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Los Angeles Times, 21 March 2000
Spanking: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone
By Agustin Gurza
It was considered a case of cruel and unusual punishment.
A Mexican couple had used an ancient method to discipline their boy, passed down from 16th century Aztecs. They had held a hot chili over a flame, then put the sizzling pepper under their child's nose. The pungent smoke scorched his sinuses, choked his breathing and made his eyes water.
The parents hailed from rural Mexico and spoke primarily Nahuatl, the Aztec language. When they crossed the border into California, their child-rearing practices created a clear case of culture clash for the social worker who handled the case.
"The approach I took, pure and simple: 'Sorry, we can't have that kind of thing going on in San Diego,' " said Marcy Bandy, who retired many years ago.
Bandy recently told me about the "chili smoking" punishment after reading a column I wrote about cultural issues in child abuse cases. Her anecdote reminded me that Mexican parents can be tough on their kids; they believe children should be well-behaved, and in general they believe in corporal punishment.
I can produce at least seven witnesses to corroborate my claim. They're my brothers and sisters. When we get together, we often laugh about the reign of terror our father created to extract obedience.
His belt would make the sound of a cracking whip when he removed it. We'd run and try to hide. The unlucky ones he caught were lined up along a bed, ordered to pull down their pants and bend over. The lashings stung the most on bare bottoms -- "a nalga pelona."
My father imported some punishing techniques from Mexico that had their own names in Spanish. A coscorron was a sharp rapping of the skull with bare knuckles, a jolt that made us hop around in pain while furiously rubbing our heads, though there was no wiping away the lingering effect of feeling stupid. There was also the jalon de oreja, a burning yank on the ear, often administered by surprise.
Obviously, no culture has a corner on corporal punishment. Jordan Riak, a leading opponent of spanking, has battled the practice from Australia to America.
The retired arts instructor doesn't mince words. Spanking is an assault on a helpless person, he says. It should be a crime.
"Human society has moved away from hitting other human beings," Riak told me last week from his Bay Area home. "The only beatable person left is the child."
He's heard all the rationales already: "I was spanked and I turned out OK. . . . I deserved every spanking I got. . . . I spanked my child and now he's in Harvard."
But science contradicts those popular beliefs, says Riak, who wrote the 1987 law against corporal punishment in California schools. His Web site (www.nospank.org) is loaded with research suggesting that hitting children causes lifelong damage.
Domestic violence. Sexual dysfunctions. Poor school performance. Juvenile delinquency. Even the heinous brutality of dictators like Hitler and Stalin can be traced to mistreatment by caretakers in childhood, say the experts.
Last year, Riak tried to have Oakland declared a "no-spanking zone," a PR gesture that was ridiculed and defeated though it would not have had force of law.
Yet Riak is convinced that spanking in this country will eventually go the way of slavery, child labor and wife beating. Already, nine countries in Europe outlaw corporal punishment in the home. Israel joined the ranks of no-spanking nations in January. And now Great Britain is struggling to rewrite its own Victorian-era statutes after the European Court of Human Rights ruled that authorities there failed to protect a boy from "inhuman or degrading punishment" by his stepfather.
Still, the Brits are resisting the idea of government telling them how to raise their children. And they might have a point: Good social policy, like good manners, begins at home.
That's why I was encouraged to hear that Latino parents from a child abuse committee within the L.A. Unified School District recently ordered 8,000 copies of Riak's "No-Spanking Zone" poster, half of them in Spanish (Se Prohibe Pegarles a Los Ninos). They intend to distribute them in their neighborhoods to encourage parents to avoid corporal punishment.
Not all Latino parents, after all, are as tough as my father was. My mother, for one, was among the original no-spanking advocates.
I still, however, hear too many immigrants complain that U.S. laws don't permit them to discipline their kids as sternly as they did in Mexico. Those attitudes must change on both sides of the border.
For in this respect, Riak says, children are equal: "They all thrive when they're treated gently with love and with patience, and they all suffer when they're treated brutally."
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