It happened years ago, but Deborah Lindeman recounts the moment as if it happened yesterday. Her mother, chastising her, hit her so hard that she left a hand print on her 11-year-old's thigh. Stunned, they both cried for 25 minutes.
"We review our lives as parents with some pain, I know we all do," says Ms. Lindeman's mother, Susan Goldstein, who also has a clear memory of when her own father hit her with a belt after she had crossed a street without looking both ways. "I don't like power as a way of solving problems.... We just took it for granted."
Corporal punishment as a means of discipline has been entrenched in US culture since Colonial times. Attitudes have evolved over the years, but Thursday night the town of Brookline, a suburb of Boston, faced possibly the most radical public shift in approach to the divisive issue. Its citizens were scheduled to vote on a controversial resolution that encourages parents and caregivers to refrain from corporal punishment of children. If passed, Brookline would be the first US town with such a resolution, says Jordan Riak, founder of Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education in Alamo, Calif.
"These kind of things tend to start at the local level and rise to a more global level, and I suspect that they're reaching for legislation that would make [spanking] illegal," says Julaine Appling, acting director of the Family Research Institute of Wisconsin, who supports judicious spanking and worries about infringement on parental rights. "It sounds very precedent-setting to me."
Mr. Riak attempted to make Oakland, Calif., a "no spanking zone" five years ago with a similar resolution, which failed by one vote in the Oakland City Council. National press jumped on the story, but it was largely treated as a joke, even as Riak felt the resolution would have helped reduce the city's high rate of domestic and street violence. Some studies have shown a correlation between spanking and antisocial behavior.
Oakland wasn't ready for the resolution, Riak says, but he'll try again if the Brookline resolution succeeds. "As a rule, social reform generally doesn't begin in places that most need it. That's why Brookline is the right place to do it," he says. "That sets a standard for other cities to follow. It has to be made socially safe or acceptable. I have many people watching the Brookline experiment [who] are ready to launch similar resolutions in their own cities."
Brookline boasts a well-educated citizenry and independent-minded voters, town Selectman Michael Sher says. The night before the vote on the resolution, he predicted a lively debate but said the outcome was too much of a tossup to predict.
Lindeman, a Brookline resident and mother of two, calls the resolution a "no-brainer" - simply a sensible recommendation, though she shares skepticism with other parents about how such a resolution could be enforced.
Elizabeth and Kai Leissner, however, feel less comfortable having the town weigh in on their child-rearing practices. They don't believe in spanking their own two children, but they also believe in the freedom to choose. "Every situation is different, and [government] can't say what's right and wrong," Ms. Leissner says. "Soon they will decide that I'm not able to give soda to my kids?"
Ron Goldman, who submitted the resolution with the backing of child-welfare organizations, says he has no intention of undermining parental authority, and characterizes the resolution as a nonbinding "suggestion."
"There's a reason for social concern about what goes on in the family because it does have social consequences for all of us," Dr. Goldman says.
"What's done to children, they will do to society," he adds, quoting American psychiatrist Karl Menninger.
Aside from the role of the government, the resolution opens debate about the role of the parent and the use of spanking. Is striking a child a human rights abuse or a legitimate means of discipline? Research offers no clear answer.
Goldman, an engineer with a doctorate in psychology, cites a 2002 Columbia University analysis of 88 studies on spanking that links the practice to aggression and mental-health problems in children.
On the other side, Dubose Ravenel, a member of the Society for Developmental Behavior Pediatrics with a practice in High Point, N.C., points to analysis that regards the use of spanking as part of "optimal child raising."
Dr. Ravenel says the large number of studies makes it "silly" to draw a meaningful conclusion without studying them in depth, yet policy is often made based on a superficial reading of the data.
Analysts point to the rise of popular psychology - and the focus on the child's individuality - as a major contributor to growing criticism of spanking.
And not just in the US. A dozen countries have national policies condemning corporal punishment - Germany, Israel, and Denmark among them. Sweden was the first to do so in 1979.
Goldman is hoping to make history with his petition, but if public awareness in Brookline is the only outcome, he says he'll be satisfied.