The old-fashioned punishment could mean punishment for parents in Delaware. (Comstock/ThinkStock)
The issue of spanking has divided parents for years. But one state in the United States may be taking a side. Earlier this month, Governor Jack Markell passed a controversial Delaware bill--criminalizing the act of recklessly or intentionally causing physical pain on a child.
Bill 234, sponsored by Delaware's Senate Majority Leader Patricia Blevins, asserts that when a "person recklessly or intentionally causes physical injury to a child through an act of abuse and/or neglect of such child" it is considered third degree child abuse and a class A misdemeanor.
The ambiguity of the definition of "physical injury" has prompted the law to be unofficially dubbed a "spanking ban" by some and has sparked debate over the state's right to interfere with personal parenting practices.
But one of the bill's biggest proponents, Attorney General Beau Biden, son of Vice President Joe Biden, has been adamant that spanking isn't the target of the law. "This will not do anything to interfere with a parent's right or ability to parent as they see fit, but it also makes it clear that if you abuse a child in any way, shape or form, we're going to have a statute that we're going to be able to use to protect kids," he stated.
So why didn't they include a clause that protects parents who spank from prosecution? It's not that simple, Patricia Dailey-Lewis, of the Attorney General's Office, tells Delaware WBOC news. "If we said it's okay to spank your child, and then we have a child who ends up dead from spanking, well, gee, we didn't mean that, we didn't mean kill. We didn't mean break their arm. It's such a vague area."
"I can't say that no one's ever going to be prosecuted," Dailey-Lewis continues, "Because like I told you, we have children who have been spanked and have died from it."
In the wake of the backlash, the Attorney General's office plans to launch a campaign outlining exactly what's considered reasonable discipline, and to inform parents of their rights.
The dangerous side effects of spanking
Some parents, like Mark Salerno, a Dover-area stay-at-home dad, hail the law as a step in the right direction for monitoring parental behavior.
"I don't believe in spanking your children," Salerno told a local news affiliate. "There are other ways to discipline them. I don't think physical pain should be endured on a child."
"As Delaware is my home-state, I do feel that it steps pretty far over the line," writes a commenter on the parenting blog Mommaroo. "I was spanked as a child not because my dad was a big mean person, but because I did something wrong...With this legislation being so vague as to describing 'pain,' there are bound to be so many wrongful arrests."
Under the new amendment, adults could spend up to a year in prison if they commit an act of "physical injury" to anyone under the age of 18. The sentence can be increased if the child is under four years old or if they suffer from mental or developmental disabilities.
Over the past decade, scientific research has linked spanking to long-term problems like depression, addiction, lowered test scores, increased risk of sexual functioning as adults, and according to a recent University of Mantioba study, "general psychological maladjustment."
The research is so widely accepted that the American Academy of Pediatrics officially considered physical punishment of a child "the least effective way to discipline."
"It is harmful emotionally to both parent and child," according to a statement on HealthyChildren.org, an APA site for parents. "Not only can it result in physical harm, but it teaches children that violence is an acceptable way to discipline or express anger. While stopping the behavior temporarily, it does not teach alternative behavior. It also interferes with the development of trust, a sense of security, and effective communication. Spanking often becomes the method of communication. It also may cause emotional pain and resentment."
Smart alternatives to spanking
Despite the lack of support from the medical community, many parents and officials nationwide still believe in the effectiveness of spanking.
As Delaware was passing its bill into law, Texas was expanding the limits of corporal punishment in schools. After a teen girl was paddled by a male principal as punishment for cheating, her school district changed their policy to allow teachers of either sex to spank a student for bad behavior.
The new policy, in a state where 75 percent of school districts condone corporal punishment, allows adult men to paddle underage girls as long as a same-sex administrator is present. Parents can also request a spanking each semester for their delinquent child, provided they give written consent.
"The concern with the bill is that it used the very subjective word 'pain' [and hinged legal behavior upon] using 'reasonable force,'" stated Nicole Theis, president of Delaware Family Policy Council, in The New American. "The fact of the matter is that it's written into the law and it very much could be interpreted as prohibiting spanking."
Parents, who feel the state is stepping on their turf, are concerned their guardianship could be put into jeopardy simply because of their personal beliefs or even a momentary lack of judgment.
Even the APA takes into account that "parents occasionally lose their patience or, in anger or fear, may spank their youngster." As ineffective and potentially damaging as spanking may be, some worry the legal consequences under this law could be worse.
At the same time, setting legal limits on parenting practices is sometimes the only measure of protection children have. With as many as 6 million victims of child abuse in the U.S. annually--a statistic that continues to rise each year--Delaware's law sets a zero tolerance precedent and sends the message to adults that nobody has the right to harm a child.