TRAINING CHILDREN: TO SPANK OR NOT TO SPANK
November 1, 1986 Issue
by James D. Orten
Because I work professionally with children, I am occasionally asked whether spanking is more or less effective than other forms of discipline. I try to avoid responding to the question in public places (like the lobby of the church building) because the inquirer usually wants a one-word answer and the issue is more complex than that. Recently, however, the matter came up in a context in which I felt free to discuss it and some of those present asked me to write down what I said. I agreed and this article is the result.
Perhaps we should start by observing that there is agreement from all sections of society on the need for discipline. Preachers, psychologists, school teachers, and parents all agree with Solomon that a child left to himself will bring his mother to shame (Prov 29:15). Even Freud, whose views are often unwelcome in Christian homes, said that if a child were not disciplined the world itself could not contain his wishes.
Some people believe the Scriptures require use of physical punishment. In support of their belief they cite such passages as "He that spareth his rod hateth his son." This statement from Prov 13:24 is the closest thing in the bible to the oft quoted but un-Biblical "Spare the rod and spoil the child." In several other verses the use of the "rod" is mentioned: Prov 10:13; 22:15; 23:13; and 23:14.
There is little doubt that whipping was the most common form of punishment in those days. It was in my day, too! But in my judgment these passages require only appropriate correction, not a specific type. For example, Prov 22:15 says, "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him." Notice that the "rod" here was one "of correction." It was not necessarily a "rod of wood."
There are also statements in both Old and New Testaments which show that milder forms of discipline were appropriate to some children and some circumstances. For example, Samuel, the prophet, did not train his sons and they grew up to be wicked men. The Bible says God was displeased because "his sons made themselves vile, and he restrained them not." The phrase "restrained them not" is translated in the margin as "he frowned not upon them." Apparently, there were times and circumstances in these sons' lives where a frown from their father would have been an appropriate measure of discipline. In fact, smiling instead of frowning at some things children do can be about as large a disciplinary mistake as parents can make.
A Perfect Example
Christians can surely take God, our father, as the perfect disciplinarian. Titus 2:11-12 says, "For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lust, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world." The word "teaching" here could be translated "chastening", as it is in several other places; for example Heb 12:6, 7, and 10. This passage describes exactly the type of chastisement most parents want for their children: the type that "brings salvation" and causes them to "live soberly and righteously."
The definition of the word Paul chose for chastisement in Tit 2:12 is almost a verbatim description of the type of discipline that good child development specialists would recommend. It means "a training gracious and firm," (W. E. Vine, page 193). Psychologists usually say "loving but firm". It covers all types of discipline, from a reproving word to a severe scourging. What it means is that the discipline should be made to fit the needs of the child and the circumstances. This complies with a passage we study often, Prov 22:16, which says "Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it." Some authorities say the phrase "in the way that he should go" means "according to his needs." The margin says "according to his way."
Consider the Child
Some people take the attitude that for all children and any misbehavior the solution is to "lay the wood to them." If that doesn't work, increase the wood. Because we would like to have simple answers to perplexing problems, this approach appeals to some parents. Usually, however, it does not work; and it can make matters worse.
Children who are disciplined too harshly become bitter. This is what Paul had in mind when he said, "and ye, fathers, provoke not your children by cruel usage but to bring them up in the moderate discipline the Lord provides.
Harsh discipline is effective in controlling behavior, especially while the child is in the parents' presence. On the other hand, it does little to instill the values and respect for parents that control a child's behavior when he is away from parents or has grown out from under parental control.
Children who receive discipline that is so weak or inconsistent that it does not control them, come to hold their parents in contempt. Thus, parents must be concerned about discipline that is too harsh or too weak. One child might be brought under control with a reproving word. His sibling may require measures that are considerably more stern. Some parents think these types of differences in discipline are unfair, but the truth is, it is unfair to treat unequal children equally.
Consider the Circumstance
A parent who has disciplinary problems with his child should consider more than his methods of discipline. Children do not live in vacuums any more than adults. Sometimes parents create the need for harsh discipline (and then are dismayed at having to give it) by the atmosphere they foster in the home.
Parents who are angry at each other, create children who are angry at each other. Parents who yell, usually raise children that yell. A home in which the T.V. blazes with shoot-em-ups, the stereo blares loud music, and people scream at each other (They would have to, wouldn't they?) causes children and adults to live on the raw edges of their nerves. Other things being equal, discipline will have to be harsher in a home like this than in one in which people listen to each other in quiet conversation. I am not suggesting that parents suddenly remove discipline, even if the home environment is not what it should be. What would be helpful is to consider ways of reducing the negative stimulation. When this is done, less severe discipline may be quite adequate.
The supervision given by the home should also be considered. Solomon was talking about supervision, not punishment, when he said a child left to himself will bring his mother to shame. Good supervision removes the need for a lot of punishment. Prevention, as the saying goes, is always easier than cure. With today's two-career families many children are expected to maintain a level of self-control that is not appropriate to their ages. Harsh discipline is not a substitute for supervision.
Any Place for Corporal Punishment?
Some professionals argue that any physical punishment by a parent will have negative consequences on the child. Is this true? In my judgment, it is not. Children are not stupid. They know whether a swat is given out of anger of out of love. They also have a sense of justice about whether the punishment they get fits their "crimes." If the relationship between parent and child is a trusting one, moderate, non-abusive physical punishment will be accepted for what it is, the parent's attempt to help the child grow to responsible adulthood. It is foolish to insist that a concerned parent's careful "warming of a child's backside" will harm his psyche, when the same child can get his head knocked off in Little League football and that violence will supposedly build character because it is sport.
The real difficulty with physical punishment is that it is easily abused. A parent who does not have himself fully in control should not undertake to spank a child. In those circumstances an out-of-control parent is not likely to earn the respect of a rebellious child just because the parent is bigger and stronger.
To return to the question that opened this discussion, "Is spanking an appropriate form of discipline?" Yes, in some circumstances and in moderation. It is not a magic cure for all problems between parents and children. It was not in "the old days" either. The reason there were fewer rebellious children then was not because corporal punishment was used, but because 1) family ties were stronger, 2) mothers were home and supervision was better, and 3) there was much less negative stimulation.
Nor is there any specific form of discipline that will magically make good children. There is no substitute for parents working together in a thoughtful assessment of their family situation and the total training needs of their children. When that is done, whether to spank or use another form of discipline will probably be a small question.
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