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The case of a father's refusal to spare the rod

By Yvonne ZippStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 15, 1999


The Rev. Donald Cobble believes in parenting according to his reading of the Bible. When his son does something wrong, the Woburn, Mass., dad gives him a couple of smacks on the behind with a belt.

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"The rod is a necessary part - not the whole - of training a child," says the pastor at the Christian Teaching and Worship Center, quoting Proverbs. " 'The rod and reproof bring wisdom.' There are some things rebuke won't take care of."

But what he calls necessary discipline, the Massachusetts Department of Social Services called child abuse. While the spankings weren't against the law, the DSS says, they put Mr. Cobble's son at risk of future injury - a finding a Superior Court judge upheld.

Cobble appealed that ruling to the state's high court this week, saying the decision infringes on his right to discipline his son according to his religious convictions.

The case comes at a time when many Americans are pondering what constitutes appropriate discipline for a child - and questioning who should make that call, the parent or the state. While government has enlarged its oversight of families in recent decades, some parents are now challenging that role.

"There's a generally healthy reassertion of parental rights and responsibilities," says Father Richard John Neuhaus, editor in chief of First Things First in New York. "We're witnessing today a growing suspicion of specialists, especially government bureaucratic specialists to know what's good for a child."

That is one of the arguments used in Cobble's appeal. "I'm saying, keep away from the family unit," says Chester Darling, Cobble's attorney. The state should intervene in legitimate cases of abuse, but when it comes to corporal punishment, "it's none of the state's business what kind of discipline is used."

The Massachusetts case is an example of how divisive an issue spanking is in the US - with some considering it a necessary tool to create upstanding adults and others regarding corporal punishment as next to human rights abuse.

"Opinion polls in the country are pretty much divided 50-50 about the use of corporal punishment," says Martha Minow, a professor at Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Mass. "The climate is one of great disagreement."

US divided on spanking

For one, people's views on spanking divide along regional lines, she says. The South, for example, is more inclined to follow the philosophy of "spare the rod, spoil the child," while the Northeast is more likely to spare the rod.

For another, laws about spanking vary widely from state to state. For example, corporal punishment in schools is legal in 23 states, many of them in the South. And a quest earlier this year to turn Oakland, Calif., into the first no-spanking zone in the United States was quickly swatted down.

In many ways, Massachusetts illustrates just how radically views have changed. In Colonial Massachusetts, says parenting expert Murray Straus, a parent could legally kill a child for being rebellious. Not that there are many - if any - reported cases of a parent availing himself of the Rebellious Child Law, he adds quickly, "but it shows you the sentiment of the times."