A Santa Clara County woman who spanked her child with a wooden spoon did not commit child abuse, a state court ruled this week. The San Jose appeals court found that the spanking fell within the scope of “reasonable parental discipline.” What is the line between spanking and child abuse? And is spanking ever effective as a disciplinary tool? We discuss the court’s ruling and the latest research on parental discipline.

Bob Egelko, reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, covering state and federal courts
Dr. Alan Kazdin, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University and author of "The Everyday Parenting Toolkit: The Kazdin Method for Easy, Step-by-Step, Lasting Change for You and Your Child"
Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe, professor of psychology and child development at Calvin College

  • OldVet

    Amusing. It reminds me of two stories. The first was to go all the way to Scotland to find that Bob’s Red Mill got awarded the Golden Spurtle for the best Scottish Oats in the world. (Steel cut oats for chewy oatmeal) I live in Oregon, three miles from Bob’s Red Mill. Here is the second story, and the clincher, What is a Spurtle? I asked my Scots friend upon returning. Well, he said.. its a wooden spoon that was broken paddling some child, so now the only thing it is good for is stirring oatmeal! A good Scot will never throw anything useful away.

    I wonder, if that “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” is a Scottish phrase?

    • Bob Fry

      Maybe a Jewish Scot 🙂

  • Beth Grant DeRoos

    Since someone is bound to note the Bible verse that notes ‘spare the rod spoil the child’, I shall note Ephesians 6:4 ‘Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger’. And that the word discipline comes from disciple which means to teach in a kind and loving manner.

    Now I would get arrested if I used a spoon, my hand or anything else on a stranger, employee, my spouse (consensual sex play does not count), so why should it be permitted on a child?

    • Bob Fry

      Because if we treated children as adults they would all be in jail. Just look how often they get into small fights with each other, take each others things, etc. Children aren’t adults.

      I’m not defending or attacking spanking, but the argument in your last sentence is specious.

    • TrainedHistorian

      I’m heard the argument that “rod” in Proverbs’ “spare the rod” does not necessarily refer to beating, but to a shepherd’s rod used to guide sheep: For example, in Psalm 23: “thy rod and staff comfort me” : God is compared to a shepherd who guides sheep with a rod (keeping them from going the wrong direction). But as I do not know Hebrew,I cannot confirm the plausibility of this interpretation.

  • Skip Conrad

    Is smuggling your kid across an international border, child abuse?

    • James Ivey


    • Save Filipino Family Farms

      Of course not – just ask Anthony Quinn (Antonio Quinones) whose mother brought him up from Mexico into California when he was 7 years old. In those days, you could simply walk across that imaginery line in the ground. The only punishment he rec’d was that Hollywood never allowed him to play in the role of a Mexican (he played, Greeks, Italians, etc.) until late in his acting career.

  • Pete

    As one familiar with parental neglect, abuse and wooden spoons I’m happy to say I discovered Alice Miller & therapy. You may find this link relevant to today’s discussion. http://www.alice-miller.com/flyers_en.php?page=2

  • Bob Fry

    My wife says her mother threatened to spank the kids with a wet hand (“mano mojado” in Spanish). That seemed pretty scary until they got older 😉

  • Amy Ispaperless

    Many parents I know are finding the “slow parenting” movement an effective way to connect with their children and actually get to the root discipline problems of respect compliance before they manifest in bad behavior. Kim John Payne (a highly respected therapist, teacher and parent) has done wonderful research and writing on the topic in his book “Simplicity Parenting”. Don’t we want to model for our children that kindness and respect are the solutions to conflicts, not hitting?

  • James Ivey

    I’ll give one person’s perspective on the role of punishment in parenting. I’ve never used corporal punishment on my daughter, never. In fact, I can’t recall ever using any form of punishment. Family and friends often comment on how well-behaved she is.

    Now, to be fair, she’s not yet a teenager, so maybe behavioral issues are to come. But I can state with confidence that punishment of any kind is not absolutely necessary to raise a well-behaved child.

  • amyj1276

    Much of what we do that is immoral or unethical is not necessarily illegal, and vice versa. Doesn’t meant that just because you can, you should. Until we have mandatory parenting classes for anyone who wants that title, we will always have generational bad parenting.

    I have trouble with much of the terminology used in many discussions about this. First, “spanking” is something done with the hand. That’s archaic and
    barbaric enough, but when you physically assault another human being
    with an object, it is no longer spanking; it is beating, which should be
    illegal under any circumstance, but is not, even if it is immoral and unethical. Second, discipline and punishment, especially physical punishment, are not synonymous. Discipline is composed of 3 unequal parts: positive reinforcement, negative
    reinforcement, and punishment, and there are many ways of using
    punishment without physically assaulting someone. Do children need
    discipline? Absolutely! I am the first person to think that
    kids need strict discipline and boundaries. But physical punishment is
    not discipline, and parents need to decide whether they want respect or
    fear, because you can’t have both. Sadly, there are too many
    small-minded folks who think that “it happened to me and I turned out
    fine” (which is my all-time favorite rationalization). The problem with
    that theory is that if a parent then simply repeats the cycle of poor
    parenting because he or she refuses to take the time, effort, and energy
    necessary to actually learn parenting, he or she is not, in fact,
    “fine.” Let’s hope that eventually we as a country will evolve enough to match other countries’ moral AND legal rejection of physical punishment.

    • bitobonnie .

      Yes, yes and YES!!!!! I am sick of hearing “I was spanked and I turned out fine.”

  • Donna

    I was a very stubborn young child. No amount of talking to me would keep me from running in the street or touching the hot stove. The only thing that got my attention was a swat on the bottom. I was never beaten, and nothing but the hand was ever used. I don’t have children, but if I did, I would not want to eliminate an occasional swat as a tool to discipline a younger child.

  • James Ivey

    I’m curious about the registry mentioned by Mr. Egelko. Did I hear this right? A court determines whether punishment is “reasonable.” If it is, the parent is innocent. If it isn’t, the parent goes on a registry as an abuser. That seems harsh for such a subjective determination.

    • TrainedHistorian

      I am sympathic with your comment. In the wooden spoon case in SC county, I do agree it was abusive, and there should have been some sort of investigation or intervention. But being on a registry is ultimately probably not the best solution to that family’s problem. The mother desperately needs parenting classes so she understands that beating a daughter with a spoon because she’s in a gang is very likely to be counterproductive. The biggest problem with gangs is their glorification of violence; using violence against someone for joining a violence-glorifying group is likely to send very confused messages to the daughter: that violence is a good solution to your problems. And we all pay the price for gang glorication of violence. In cases like this, there should definitely be some sort of middle solution between putting a parent on a registry and doing nothing. I hope this case does not lead parents to feel they can get away with beating their kids with wooden implements.

  • srcarruth

    “…kids are the only people in the world that you’re allowed to hit. Do you realize that? They’re the most vulnerable and the most destroyed by being hit but it’s totally OK to hit them. And they’re the only ones! if you hit a dog they will put you in jail for that s*&t. You can’t hit a person unless you can prove that they were trying to kill you. But a little tiny person with a head this big who trusts you implicitly: ‘F*&K ‘EM, WHO GIVES A S%$T! LET’S ALL HIT THEM!’ People want you to hit your kid” –Louis CK

    • Romulus

      It seems to me that some parents, who are ethnocentric or racists or other types of thugs, encourage their children to hit and bully other kids based on perceived or invented differences. Like the father says “I don’t like XYZ people” and says it’s OK for his son to target those people”.

    • Chris OConnell

      I appreciate the humor but… As if animals have rights! You pretty much have to torture and animal for it to be a crime.

  • Cathy

    I’m against spanking. However, I wouldn’t consider someone occasionally swatting a child abusive. One kind of instance where I can see it useful is when a child is in a potentially dangerous situation. An example is a child that decides to start a tantrum across the street and is too big to pick up. A quick swat may be necessary to get that child in check to finish crossing the street. But that is a judgment a parent needs to make depending on the personality of the child. Some children just might get worse.

  • NIcole

    I don’t think that Dr. Kazdin is taking in account things like race, African Americans face harsh realities and spanking a child early saves them from authorities later. They’ll tell you not to spank them, but when they face the law outside their home their beaten for resistance or worst shot and killed. It’s very different for non-whites.

  • Julia

    Fathers aren’t as empowered any more, I was just plain scared of my Dad and behaved, even without a spanking.

  • belana

    I discussed this with my college age daughter; somewhat
    apologetically because I slapped her once for talking back to me. I can
    remember only spanking her one other time prior to that incident. I felt
    terrible about both times but she said to me, “Mom, I think I deserved that
    slap that time. I was being a real nasty brat to you.
    Although it was nice to be absolved by my own child, I still
    wish I hadn’t done that.

    Overall, I was extremely lucky to have two amazingly easy
    kids to raise.

  • Mara Catherine

    In my experience as a former teacher and now a parent of a four year old, I have seen that hitting teaches hitting. It does not work in conflict-resolution situations. I have seen the following results from hitting incidences: besides hitting back, children will avoid conflict at all cost (not having tools to resolve) and/or lie to avoid being hit and/or simply run away (physically and emotionally).

  • Brian

    Some of the most out of control children I was raised with and now go to school with my children are children of psychologists. Perhaps we should all take a deep breath and realize kid’s brains are not fully developed and sometimes a swat seems to work. I feel a quick swat ends the behavior and thus ends the punishment. Allows both parties to move on.

  • Jonathan Schell

    The book Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen has been a huge help to my parenting. Spanking is not recommended or needed to deal with behavior problems.

  • Kat

    I can’t believe professor Gunnoe would say that it is okay to spank a 2 year old for biting or hitting another child. (her example) What does that teach them? It is not okay to inflict pain on another person? But it’s okay for the parent to inflict pain on the child? Spanking in my opinion shows parental weakness.

  • Chemist150

    My babysitter blamed me for everything. Multiple times a week, I sat an hour facing the corner being quiet for a crime I had no knowledge about. She even spanked me a couple times for lying when I had told the truth.

    The details go deeper but I have to say I seriously didn’t like that woman.

  • Delphine Red Shirt

    The fact that Mr. Krasny condones spanking hardly makes this an objective show. I am very disappointed as coming from a culture that in its pure form does not condone spanking.

  • Sheila

    I strongly encourage all parents to read “Positive Discipline” by Jane Nelson. Her methods are based on kindness, firmness, dignity and respect. As she states, “Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children Do better, first we have to make them Feel worse?” Spanking may cause immediate compliance but is ineffective and can be detrimental in the long term.

  • Rose

    Has anyone heard of the book Positive Discipline by Jane Nelsen? The ideas that discipline (from the root discipulus meaning follower of truth or principle or venerated leader) should be based in respect? The dichotomies of being too strict or too permissive and trying to find that middle ground. . .punitive measures are associated with development of resentment, revenge, rebellion, retreat. . . how about creating a home environment of mutual respect? A place where the child feels they belong and are important? Where a parent can be kind yet Firm (ie: not overly permissive). As a caller said, follow the golden rule. . .

  • Guest

    Putting a child over your lap and spanking them is degrading to a child and simply, humiliating. It’s a power play for adults who are frustrated (frustration is justified and expected, parenting is constant and sometimes we don’t have the answers) but is not acceptable as a means of reminding a child, whose very nature is to test the limits of the world he or she is growing up, who is in charge.

  • clumsycontessa

    The way that children just absorb everything in the environment, how they look at everything you do and how they interpret that and how that effects their behavior, it’s absolutely terrifying.
    It makes me not want to have kids 😛

  • katherine

    I’d like to know when we decided that disciplining our children meant hitting them. Disciplining children is supposed to be about educating them. I am a mother of two little girls, one of whom is two. She doesn’t have the ability to rationally and logically make decisions. Further, she is figuring out the world. When she misbehaves, which is rare, I pull her out of the situation and explain why what she did was wrong. She misbehaves rarely because I continuously respect her humanity. Hitting a young child only teaches that aggression is OKI’d like to know when we decided that disciplining our children meant hitting them. Disciplining children is supposed to be about educating them. I am a mother of two little girls, one of whom is two. She doesn’t have the ability to rationally and logically make decisions. Further, she is figuring out the world. When she misbehaves, which is rare, I pull her out of the situation and explain why what she did was wrong. She misbehaves rarely because I continuously respect her humanity. Hitting a young child only teaches that aggression is OK

  • bitobonnie .

    I couldn’t wait to get home to post about this issue-after listening to this show, I will need to spend some time healing from the retraumatization I have experienced just listening. As a child, I was spanked. I was spanked calmly AND I was spanked in anger. My mother always held me in her arms afterward and said, “Now I love you, but…” This was VERY confusing to me. I feared my mother, and to this day our relationship is strained. My brother, at age 12, grabbed her by the hand and said, “If you hit me, I’ll hit you back.” She never hit him again, but continued hitting me. I was too shy and scared of her to do that. In TX where I grew up, parents signed a form consenting to corporal punishment. I think the courts said spanking with a spoon is OK because then where would all the schools be that used a paddle? I was paddled for a “messy” math paper. Humiliation, shame, pain is all got out of it. My mother would spank me with her hand or a belt. Once, she was spanking me with her hand, broke a blood vessel in it, so went to get the belt to finish the job. All of this results in feelings of rage when I hear someone say it is ok to spank your child, and I agree that it makes no sense to say we can hit kids but nobody else, it makes no sense to tell a kid with your actions, “Hey, hit somebody when they aren’t doing what you want and you aren’t getting your way because there is no other way.” There is ALWAYS another way. Yes, I AM a parent, and the parent of the most difficult child-he is autistic and has a low threshold for frustration and the one time I swatted him, it resulted in such rage that I think his reaction is natural-autistic kids don’t have the same filters neurotypical kids have, and he was able to express that rage and I was able to “get it” because I experienced the same thing as a kid, I was just not allowed to express it. If you want to spend a day with someone who knows all the buttons to push , spend it with my 9 year old son and watch me discipline him in effective ways without hitting or spanking. He goes to a school where, if a kid jits, they have a special system in place to restrain children safely so nobody gets hurt and there are choices for the children to make at EVERY step along the way to do the better thing, and they are POSITIVELY reinforced. I believe with my whole being that spanking, hitting or swatting a kid is NEVER ok, and that will never change. I agree with the child psychologist who called in and said when he was inexperienced and smacked his kid, it was harder to get compliance afterward and that it takes actual WORK to discipline without it and that it is worth it. Now I’m going to go calm down and try to shake off this anger that this FORUM pulled out of me this morning.

  • MaineCoon

    Only one comment, right toward the end, even touched on the matter of what it is that spanking seeks to enforce or reinforce, i.e., the VALUES it seeks to teach. This is the only ultimate difference between whether spanking is effective or destructive.
    One reason this critical issue did not come up in the discussion is this demand for strictly “scientific evidence,” and dismissal of anything characterized as “anecdotal” or personal experience or opinion. That’s about like evaluating a work of art only after subtracting all color and depth-creating perspective, leaving only the hard outlines! “Science” is blind to the whole qualitative matter of values, and respects only its quantitative measures.
    And the benefit or harm of spanking turns on what values it serves as a vehicle for. I grew up in an era when spanking was standard, and I don’t care what any “scientist” has to say about the FACT that the finest people I have known were spanked as children by parents who cared that they learn the higher values.
    But now we find ourselves in an era of idolatry of the body, and it shall be deemed the ultimate crime to in any way, for any reason, hurt the body.

  • OldVet

    “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a small mind” as Emerson said. Fighting can cause physical damage, but spanking? I come from another time, and while my mother was a nurse, she was raised on a homestead. To get the cow out of the vegetable garden “Here bossy” does not work.

    Same with the little animals we call children whose brains are not yet developed. Neither is the brain of an un-housebroken puppy, developed. They can still learn how to behave, thanks to a rolled up piece of newspaper.

    A beating is a bad thing. The idea of a beating is what functions in the basal brain, and spanking engages that idea. Ideally not necessary. But this is life…..

    Jefferson would be disgusted to see a people afraid to discipline their own children.

  • johnqeniac

    What about a nerf spoon?

  • littlefaith

    People are confused, because they think of spanking either as abuse or as discipline, but discipline is not all that different from abuse. People talk about time outs and other kinds of discipline as better somehow, but really whenever you insist on your control over a child without considering their point of view, it can be abusive. I would say that if you think of your actions as physical communication to your child, just like a hug, then you’re getting closer to the only time a spank is of any use. It is just as abusive to me, to insist on your will over that of the child at all times, and so the method in which you do it isn’t all that important.

    If you hit your child on a regular basis, even once a week, it won’t help, because they get used to it and they stop listening. If your child is not able to understand reason yet, and words aren’t getting through to them the seriousness of a situation, stinging pain will communicate what talking can not. That’s why I believe spanking is effective for only very small children. Once a child is at an age when they understand your words just fine, and they are just being willful, no amount of “discipline” or “rules” or “discussion” or “punishment” or “rewards” or whatever, is going to make them listen to you. They will listen to you only if they want to, so you had better spend most of their youth establishing a strong position of being on their side, being their arms and legs to help them do the things that they want. Always listen to your children and think about why they are behaving how they do. Give them what they need first. Help them to do what they want to do. Think first is it necessary to stand in their way?

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