Mary Johnson
May 07, 1979 12:00 PM

Says Judge Ekdahl: ‘I never heard any expert say that spanking Is good for a child’

“Dad, “says the boy, leading his sniveling parent to the police station, “I hate to do this, but it’s for your own good.” The miscreant’s crime: spanking his child.

It is an improbable scenario, admittedly, but who is to say it will not come to pass? In March the Swedish parliament overwhelmingly approved a law forbidding kränkande behandling—any insulting or injurious treatment by parents that would cause their children mental distress. In other words, spanking is a nej-nej.

The man who wrote the new law is Bertil Ekdahl, a 36-year-old father of three who admits he has whacked an occasional bottom. Ekdahl did not initiate the legislation—which goes into effect July 1—but as a judge specializing in family law, he was assigned to draft it. And as a father, he endorses it. “If I were to hit another family’s child,” he reasons, “I would go to court. So why should I have the right to hit my own?”

While some Swedes protest that the new law does not go far enough—they feel that parents should be required to treat their children “with love”—traditional disciplinarians are fuming. One dissenter describes the measure as “totally absurd, the kind of thing that means nothing and cannot be interpreted or enforced.” Indeed, punishment is left largely to the would-be spanker’s imagination. “We expect only the most severe cases to be taken to court,” says Ekdahl. (He isn’t talking about child abuse, however, which has long been punishable under criminal law in Sweden.)

Though many countries forbid corporal punishment in the schools, Sweden is probably the first to extend its jurisdiction into the home. “Many misunderstand this legislation,” argues Ekdahl. “It doesn’t rule out a parent showing his anger. It’s important that a child be informed of the limits of toleration.” Ekdahl acknowledges that he has sometimes drawn those limits with the flat of his hand. “It has happened that I’ve spanked my own youngsters when they were fighting and I’ve come home tired and irritated,” he says, “but the last year I’ve stopped it. When they are over 10, it doesn’t do any good. They just become hysterical or want to fight back. Violence feeds violence. That’s wrong.”

Raised in the Stockholm suburb of Bromma, Ekdahl claims to recall almost every paddling he received as a child. “The fact that a grown-up still remembers is a sign these things go deeper than we believe,” he says. “When I was 12, my mother slapped me in the face and I was deeply offended. I remember thinking ‘It’s not fair!’ A child, seeking revenge, may turn and hit a smaller child. As I had a little sister, she was convenient.”

Ekdahl doubts that “a whole generation of parents will be criminalized” by the new law, as one Swedish school superintendent has suggested. “Most children have a feeling of solidarity with their mothers and fathers,” he says. But in case that solidarity crumbles, a “hot line” for youngsters has been established in Stockholm, and a private organization has hired a children’s ombudsman. Ekdahl, of course, feels professionally committed to the march of progress—if progress it is—but what of his wife, Brigitta? “Even before the law, she used less and less spanking,” he notes approvingly, “but I can see that sometimes her hand still itches.”

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