not fear, for the government is here to help.

“The father’s open-handed spanking of the child as a form of discipline after he heard the child curse at an adult was a reasonable use of force and, under the circumstances presented here, did not constitute excessive corporal punishment,” the New York State Appellate Division ruled last week in the case of a Long Island father who had been found guilty last year of “inflicting excessive corporal punishment” on his eight-year-old son by spanking him with an open hand. The father was punishing the child for cursing at another adult at a party.

The father had admitted to spanking his son, but denied the latter part of the accusation, which alleged that the father also hit the boy with a belt. The appeals court conceded that there was not enough evidence that the defendant had used the belt, so that charge was thrown out.

New York joins a long list of states that have upheld parents’ rights to discipline their children with physical punishments. In California last year, a federal appellate court ruled that a mother who hit her child with a wooden spoon should not be charged with child abuse. A Florida federal panel also ruled that one spank does not equate to child abuse. In fact, until 2012, it was legal in all 50 states for parents to hit their children.

But the line between spanking and child abuse is hotly disputed.

In 2011, the spanking debate was reignited in Texas when District Court Judge Jose Longoria sentenced a mother to five years’ probation for spanking her child. The judge then lectured the mother from the bench, “You don’t spank children today. In the old days, maybe we got spanked, but there was a different quarrel. You don’t spank children. You understand?”

Spanking is legal in the state of Texas. The judge’s reaction caused NRO writer Nancy French, to declare, “I spank my kids, come and get me, Judge Longoria.”

In 2012, bright-blue Delaware became the first state to ban parents from hitting their children. The law redefined child abuse as anything that causes “pain” and created three new levels of child abuse. Parents found guilty of the first or second levels of child abuse (inflicting any kind of “pain” to their child) could receive a year in prison. If the child is under three years old, then the parent could serve two years. Despite the language in the bill, one of the bill biggest supporters, Delaware’s attorney general, Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden, claimed the law did not infringe on parents’ rights to spank their children, though exactly how is unclear.

Liberals against spanking like to gesture excitedly towards Sweden, which, in 1979, became the first country to ban all physical punishment of children. However, in 2011, CNN reported on the Swanson family, an American family that moved to Sweden a few years after the ban on physical punishment became law. After the Swedish authorities got wind of the fact that five-year-old Ian Swanson was occasionally spanked for misbehavior, Swedish social services showed up at his home. “I remember being very afraid that I was going to be taken away. It seemed like a very real possibility,” he remembers. 

Ian Swanson, now 31 years old, also told CNN, “[Parents] couldn’t understand how someone had the gall — ‘Who in the world can come in and tell me how I’m supposed to raise my child?’ That’s a very American idea. In Sweden, that would not be asked. It’s everybody’s responsibility.”

It does not seem as if those of the Swedish mindset will win the American spanking debate anytime soon. After all, some of the states mentioned above, that have stood up for parents’ right to spank are traditionally Democratic states, such as New York and California. Roughly 80 percent of American parents admit to hitting their children. But the day may not be far off when giving a child a quick slap on the rear for misbehavior will get a parent labeled a child abuser.

— Christine Sisto is an editorial associate at National Review Online.



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