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updated: 6/2/2014 10:08 AM

When is spanking a child appropriate discipline?

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Q. My question is, when is spanking a child OK? I live on a rural dirt road off a busy road. We have about seven neighbors and all know each other and help out when needed.

We have a young couple with two young boys, 4 and 3, and she's pregnant with her third. The other day the 4-year-old showed up at our house, which is down a long hill and up our long driveway pretty far away from his house. I immediately called the mother, who answered in a groggy voice as though she's been sleeping. I told her I had her son, and she said her husband would be right there.

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When she and her husband came, the boy just kept running down another dirt path as I and the mother called to him.

He paid no attention and kept running away. I turned to the mother and said, "I hope you give him a good spanking for this."

All she and her husband did is look goofy and brush it off as though it's OK for a 4-year-old to misbehave. I remember the few times I gave my kids a really good whooping was when they did something that endangered their lives. I don't believe you can raise a child without sometimes giving them a real shock when they do something very serious.

Furious Neighbor?

A. Spanking is OK when you live on a rural dirt road and your 4-year-old wanders to the neighbors' while you're pregnant and taking a nap.

That's the answer you want, right?

With all due respect, your question is not about when spanking is OK, since you state openly when you believe it is to the degree that you're "furious" these neighbors didn't beat their child as you would have.

So let's be honest about your real question, which is: Am I going to use my platform to back you up, and help you set straight these and other know-nothing parents who are driving their kids/your neighborhood/this country straight into the toilet?

And my answer: no.

Part of the reason is conceptual, in that I can't imagine siding with someone incensed at not striking a child. No, I wasn't there to witness the danger and disrespect. But that allows me to stay back and see spanking for what it is, a violent act against the defenseless.

Part of the reason is practical. Hitting the people you are presumably trying to teach not to hit is an effective way for parents to undermine their own message and expose themselves as hypocrites. That actually chips away at a kid's respect for parents, which is ironic when you consider that corporal punishment's believers, if I understand them correctly, see it as a way to instill respect for (but actually fear of) authority.

Plus, plenty of 4-year-olds aren't spanked and do heed their parents. Plenty are spanked and don't heed. It's not the black-and-white, cause-and-effect business you make it out to be.

Nor is it your business whether these parents spank, and that's part of my "no," too.

If you truly just fear for the kids, then judging or lecturing their parents might be the least effective path. Being a kind, open-minded, boundary-aware neighbor … that's the most reliable way to position yourself to help.

• Email Carolyn at tellmewashpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

2014 The Washington Post

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