Sale of spanking tool points up larger issue
ARLINGTON -- On a spring day, Susan Lawrence was flipping through a magazine, Home School Digest, when she came across an advertisement that took her breath away. In it, ''The Rod," a $5 flexible whipping stick, was described as the ''ideal tool for child training."
''Spoons are for cooking, belts are for holding up pants, hands are for loving, and rods are for chastening," read the advertisement she saw nearly two years ago for the 22-inch nylon rod. It also cited a biblical passage, which instructs parents not to spare the ''rod of correction."
The ad shocked Lawrence, a Lutheran who home-schools her children and opposes corporal punishment. She began a national campaign to stop what she sees as the misuse of the Bible as a justification for striking children. She also asked the federal government to deem The Rod hazardous to children, and ban the sale of all products designed for spanking. Lawrence says striking children violates the Golden Rule from the Gospel of Matthew in the New Testament: ''In everything do to others as you would have them do to you."
Her effort exemplifies the passionate debate among Americans over the role of corporal punishment in modern child-rearing and highlights the clashing interpretations of religion that underlie many cultural divisions in the United States.
Where some see a time-honored form of discipline, others see a sanctioned type of child abuse. Both sides cite biblical passages and scholarly pediatric research to back their views, as well as anecdotal evidence of children who went astray because of too little -- or too much -- spanking.
Though corporal punishment is on the decline in the United States and the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes the practice, spanking children remains common. National polls in 2002 indicated that two-thirds of American parents approved of spanking, and more than 20 states sanction corporal punishment in schools. Most parents said they use bare hands if they spank a child, though roughly one-third of parents in a 1995 Gallup poll said they had used ''a belt, hairbrush, stick, or some other hard object" to strike their child's bottom.
To draw public attention to the issue, critics of corporal punishment in Brookline proposed a resolution considered at Town Meeting two months ago denouncing the practice, a measure that ultimately failed by a narrow margin.
When Lawrence spotted the ad for The Rod, she began collecting online petition signatures protesting the device, eventually amassing more than 500 supporters, and set up a ''Stop the Rod" website. With support from US Representative Edward J. Markey, a Malden Democrat, Lawrence appealed in the fall of 2003 to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission to ban the sale of The Rod. But last month, the commission said it had found ''no basis for determining that the product constitutes a substantial product hazard."
She has argued that products designed to administer corporal punishment of children ought to be taken off the market, as flammable sleepwear and some toys deemed choking hazards have been.
''People are making money off these devices to beat children," she said in an interview last week. ''You have to respect children's bodies and their rights."
Lawrence's campaign has reached Clyde Bullock of Eufaula, Okla., the creator of The Rod. Bullock told the Globe last week that he has decided to voluntarily halt production for now, in part because of pressure from Lawrence and her supporters.
''I feel it's run its course," said Bullock, an auto mechanic who said he had sold hundreds of rods through his small-business venture, Slide's Manufacturing Co.
Another reason he is halting production, he said, is that the company that makes the cushioned grips for the rods has pulled out of the venture.
But Bullock, a Southern Baptist, said he stands by the virtue of The Rod, which, he said, is safer than a belt or paddle. He said he believes his product is in keeping with biblical teachings that rods be used only as a ''last resort" to train children. He opposes its use on babies. He said he sold the device at a rate of ''a few a week" over the last six years or so. Many of his customers returned for more rods, and cited the Scriptures when they made their purchases, he said.
''I'm one of these simple people," Bullock said. ''The Bible is what it is -- I'm not trying to change it. God is right. We have to have faith in that."
Bullock's convictions about corporal punishment are shared by many religious leaders. James Dobson, founder of the group Focus on the Family, one of the nation's prominent Christian evangelical organizations, has written about the proper use of spanking for children who willfully disobey parents, sanctioning the use of a ''neutral" object such as a paddle in order for the hand to be reserved as ''an object of love."
When used ''lovingly and properly," Dobson wrote on his website, corporal punishment is an effective tool to instill discipline and does not bring about lasting emotional damage to a child. ''God created this mechanism as a valuable vehicle for instruction," he wrote.
Critics of the practice say parents do not recognize the harm they can do when striking their child. Dr. Eli Newberger, a Boston pediatrician who has written extensively about child abuse, said corporal punishment hinders the trust between a parent and a child and can cause children to become more aggressive and violent. The use of devices to deliver punishment, such as The Rod, can easily lead to bodily injury, he said.
''There is no question that physical damage can be done by this object," he said.
Some countries, such as Sweden and Germany, have made spanking children illegal. But in the United States, a parent's right to use physical punishment is ''deeply built into American culture," said Murray Straus, a sociology professor at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and a critic of corporal punishment.
Straus said states do not interfere with parents' rights to punish their child unless it causes physical injury.
Lawrence said she plans to continue her crusade against corporal punishment in an effort to halt sales of The Rod for good. She said she wants to be sure that Bullock's manufacturing operation is legally shut down. She said she will continue to press her case before the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Markey said that this week he plans to ask the commission for an additional review of The Rod, insisting that it ''poses an unreasonable risk of injury."
Lawrence, a former church musician who grew up in Wisconsin, said she regrets that the religion she holds dear is being used to justify corporal punishment. While many Christians cite lines in the Bible's Book of Proverbs that speak of the disciplining force of ''the rod" and repeat a line from a Samuel Butler poem, ''Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child," she prefers to cite Jesus Christ's teachings in the New Testament about nonviolence.
''I'm a Christian too," she said. ''And I don't want anyone to be harmed."
Patricia Wen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.