A Spanking Ban In The U.S.?

Sweden became the first country to ban corporal punishment of children thirty years ago. Now, more than 24 countries have similar bans on corporal punishment in the home, and more than than 100 countries ban schoolteachers and administrators from hitting their students. Eva Svedling, a sociologist with the organization Save the Children Sweden, tells host Michel Martin how the ban has affected the lives of children and parents in the country. Then, Martin turns to the program's regular panel of moms — Jolene Ivey, Dannette Tucker and Aracely Panameno — for more on their decision to spank, or not spank, their children, and if an anti-hitting ban like Sweden's could ever be passed in the U.S.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. We visit with a diverse group of parents each week for their common sense and parenting advice.

Today, we go to Sweden, which is marking a milestone this year, and we're not talking about giving President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize. No, 30 years ago, Sweden became the first country to pass a national ban on corporal punishment of children.

Today, more than 24 countries have legislation banning all corporal punishment in the home. More than 100 countries ban schoolteachers and administrators from hitting the students. Needless to say, the U.S. is not among them. As we've discussed on this program, corporal punishment at home and paddling in schools remains a controversial practice in the U.S.; reviled among some but totally accepted by others.

So today we start with Eva Svedling. She's a sociologist who works with Save the Children Sweden. The organization recently released a report with the Swedish government, evaluating the results of the ban. It's called "Never Violence: 30 Years On from Sweden's Abolition of Corporal Punishment."

After we speak to Ms. Svedling, we're going to bring the moms in for their take on the U.S. perspective. So Ms. Svedling, welcome, thank you for joining us from Stockholm.

EVA SVEDLING: Thank you.

MARTIN: How did this ban on corporal punishment come about?

SVEDLING: It was a long history and many debates and many - a lot of advocacy from NGOs, for example Save the Children Sweden, to show that this is a part of the - it's a respect for human dignity and the right to physical integrity are universal principles and must be a part of the work for human rights for children.

MARTIN: Was there any specific incident that gave this rise to this? Often, you know, change comes about because of an event that just galvanizes public attention. Was it something like that?

SVEDLING: We had some events and some children that were hurt to death. But in the debate, it's more important to see the long-term changes within the society, what has happened to go forward this legislation. But to forward, in the debate, an immediate, some incidents, some very awful incidents, and children were very hurt or even killed by their parents.

MARTIN: In Sweden, as in the U.S., you know, one has to assume that many people use corporal punishment because that's how they were raised. They assume that this was customary, even desirable, as a form of child-rearing. So how did you go about - and also, of course, it has to be said, sometimes people hit kids because they're tired and irritated, and they're just - they feel like they've run out of options. But how did you go about - how did Sweden go about changing the mindset about hitting children?

SVEDLING: We had a very severe, very good information campaign through sessions and meetings with children and with parents to inform what can you do instead of hurting, instead of using violence, corporal punishment, when you raise children.

So just like you said, it was very common. It was part of the everyday life of children during the '60s that they were smacked by their parents. And now we see that (unintelligible) when we ask them, come in contact with corporal punishment within their homes. But it's very important to know that we need support systems. We need information campaigns. We need to discuss the issues the whole time, and we cannot stop, even now when we have this legislation and have had for 30 years.

We need to meet parents again, to build up support systems, to have a good welfare system and to look at the gaps - the economic and social gaps between different groups of children are not too big and that will not have very high levels of child poverty and so on, to keep it down, because there are connections between corporal punishment and low income and child poverty.

MARTIN: I understand what you're saying, but how is the ban enforced? I mean, can one be prosecuted for hitting a child?

SVEDLING: Okay...

MARTIN: I mean in this country, for example, if one causes physical harm such that injuries, where you need medical attention, there are certain people, you are required to report it to the authorities. But just...

SVEDLING: Yes...

MARTIN: ...not just. I don't want to say smacking that doesn't cause physical harm. How is this enforced?

SVEDLING: It's actually - the purpose of the prohibiting corporal punishment of children is prevention. It's to encourage attitudes and practices to promote nonviolent methods of child rearing. So it's actually, you to have to understand; you have to see that the purpose is prevention. The purpose is not putting - having children and parents and children in conflict with parents in courts and to prosecute them. That's not the purpose with the legislation, so it was banned - mistreating or using heavy violence against children was an issue for the court system before this legislation.

This is in the Parent Act. So what it said is that how children should be treated and that you should not use corporal punishment. It's in the Children and Parents Code; and it said children are entitled to care, security, good upbringing and they should not be treated - they should be treated with respect for their person and individuality. So it's prevention. It's for the society to say it's not okay to use corporal punishment and violence. You have to draw the line...

MARTIN: I see what you're saying. I think the analogy in this country might be to smoking, where it is banned from workplaces and things of that sort where the effect is to achieve a change in behavior.

Let's bring in the moms to talk about this. Jolene Ivey, Danette Tucker, our regular contributors to our parenting conversation. I just want to set the - ladies, welcome back, first of all.

JOLENE IVEY: Hey, good to see you.

DANETTE TUCKER: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: I just want to set the table. In this country, more than half of the states ban corporal punishment, but that still means that more than 220,000 students were paddled during the 2006-2007 school year. Those are the most recent figures that we have. More than a third of those paddled were African-American students, and of course, that figure doesn't address corporal punishment at home, which one has to assume is even more widespread.

So Jolene, I'm going to start with you. Sweden has determined that this is a human rights issue and they've argued that one would not hit an adult; one would not hit or pull or hit an adult to get an adult's attention. So therefore, children have the same right to human dignity as an adult. And what is your take on this?

IVEY: Well, my take on it is that according to the research, and she's referring to research, the best outcomes for highly nurturing environment has the middle range of spanking. Like, parents who spank a lot and are abusive have very low nurturing behaviors. But the same is true of those who don't spank at all - also very low nurturing.

If you talk about parents who are highly nurturing, they're the ones who spank some, but not to an abusive level. And I think it's important. You have to see the whole picture. When you look at two- to six-year-olds, which a lot of the studies focused on that, the best outcome for those children are parents who aren't too permissive and aren't abusive.

MARTIN: But I'm asking you in part, because for those who don't remember, you are also a state legislator, in addition to being the mom of five boys. I'm asking you to engage the question of whether this is in some ways a violation of human rights. You just don't buy that?

IVEY: I don't buy that. I believe that abuse, of course, is a violation of human rights but we don't treat children the same way we treat adults. There are differences. We're trying to civilize them, and people might say, oh, it's not civilized to hit someone. Well, it's not civilized to let your kid run all over you and feel like that they're in charge either. You have to teach them and this is one way to do it.

MARTIN: Dani, what do you say? What do you say to this argument?

TUCKER: Yeah. I agree a lot with Jolene. First of all, I don't like the corporal punishment word. I think society has called spanking corporal punishment and violent, and that's not what spanking is. Corporal punishment is something you get in jail. A spanking is something you get out of love for correction, for reproof, for direction, okay?

I'm looking at this report - the report on physical punishment in the United States - and one thing they say is little research and evidence have been, you know, studied on, you know, the benefits of spanking.

When I look at a lot of these kids today, they are spoiled. Spoiled and out of control. This report says to raise your voice at them or take something away from them. Okay, well what do you take? The BlackBerry? The flat screen TV? Understand, what do you take - the iPod, the Xbox 360?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUCKER: Our kids are so spoiled today, that they think they can get away with everything. My 87-year-old grandmother raised five kids, 13 grandkids, 22 great grandkids, 12 great-great grandkids, all with the board of education. There wasn't nothing corporal punishment about us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Can I ask you a question? I'm going to ask you a provocative question.

TUCKER: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Because we're friends. I feel I can do that, okay?

TUCKER: I love you too.

MARTIN: Okay? That, you know, there are economic benefits to slavery, but it doesn't mean it's morally right, so...

TUCKER: Right. But that was corporal punishment because that was not done in love. That was done treating people like animals. When I see parents who care about their kids, correct their child in spanking, they're doing it in love. It hurt me just as much as it did to spank DeVaughn and Imani, but I knew I had to do it if they got out of control. I was not abusive, and then I explained to them why I tapped your behind, and why I would tap your behind...

MARTIN: What about the argument that it teaches that might makes right and how can you teach - that you're teaching fear of authority not respect for authority. You're basically teaching that if I'm bigger than you I get to impose my will upon you?

TUCKER: Again. You say tomato, I say tomato. Fear, I say is reverence and respect. As Christians in this country, we are taught to fear the Lord, right? But not in a, oh God, no - but in a reverence, in a respect. Same thing here, the words that they have decided to use to describe spanking is what's giving it the bad rap.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking with our regular TELL ME MORE Moms contributors, Jolene Ivey and Danette Tucker. We're also joined by Eva Svedling. She's with Save the Children Sweden, and Sweden is acknowledging a 30-year ban on corporal punishment - both at home and at school, and we've invited her to tell us about - well, 30 years on, what are the findings? I mean, you've heard the arguments, which I know you've heard before, and which were certainly heard at the time that ban was implemented in Sweden, there are those who say that kids are spoiled.

SVEDLING: Yes. It's not the same...

MARTIN: And that you're, you know, you're raising a bunch of weenies. That...

SVEDLING: Yes...

MARTIN: So what do you say? What is the finding in Sweden about behavior, respect for authority and all of those other issues?

SVEDLING: I think you have to - I think it's very important that you draw the line between physical violence and nonviolence. So you have to find ways of treating children with respect that are not violent. And that the children who are that have been frightened, threatened, and smacked, they carried this damage inside them into adulthood. We know that. We know that from talking to children how their reactions are, how humiliating it is to be treated that way. So violence breeds violence. And if you want to take the...

MARTIN: What alternatives that you - go ahead. Mm-hmm.

SVEDLING: If you want to have them to grow up into responsible citizens, I'm convinced that you have to treat them as citizens. with respect and understanding of their dignity and their individuality. I...

MARTIN: What about Dani's point, though, that in her view that this is a very permissive materialistic culture and that there are many many influences, apart from parents and community, who have an effect on children and that; therefore, parent needs to draw the line and that is one line that even... I don't think we're addressing the whole issue of paddling in schools. I think that's a very - that's a different definition. We're talking about the parents in the home - only. What about that argument, Eva?

SVEDLING: And only in the homes? Not in schools?

MARTIN: Yes.

SVEDLING: I think it's very important. If you look at what it says, the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, it's very important that - it says that the parents are very very important - are the most important people in the child's life. But the responsibility from the society, from the state, does not stop at the front door to the family. Even if the family remains the most important unit for the child, it can also be very dangerous. We should not be afraid of saying that children within their homes can be very mistreated and abused, and that the society has a responsibility for each child.

MARTIN: No, I understand that. But I'm asking if you would engage Dani Tucker's argument, that this is a very - that this can be, some societies are extremely permissive and materialistic and that some parents need to draw a firm line in order to have their authority be respected. And I would also introduce the whole question of many people or single parent households in this country - in some communities, it's a prevalent family style where the mother has a - it feels she has a particular need to draw a firm hand with her children in order to establish her authority. What do you say to that?

SVEDLING: I say it's natural. It's, of course, you need to raise the children. You need to have dialogue with them to raise them to good citizens, of course. But the point is that violence should not be used in that manner. You have to draw the line between violence and nonviolence. You have to find other ways of treating children without using physical - corporal punishment.

MARTIN: Jolene?

SVEDLING: That...

IVEY: Well, culturally...

MARTIN: You have five boys.

IVEY: Yeah. Mother of five boys, black family, grew up in northeast D.C. My dad never heard of a timeout. He finds it a very interesting concept now. He's 91 and he lives with us. But culturally, I think that we have to be sensitive to differences. I know that in some cultures and it seemed to be kind of bizarre that you would put a child away from you and withhold love and affection and that be a form of discipline that - and apparently in Sweden, that would be okay.

So I think that we have to be sensitive to knowing that we can all do things differently. We all want the same outcome, which is healthy happy children, but we can all be a little skeptical of each other. What's this about putting your kid...

MARTIN: Well...

IVEY: ...away from you and not talking to your kid?

MARTIN: Eva?

SVEDLING: I don't think that would be okay. I would not think that would be okay. That's also; it says physical or psychological violence, so you're not allowed to treat your child in a way that could harm the child psychologically. So it's not only physical violence or and the spanking, it's also to put a ban to treating children in a humiliating way.

MARTIN: Dani, final thought?

SVEDLING: And that could be what you described.

MARTIN: Dani?

TUCKER: Well, final thought from me is congratulations, Sweden; that works for you. And I'm proud of you guys. In America, they're going to hold me responsible for what my son does outside the house; don't handcuff me inside my house, okay? In America, you have the freedom of religion. We don't all believe the same things. We don't all do the same thing. So in America we give our parents that freedom, okay? I just think we're different from Sweden.

IVEY: And as long as you don't cross the line to be abusive...

TUCKER: Of course.

IVEY: ...I mean no one advocates for that.

MARTIN: What is the line? What's the line? What is it?

TUCKER: Joe Jackson.

IVEY: As soon as it starts hurting - yes.

TUCKER: Joe Jackson.

IVEY: As soon as it starts hurting you...

TUCKER: Right.

IVEY: ...then you know you need to stop.

TUCKER: Exactly.

MARTIN: Well...

IVEY: You don't use an object; you use your hands so that when it's hurting you, you know, okay, I've made my point...

MARTIN: Do you spank? You do spank.

IVEY: I have spanked. Yeah. Not routinely.

TUCKER: I spank.

IVEY: I think each of my kids has gotten one or two spankings in their life. And actually, I was just thinking about it, I don't think my nine-year-old ever got one.

MARTIN: Eva, you had a final thought.

SVEDLING: Yeah. I just wanted to say that the point is when you give that important freedom to the parents that you want to give them, you cut back the human rights for the children that could come in danger and put to risk. They also have - they are also individual bearer of rights. So we need to enforce their rights. And sometimes, of course, there are going to be conflicts between the - or imbalances in power between the parents and the children, but we need to come in dialogue and we have to learn how to treat children with respect.

MARTIN: Eva Svedling is from Save the Children Sweden. She was kind enough to join us from Stockholm. Jolene Ivey and Danette Tucker are our regular TELL ME MORE Moms contributors. They joined us here from our studio in New York. We're going to talk more about this next week because it's clearly an important topic.

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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