BOSTON — 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.
"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."
The informal standard of defining abuse has traditionally been: "If a child is injured, then it's abuse," says Mr. Straus, co- director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. He cites an example of a New Hampshire mother who hit her child with a belt. She was cleared of abuse charges because the child didn't require any medical treatment. But Straus adds, "We're in a state of flux on this issue in this country. The culture is changing; standards are changing."
Now, for example, he says Americans are more likely to define hitting a child with an object as excessive punishment. Just 27 percent of respondents had struck their child with an object - such as a belt or hairbrush - during the past year, according to a 1995 study by the Family Research Laboratory. The number of parents who used corporal punishment on their teens was halved - from 66 percent in the late 1960s to 33 percent in 1995.
A slim majority of parents, 55 percent, believed it was "sometimes necessary" to spank a child, down from 94 percent in 1968. But 94 percent of respondents with children aged 2 to 5 said they had spanked their children within the year.
"The beliefs and attitudes are changing faster than behavior, but both are changing," says Straus. "You can now find lots of people who weren't spanked as a child."
If people are divided over corporal punishment, the law in many cases is even murkier, experts say.
In Massachusetts, there is no specific list of actions that constitute abuse. Moreover, a parent doesn't have to injure a child to be reported - as long "as the substantial risk of harm" is there, as DSS argues was the case with Cobble and his son.
"The legislature has balanced opposing societal viewpoints," says Juliana Rice, an assistant attorney general representing the commissioner of the DSS.
Recognizing that "what may be harmful for one child may not be harmful for another," the law does not define abuse in terms of parental conduct, but rather on the degree of harm to the child.
That can be confusing - and not just for parents. At the court hearing Sept. 13, the Massachusetts justices repeatedly asked lawyers what kind of corporal punishment would be acceptable, in their view.
"How is a parent to know?" asked Justice Roderick Ireland.
"The law needs to give us a clear and lucid definition of when spanking becomes abuse," says Mr. Neuhaus.
Professor Minow, who personally opposes spanking, agrees, saying that when the definition of abuse is decided on a case-by-case basis, there's the threat of selective punishment - with immigrant families and religious minorities being subjected to closer scrutiny.
"We need to send a message to the legislature that there are several red flags," says Dean Tong, author of "Ashes to Ashes, Families to Dust" and a forensic consultant on abuse cases in Tampa, Fla. "When the laws are very vague, it's open season for victimization."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society