How much is too much discipline?

The signage outside the Atlanta church identified it as the House of Prayer. But for the children inside, the place became a house of terror.

Last month, a judge placed 41 of the congregation's children in foster care because their parents refused to stop allowing them to be punished in church-sponsored discipline sessions. The children told police they were beaten with belts and switches while adults held their arms and legs.

Appalled at such ritualistic punishment, many dismissed the group as an aberrant cult. And although most would agree that the discipline at the church went too far, many parents still think corporal punishment is an appropriate form of discipline.

The Atlanta case has helped reignite the debate over spanking. The subject will no doubt gain more attention throughout the nation today -- the fourth annual SpankOut Day USA -- which is promoted as a day parents should stow the paddle and find alternative ways to discipline their children.

Critics of spanking are now arming themselves with new studies that suggest spanking fails to correct behavior -- and may breed abusers.

Pro-spankers, meanwhile, point to a spectrum of behavior -- from Columbine-style shootings to dwindling respect for adults -- as proof that it's time to respond with a firm whack.

Friends in high places

This time around, advocates of spanking may have an ace in the Oval Office: President Bush also thinks it's time to pull the paddle from the mothballs. Bush supported a law in Texas that protects teachers who use spanking for discipline, and he said during last year's election debates that he would support similar measures at the federal level.

Apparently, Bush is not alone in his quest to give gentler discipline a time-out. According to a 1998 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics, nine out of 10 parents have spanked their children.

But those numbers run counter to what some experts perceive as America's gradual shift away from corporal punishment. One recent poll, commissioned by Prevent Child Abuse America, indicated that only 41 percent of parents reported spanking or hitting their children, down from 58 percent in 1988. Irwin Hyman, author of The Case Against Spanking, thinks those numbers are deceptively low. Political correctness, he says, has created a nation of closet disciplinarians.

Three years ago, the American Academy of Pediatrics condemned spanking, questioning its effectiveness and raising concerns about potential emotional side effects.

Research has consistently shown that children who are spanked are more likely to suffer delinquency and depression, and to hit their own children -- and often their spouses -- as adults. Violence, insists Nadine Block, founder of Spank Out Day USA, begets violence.

Murray A. Straus, author of Beating the Devil Out of Them: Corporal Punishment in American Families, agrees, adding that new research in behavior modification suggests that spanking "does not work any better than other modes of correction and control." Worse, he says, in the end, spanking "boomerangs and actually makes children harder to control and less well-behaved."

Psychologist John Rosemond disagrees, writing in his book Parent Power! that it "is possible to spank a child well, to do it right and to make it work." Rosemond devoted a 1994 book to the subject, To Spank or not to Spank: A Parent's Handbook. "The problem with spanking," he writes, "is that most parents make a sorry mess of it."

John Deaton, 51, a father of two girls in Winter Springs, spanked Lara, now 16, and Sierra, 10, up until the age of 3. But he says he would only whack them on the rear end with his open hand when reason failed.

Talk first, hit later is also Edd Dunnam's way. A retired Army Ranger, Dunnam, 38, grew up in Houston under the threat of the paddle.As a dad, Dunnam, of Deltona, opts for communication over physical discipline. When his sons were younger, Dunnam wasn't averse to giving Matt, now 11, and Alex, 8, a swift swat on the fanny. But only when words failed.

"You can communicate with a toddler -- even when he's spazzing," Dunnam says. "The last recourse is a little pop on the butt."

Were 'the old days' better?

Turning away from spanking, some say, has left American parents with a mess of disciplinary problems.

Laying down the law with kids is driving the resurgence of spanking sentiment, says Hyman, director of the National Center for the Study of Corporal Punishment and Alternatives based at Temple University.

"Spanking is basically a punitive act," he says. This new push, he adds, "stems from political and religious ideology and going back to the old days when things were better -- and, of course they weren't.

"When events like Columbine occur, there is a tendency to demonize youth. People want to get tough with kids again."

Roots found in religion

The idea of getting tough with children is nothing new. It's in the Bible. Numerous verses speak of discipline. But the passage on which many parents who live by the paddle rely is Proverbs 13:24: "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him."

It also stands as one of the most diversely interpreted verses. Some believe it suggests "tough love." Ted Pierce, minister of Christian education at First Presbyterian Church of Orlando, prefers to flip a few pages ahead to Matthew 18. There, Jesus esteems children before his disciples, warning them to "take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones."

Nevertheless, the House of Prayer case illustrates that many parents of faith indeed hold a literal interpretation -- they believe that spankings are effective and ordained by God.

So does Jim Henry, senior pastor at First Baptist Church of Orlando: "I think it means exactly what it says."

The confusion some parents wrestle with over spanking, he says, results from "all this psychobabble as whether to spank at all" and is "counterproductive to good biblical discipline." Henry remembers as a child walking into the back yard to fetch a switch to be used on his backside. When employed in a loving, healthy home, he says, spanking "teaches a certain sense of respect and awe regarding the parent."

Even if that is your belief, Hyman insists that a spanking does not involve hitting a child with a switch or belt.

"When you leave a bruise on a kid, that's abuse," Hyman says.

Government may act soon

In any case, corporal punishment may soon receive a government stamp of approval. Bush, during the 2000 presidential debates, announced he would back a federal "Teacher Protection Act," similar to the 1995 law he supported in Texas that shields teachers who hit students for disciplinary reasons.

Should Bush have his way, some, such as Heather Highfield, prevention specialist with the Children's Advocacy Center at The Howard Phillips Center for Children and Families, say scores of parents may see it as a call to shed the handcuffs of political correctness and break out the paddle.

"This legislation is saying that we as a country believe that it is OK to hit our children," she says.Meanwhile, Block, a school psychologist, hopes parents, armed with the research, will continue to step up their use of spanking alternatives such as denying privileges and time-outs.

"I always agree with parents who say children need more discipline. In this country when people think of discipline they think punishment," she says.

"In the dictionary [discipline] means to teach," she says, adding that parents are often too busy and too tired "to sit with our kids, to be patient and correct them quietly."

But, she says, "we need to do that."

Darryl Owens can be reached at or 407-420-5095.