A Massachusetts spanking timeline and experts weigh in

Plus: 3 steps for making lessons stick

A Liberty Mutual ad from 1951.
A Liberty Mutual ad from 1951.(istockphoto)


The more things change, the more they stay the same.

1620 The Pilgrims arrive believing children are born wicked and must be civilized. “Surely there is in all children a stubborness and stoutness of mind . . . which must in the first place be broken and beaten down,” writes one minister.

1646 The Massachusetts Bay Colony enacts the “Stubborn Child Law,” which permits parents to execute unruly sons (as long as they’re 16 or older).

1695 “Better whipped than damned,” writes Cotton Mather in his Puritan parenting manual Help for Distressed Parents.

1775 Future US Senator Harrison Gray Otis leaves Boston Latin School, where he learned this ditty: “Hic haec hoc, strap him to the block / Noun and pronoun, pull his breeches down / Verb and participle, the rod begins to whistle.”


1867 A Cambridge doctor tries, unsuccessfully, to ban spanking in schools. He cites statistics from one Boston district where 3,765 floggings were administered to 1,562 pupils in a year.

1951 Spanking remains so uncontroversial that Liberty Mutual used it to advertise insurance in the Saturday Evening Post.

Jonathan Kozol.
Jonathan Kozol.(Zara Tzanev/2007 file)

1967 After teaching fourth grade in Boston, Jonathan Kozol publishes a book linking spanking and racism: “There are moments when the visible glint of gratification becomes unmistakable in the white teacher’s eyes.”

1971 Massachusetts becomes the second state to ban corporal punishment in public schools.

1973 The Stubborn Child Law is repealed.

1999 The state’s highest court finds no evidence that Don Cobble harmed his son.

2003 A mom in Arlington discovers an ad for a spanking aid, “the Rod,” in a home-schooling magazine. She persuades the company to stop selling it.

2004 In June, a childless Brookline man asks the town to recommend that parents not spank. The initiative fails twice within six months. “This guy doesn’t even have kids,” says one opponent, “and he’s going to tell me how to raise my kids?”


2005 The nonbinding resolution passes on the third try, making Brookline the nation’s first municipality to take a stand against spanking.

2007 An Arlington nurse authors a bill to ban all spanking in the state. A conservative radio host asks the bill’s sponsor, Representative Jay Kaufman, if he spanks his kids. “It’s none of your damn business,” Kaufman snaps. The bill goes nowhere.

2010 A pastor and Mattapoisett vice principal delivers a sermon on spanking. “When you can suddenly see that heart of defiance, of rebellion for the first time,” he says, “that’s when you begin.”



One reason for the persistence of corporal punishment? A barrage of cultural mixed messages.

“The claims made for not spanking children fail to hold up. . . . I think of spanking as a dangerous tool, but there are times when there is a job big enough for a dangerous tool.”

 — Calvin College psychology professor Marjorie Gunnoe

“[Parents] fall back on the myth that spanking works when other methods have failed, not realizing that all methods of discipline have a high failure rate with toddlers.”

— University of New Hampshire Sociology professor Murray Straus

Worldwide, 117 countries ban corporal punishment of children in schools; 32 ban it in homes. Only 31 states in America ban corporal punishment in schools; None ban it in homes.

— The Center for Effective Discipline


“The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes striking a child for any reason.”

— “Where We Stand: Spanking”

34% percent of pediatricians spank their own children

 — 1998 survey

“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die. Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death.”

— Proverbs 23:13-14

“Our position on spanking, one that has evolved over thirty years of parenting eight children, is that we won’t do it.”

— William and Martha Sears, The Complete Book

of Christian Parenting and Child Care



Although the American Academy of Pediatrics controversially declines to condemn spanking outright — as long as parents use an open hand on the buttocks or extremities, and aren’t trying to cause injury — it does strongly oppose it and argues that the following system is far more effective.

1) Foster a positive, supportive, loving relationship with your kids.

➜ Create a warm home by playing and expressing affection.

➜ Be consistent with schedules and activities so children know what to expect.

➜ Respond to similar behaviors in similar ways.

➜ Be flexible and willing to involve kids in decisions.

2) Use positive reinforcement to increase good behavior.

➜ Provide regular positive attention.

➜ Listen carefully to kids and help them express their feelings.

➜ Reinforce good behaviors with frequent praise, and ignore trivial misdeeds.

➜ Behave with other people as you would like your own children to


3) Remove positive reinforcement to decrease misbehavior.


➜ Be clear about what constitutes misbehavior, why it is unacceptable, and what the consequences for it will be.

➜ As soon as an undesirable behavior occurs, provide “a strong and immediate initial consequence,” but deliver it calmly and with empathy.

➜ Consistently apply the same consequence each time the behavior occurs.

➜ Use timeouts of appropriate duration, and do not respond when misbehaviors escalate — timeouts often aren’t effective immediately, but are in the long term.

—Adapted from “Guidance for Effective Discipline”