Naughty kids may soon catch a break in one suburb of Detroit.
Madison Heights has declared what amounts to no-spanking zones in key public spaces, including the city hall, public library, police station and recreation center.
That may be an affront to anyone following the familiar Judeo-Christian saying, "Spare the rod and spoil the child."
But City Council members recently voted 5-1 against that age-old parental advice. They passed a resolution to discourage corporal punishment by creating a "Hit Free Zone" in at least 10 public areas, with signs that say exactly that. The first sign went up in Civic Center Park near Lamphere High School.
"I think it's great," and the cost to the city will be modest although a dollar figure isn't yet available, said Councilman David Soltis, after seeing the sign go up.
The resolution carries no penalties or enforcement power, so no mom or dad will get a ticket for slapping a toddler's rump. But the hope is that this blunt signage will get people talking and thinking twice about how they discipline little Sam or Susie, said Soltis, who proposed the idea.
"It's really a non-violence resolution, against violence on any level," Soltis said. The resolution defines a "Hit Free Zone" as one where "no adult shall hit another adult, no adult shall hit a child, no child shall hit an adult, and no child shall hit another child."
Still, his aim is to prevent child abuse, said Soltis, a health-care administrator. As a former emergency medical technician, he said he was shocked to see how many children had been beaten by adults. After looking up research and reading parenting books, he was shocked again, finding study after study purporting to show that "kids who were spanked do worse in school and may become bullies," he said.
Surveys show that spanking is almost universally practiced nationwide. According to a 2015 study by Childtrends.org, 94 percent of American parents of children ages 3 and 4 said they'd spanked in the past year, while 76 percent of men and 65 percent of women "agree with giving a child a good, hard spanking as a form of punishment."
Soltis said he was spanked as a child but had never struck any of his own three children, now ages 14, 23 and 27.
"Obviously, not every kid who gets spanked turns into a juvenile delinquent, but the research shows that more of the children who turn out badly were punished that way," Soltis said, concluding: "It's time to raise children differently."
Despite the votes of support other council members gave Soltis, several voiced reservations.
"I wanted to support Dave" on the resolution,"but I don't think it's right to tell parents how to raise their children," said Councilwoman Margene Scott.
But Scott, founder of the city's annual Random Acts of Kindness Week, said she wasn't about to oppose the resolution's good sense just because it was a departure from the council's usual business.
"I've always operated on the premise that spanking doesn't teach kids anything, just teaches them to use violence, although if their life or safety is in danger when they're very young, I think it can be the only way to get their attention," she allowed.
Scott spanked her own son, now age 51, in his elementary-school years, sometimes using a wooden spoon, "and now I feel bad about that," she said.
After her daughter-in-law died in 2013, Scott began helping to raise two grandchildren "as my son's back-up," she said. Dylan Scott is now a junior at Central Michigan University, Cory Scott is a senior at Lamphere High School, and neither needed corporal punishment, Grandma Margene said.
Before Councilman Bob Corbett voted yes on the resolution, he cautioned the elected group "not to come off as preachy," because the council's mission is to decide policies that are municipal, not moral, Corbett said.
The only council member to oppose the resolution, Roslyn Grafstein, said little on the issue before voting no at the meeting last month. Grafstein, a mother of two young daughters who describes herself online as "a hippie with a finance degree," replied to the Free Press.
"Current state law allows parents to spank their children, and I do not believe it is the role of the city to dictate how people discipline their children," Grafstein said in an email.
"Seeing someone at a park for a few minutes gives you a very small glimpse into their world. Maybe the behavior that prompted that spank was the final straw for an exhausted mother suffering from postpartum depression. What she needs is compassion, understanding and rest, not a conversation about spanking.
"On the other extreme, maybe the spanker is abusive and the conversation will only rile him up more, so he takes his child home where the spank escalates into abuse," Grafstein said. She did not say whether she ever spanked her daughters.
Before the vote, resident Donna Dalling, 78, told the council she didn't oppose the resolution but said she'd spanked her two children years ago and that "I don't think they were damaged at all." Her daughter-in-law, however, "uses a time-out chair, which seems to work," Dalling said.
Better than either spankings or time-outs is just patiently talking to children after their instances of bad behavior, said a veteran therapist and researcher in child behavior at Wayne State University. Douglas Barnett, a professor of psychology, said many parents "feel passionately" that spanking is effective.
So just telling them not to do it is rarely successful, Barnett said. People often say, "If they hadn't been spanked, they'd be in prison," he said. Yet, numerous academic studies – including some conducted by Barnett at WSU – have linked spanking to "negative outcomes for kids," he said.
"The effects are small. It's not that spanking by itself can explain why somebody develops mental illness, for example. But there are more effective ways for handling children, getting them to mature and be better in control of themselves," he said. As director of the WSU Psychology Training Clinic, which trains new therapists and also counsels parents on raising successful children, Barnett said verbal communication is paramount.
"It starts with simply talking to the child. Parents can have a tremendous effect just by expressing they are disappointed in certain behavior. Second, they can have children focus on how their behavior affects the feelings in others, which can be very effective, according to research," he said.
He's "not extremely worried" about the isolated spanking of a toddler who repeatedly endangers herself by, say, trying to put her hands on a heated stove top; "but even at age four, I would talk to the child about how she is scaring her parents," he said.
Often, the underlying problem is that a child simply needs more supervision and fewer verbal commands, Barnett said.
"I remember one mother saying, 'When my 18-month-old runs into the street, a slap is the only way to make him realize, don't do it.'
"I'm sure she was terrified. But really, an 18-month-old shouldn't even have the opportunity to run into a street. There should be a fence, or mom right there supervising, to keep that child safe" from traffic, he said.