Punishment vs. Consequence: Final Thoughts about SpankingBy Catherine Mueller-Bell on April 6, 2016
As we continue our conversation about raising children, I think it is important to emphasize that children are a gift from God. They are loaned to us for a season. We protect and foster their holistic development before God calls us to let go and empower them to come into their own identity. We are influencing a life that is not our own and have an opportunity to love them as God loves us—in an un-possessive way. We do this while recognizing the image of God, as well as free will and sin that are inherent in all of humanity, including children.
I believe this approach to raising children is what the Bible teaches, and the trends from social science reflect that it is our best bet when striving to be healthy parents and to raise well-adjusted, responsible, moral, virtuous and caring adults who can contribute in their own unique ways to society and God's Kingdom.
Findings of Social Science Research
I am grateful for the information from social science research. This data can help us understand what seems to be working and what has been problematic for parents in any society. I have been a child and family counselor for over 30 years, serving both locally and abroad, and I have been a mom of two sons for the past 26 years. The trends this research reveals are congruent with themes I have seen professionally and personally.
A quick note about research like this: Researchers in the field of counseling are expected to conduct their work in an objective manner without any bias. The goal is that the results will present the facts about how parenting practices, like spanking, have affected children. Since the data presents negative outcomes of this parenting custom, social scientists have responded by discouraging parents and caregivers from using any form of corporal punishment due to the harm it can cause. Even parents who choose to use spanking can take note of their conclusions.
A correlation has been made between spanking and psychological problems in children (Straus, 2009). In fact, over 98% of literature in counseling psychology discourages this form of discipline. Studies show that children who are spanked may develop aggressive tendencies with conflict resolution, emotional numbness and diminished capacity for empathy, vulnerability and intimacy, an extreme of either timidity or cynicism, increase tendency for domestic violence in adulthood and cruelty to animals (Donnelly & Straus, 2013).
I think it would be unwise to disregard these results, since they reflect the reality of this parenting practice in significant ways. Those who choose to use spanking may take this as a caution flag and carefully consider how and when they will use spanking with their children. The risk is great.
A Balanced Approach that Reflects the Heart of God
God created us to commune with Him and with one another, which suggests we are hard-wired for relationship and connection. Social science corroborates this truth about human nature. Our very existence depends on a relational design, so we would be wise to make our relationships—with both God and with children—central in our approach to discipline. As we abide in Him, we can provide leadership as caregivers to children and adolescents, gradually orienting them to reality, in an age-appropriate way, through trusting relationships.
If you want to understand what God is calling parents to do regarding discipline, I would suggest laying out all of the biblical verses about children along with their genre and contexts. Read how Bible scholars, theologians and pastors apply these passages and the biblical story as a whole. This will help to avoid proof-texting and bring clarity about God's guidance on this issue. Christian parents can strive to attain and cultivate the biblical themes they discover and exude the character of Christ, while creating a Christ-centered, relational home.
Each caregiver has the ability to choose their parenting style. As you rely on the biblical text, I suggest looking for a model of parenting on a continuum that includes a Traditional-Authoritative Model on one end and an Empowerment Model on the other. I have found that the best and most biblical approach is a balanced model in between those two extremes.
A balanced approach embraces a combination of authority and empowerment, grace and truth, limits and reasonable freedom. This allows parents to promote moral development and help their children develop a healthy conscience and sense of self. Research shows that this balance can help a child develop a capacity for character development and empathy, avoiding the psychological pitfalls that can come from extremes on this continuum.
My Proposal: The Consequence Model
It is clear that parents need to lead as they give their children choices within clear limits with logical and natural consequences for misbehavior. This "consequence model" is the best, balanced approach I have found. The "old school" punishment model relies on a punitive approach that can convey an unrealistic attempt to control a child's every move (or else!). Punitive, punishment models have many disadvantages. They can cause discipline to be externalized and fear-based rather than internalized through teachable moments. The child needs to learn that we all have consequences and are accountable for our actions. The consequence model teaches this and nurtures an atmosphere of love and respect better than any other model I've seen.
If you decide that you want to attempt non-physical forms of disciplining your children, you will find an abundance of resources including authors like Abigail Zeman's "80 Ways to Discipline Your Child without Spanking" or Jerry Wyckoff and Barbara Undell's "Discipline without Shouting or Spanking: Practical Solutions to the Most Common Preschool Behavior Problems." These resources teach parents about the infinite non-physical customs they can apply.
If you want to delve into the theological aspects of this discussion, the book "Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts" by William Webb and the work of Benjamin L. Corey could be very helpful.
I invite you to join me in this quest to investigate the definition of healthy parenting and forms of edifying discipline practices. We all make mistakes as parents and caregivers. The journey is not about perfectionism. It is more about being willing to be transformed as we parent, as we understand our need for spiritual wisdom. I hope you will consider joining me in the uncomfortable disequilibrium, the cognitive/emotional dissonance that occurs when we invest in thoughtful analysis. I can assure you there will eventually be a new equilibrium, as we synthesize what we learn through a process like this.
One final word: After doing extensive research about this issue, my current impression is that the biblical text and social science does not support spanking children, but it does encourage clear guidance, limits and non-physical forms of intervention when a child misbehaves. This intervention, I believe, must come out of a relationship that provides fair and consistent consequences and unconditional love and devotion. Whatever conclusions you come to about how to discipline and teach the children under your care, my hope is to facilitate a process where informed decisions can be made, in order to foster thriving children and families.
If we show up for this Divine appointment, it will be one of the most rewarding aspects of our lives, this side of heaven.
- Donnelly, M., & Straus, M. (2013). Corporal Punishment of Children in Theoretical Perspective. Yale University Publishing.
- Straus, Murray A. (2009). Prevalence and Social Causes of Corporal Punishment by Parents in World Perspective. Meeting of the Society of Cross-Cultural Research.