To Spank or Not to Spank

By Catherine Mueller-Bell on April 4, 2016

For background, see this editor's note. This is part two of a three part series. Here is part one if you missed it.

One of the most common challenges for parents is deciding how to respond when a child misbehaves. Caregivers who are parenting don't always agree; they each bring their own experiences and assumptions and have to work out what they will do in their own family. As we explore this issue from a Christian Worldview, I would suggest that the Word of God from the Christian Bible is our greatest resource to help us answer these important questions about parenting. Several foundational points need to be made.

Foundational Points About Spanking

First, biblical scholars would suggest that we refrain from proof-texting and instead take into account the full biblical narrative. That will enable us to avoid taking verses out of context. For example, the phrase "spare the rod, spoil the child" is a rough paraphrase at best of verses like Proverbs 13:24. It is not a direct quote from the Bible. Passively relying on quotes such as these without thinking critically is problematic.

Secondly, I would suggest that a global frame of reference is important. When considering corporal punishment or "spanking," it can be helpful to know that spanking a child is legal in the United States, as long as it doesn't cause physical injury. However, spanking a child is illegal in 48 other countries in the world. This is important, so we don't perpetuate the assumption that there is universal agreement or consensus about this. There simply isn't.

Third, it could be helpful for many parents and caregivers to explore a common debate among biblical scholars and social scientists about corporal punishment. There is a gap between traditional interpretations of the biblical text and social science findings. The traditional view in many Christian circles, is commonly understood that spanking is a safe and reliable method of discipline; the social findings are often less well-known in some contexts. Here are two resources if you want to consider those findings. Even those who choose to use spanking in their family may find insights on how to approach the practice in the best way possible.

Lastly, there is at least one common denominator in this debate. The unanimous agreement is that children need guidance, discipline, limits and boundaries as well as an understanding of consequences for their choices and actions. The disagreement comes down to deciding between two overall approaches to parenting: the authoritative punishment model and the consequence model. The later is based on empirical data from research in the field of counseling psychology and child development theory.

Questions for Parents About Spanking

As each parent or caregiver makes the decision about how they will discipline the children under their care, here are a few questions that could be worth considering. Parents, these are questions you may want to consider and answer for yourself. Counselors and pastors, consider offering these questions to parents with whom you interact to help them evaluate their approach to childcare.

Physical Pain Questions

  • Do you believe that a child is motivated to change their behavior if pain is inflicted each time they misbehave?
  • How do you know the child understands and internalizes the reason to change their behavior?
  • Do you believe that "spanking" is a form of violence? If not, why?
  • Do you think there is a difference between hitting a child and beating a child? If so, what is the difference, and where do you draw the line?
  • Do you believe a child can learn to hit others if they are hit by a caregiver? Why or why not?
  • Why is it illegal for an adult to be hit by another family member, but it is not illegal to hit a child (as long as the child is not injured)?

Safety/Trust Questions

  • Do you believe a child can feel physically and psychologically safe when a caregiver spanks them?
  • What challenges might spanking create for fostering feelings of safety, and how do you address those challenges?
  • How do you avoid confusing the child when an adult hits them in order to teach them not to hit?
  • Do you believe the body has a memory, and being struck physically can cause traumatic memories? How do you avoid this as a parent?
  • Do you believe explaining to the child that you are hitting them because you love them is an accurate portrayal of love for their future relationships? Why or why not?

Authority Questions

  • Does spanking a child teach them the difference between right and wrong?
  • Do you believe that your job as a parent or caregiver is to break the will of the child? If so, what are the risks and benefits of striving for this goal?
  • What attitude toward authority figures do you think spanking fosters: humility and submission, bitterness and resistance, or something else?
  • Can you teach a child humility and submission to authority without spanking? If so, how?

Biblical Questions

  • Do you believe the passages in Scripture about "sparing the rod" imply that the child should be spanked, or do you think, as one evangelical biblical scholar writes, the rod may symbolize firm, clear discipline without physical forms of punishment?
  • Do you believe the proverbs about the "rod" are meant to be direct commands, or are they meant to be generalized wise sayings that may have exceptions (note the complimentary statements in Proverbs 26:4,5)?
  • Upholding inerrancy of the biblical text, do you believe that passages in the Old Testament about "sparing the rod" were shaped by the cultural norms and customs of biblical times, or are they parenting practices that should be carried out today and for all time?

These types of questions are worth asking to ensure that adults are using critical thinking and making an informed, well thought out decision. A methodical and thoughtful process like this can help parents develop a renewed, and perhaps more biblically sound, understanding of the full biblical narrative. The goal is to understand God's mind and heart on the subject, if one wants to parent from the foundation of their Christian values.

As a Christian, I have found that the closer we get to understanding and implementing the will of God in an obedient manner, the closer we get to being a healthy caregiver of one of the most important parts of God's Kingdom, children. In my third post, I will discuss some of the findings of social science research on corporal punishment, describe a method to learn the themes from the biblical narrative, and offer some alternatives for those who decide to refrain from using corporal punishment as a parenting custom.

Update: A previous version of this article noted that spanking is illegal in 39 countries. That is 2-year-old data. The current data, as noted above, is that 48 countries have now made spanking illegal.

Categories: Counseling, Culture