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Controlling Kids with a 'Raised Eyebrow?'

When you were a kid, did you fear Dad's “raised eyebrow?”  Perhaps a good swat on the bum was more effective in causing remorse and behavioral change. It was for me.

Not so for the Washington Post's Family Almanac columnist, Marguerite Kelly, who says a “sharp word – even a raised eyebrow – is usually enough to control a child.”

Right. Maybe if the child is one of those “compliant” types who sits still and rarely raises a fuss. But if it's a boy, good luck.

In her March 28 Family Almanac column, “When Dad Won't Refrain From Spanking, Son's Safety Must Come First,” Kelly runs a letter from a mother who is thinking of leaving her husband because he spanks their 30-month-old son.

The mother says, “I could never spank my son,” and was aghast when she learned that Dad was doing it on a regular basis. She is especially concerned over Dad delivering an “immediate, furious spanking” whenever the boy “has a tantrum or doesn't pick up his toys as soon as he's asked.”

Let's give Mom the benefit of the doubt. Maybe Dad is whaling away too hard or too often or too angrily. It is definitely not a good idea to spank when angry. Dare to Discipline author Dr. James Dobson, who advocates measured spanking, warns very strongly against doing that.

But Kelly goes beyond questioning whether the spanking is done appropriately and recommends instead that, “as practiced parents can tell you, a sharp word – even a raised eyebrow – is usually enough to control a child.”

Well, it wasn't enough for me, and I wasn't a particularly horrible miscreant. I was just a boy who needed to know that Dad cared enough to discipline me from time to time. And he was not always tranquil and at peace when doing it. Nor was I so placid in all circumstances when steering my own son straight.

Before angry letters pour in from genuine victims of child abuse, please understand that I am not suggesting that beating a child is OK or that physical punishment should be the first course of action. There is real abuse going on out there, and it is causing real harm. As Dobson notes, spanking should be done carefully only after other methods fail, should not cause welts or injury, and should always be followed directly with a hug and reassurance of love. Also, when the kid grows bigger than you, it's time to deprive him of creature comforts like computers and car keys instead.

Another authority that is not heard often today puts it this way: “He who spares the rod, hates his son. But he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”

That's from King Solomon, who had a lot of sons. And daughters. He also had a lot of wives, which brought him no small amount of grief, which should be a lesson to those promoting polygamy on HBO's Big Love. But that's another story.

Getting back to Kelly, she recommends getting Dad in … therapy. That is, if he won't stop the spankings. I would have loved to send my dad to therapy whenever he was even thinking about smacking my butt – especially when I richly deserved it.

Thankfully, my mother did not intercede in that fashion, and my father's willingness to take the time to discipline me paid off. I grew up to become a law-abiding, authority-respecting adult who went on to run a think tank that advocates personal responsibility.

Now, if my dad had spanked me a few more times, I might not even have incurred speeding tickets later in life.

Perhaps I'll take that up with a therapist someday.

Robert Knight is the director of the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.