Why I won’t spank my children

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I was spanked as a kid, though it was only a handful of times. My brother was more of an instigator, which meant he had more experience with the wrong end of a paddle.

Our experience of corporal punishment was nothing like what Adrian Peterson’s 4-year-old son endured. There were no belts or switches in our case. No open wounds or other physical injuries. Typically it was one swift, sharp swat—administered after a requisite “cooling off” period and followed quickly by an affirmation of our parents’ love for us—and then it was done.

My parents’ approach to discipline marked a significant departure, if not a complete one, from that of their parents’ generation. Which is pretty remarkable, when you consider the overwhelming pressure that fundamentalist churches put on parents to spank their kids. (To this day, 80 percent of born-again parents think it’s appropriate—even necessary—to spank. That’s down just slightly from 90 percent when I was growing up.)

Maybe it’s because I grew up in Texas, but parents weren’t the only adults who thought they had the right to spank a child. I remember being spanked by my third-grade principal… at a public school. (I was surprised to learn that 19 states still allow spanking in public schools, and that a quarter-million public school kids were physically punished as recently as 2008.)

The incident from third grade has been lodged in my memory for almost 30 years. Maybe it was the perceived injustice of being physically punished for such a minor infraction. (In my case, it was playing flick football with a plastic straw during lunchtime). Maybe it was the shame attached to a disciplinary trip to the principal’s office. Maybe it was the giant wooden paddle he used, which sat ominously perched against the office wall when not in use.

As parents, my wife and I have decided we’re not going to spank our children. There are several reasons for this, but there is one in particular that’s especially important to me.

The false gospel of spanking

We could talk about the religious arguments for and against spanking. To me, using the Bible to justify spanking is one of the more egregious examples of an overly literal—and highly selective—approach to Scripture.

In a recent article for The Week, RNS columnist Jonathan Merritt took apart the religious argument for spanking. He might be overstating things a bit when he says the “rod” mentioned in Proverbs 13:24 and 23:14 was a shepherd’s staff used for guiding, not hitting. It is indeed the same Hebrew word, shaybet, used elsewhere for a shepherd’s staff—notably in Psalm 23. But the context of Proverbs 23:14 in particular suggests it sometimes had a more violent use, unfortunately.

Even so, Merritt is 100% right when he points out that the Bible hardly mentions corporal punishment outside the non-literal book of Proverbs. The sayings in Proverbs were meant to express general truths—which, like all the other writings in the Bible, were shaped by the culture that produced them. (This, by the way, was a culture that practiced a far more severe form of corporal punishment than anything endorsed by most evangelical proponents of spanking today, with the possible exception of Adrian Peterson.) Turning these proverbs into absolute, literal, universally applicable statements creates all kinds of problems.

Merritt is also right when says spanking is never encouraged in the New Testament. Meanwhile, there are plenty of passages that discourage Christians from engaging in violence of any kind.

And that’s what spanking is. It’s an act of violence, no matter how much restraint is exercised in the application. Which means Merritt is also right when he refers to the promotion of spanking by Christians as a “false gospel.”

The overwhelmingly negative effects of spanking

We could review the overwhelming evidence, summarized well in Merritt’s column, that spanking is an ineffective deterrent and has long-lasting negative consequences for children. Spanking is linked (not surprisingly) to hostile behavior in kids, impaired brain development, and depression.

Especially troubling to me is that when we spank our kids, we’re teaching them that violence is a legitimate way of resolving conflict. Whether we mean to or not, we show our kids how to deal with their anger and frustration by how we handle our own. If my anger at my child’s misbehavior leads me to strike, all I’ve done is teach her to do the same when she gets angry.

We cannot proclaim a gospel of peacemaking while at the same time using violence to solve our short-term problems. We cannot show our kids what it means to “turn the other cheek” if we’re busy swatting theirs.

Spanking is a sign I’ve given up  

But for me, one of the most important reasons to swear off corporal punishment is that spanking my kids would mean I’ve given up trying to find another way.

Believe me, there are times when I’m tempted to spank my 4-year-old. There are times when she puts my parenting skills, such as they are, to the test—when she goes for gold in the Tantrum Olympics. She is a normal kid, after all, which means she can yell, hit, kick, and claw with the best of them.

There are times when I just don’t know how to help her calm down, how to help her channel her behavior in a more positive direction. There are times when it’s tempting to believe a quick swat on the butt will snap her out of it. There are times when I feel my own anger welling up, feeding off of hers.

Whenever I feel tempted to resort to corporal punishment, it means I’ve run out of other ideas. It means I’ve given up finding another way to help my daughter learn how to behave. It means that instead of helping her work through the tumultuous and often confusing emotions of childhood—instead of helping her find a more constructive way to express her feelings—I’m teaching her to shut them down, to stifle them. It also means I’ve given up practicing a nonviolent ethic of love.

Refusing to spank—even as a last resort—forces me to be more creative as a parent. It forces me to engage with my child rather than simply trying to control her behavior. It keeps me honest when I tell her that we shouldn’t ever hit someone else… and especially when I tell her about a person named Jesus who responded to all the violence of this world with disarming love.

Have you sworn off spanking your kids? What are some creative ways you help guide their behavior instead?

Image credit: Boston Public Library on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

16 thoughts on “Why I won’t spank my children

  1. I only spanked my daughter once. It was when she was a toddler. I was emptying the dishwasher and she kept grabbing the knives. I kept moving her into another room and redirecting her to another activity and she kept running back into the kitchen and grabbing. By the third redirect she thought it was a game and ran in squealing and giggling. I spoke in a stern voice trying to convey that it wasn’t a game. She wasn’t getting it. I finally swatted her diapered butt with my hand. The sound (I doubt she felt it through all that padding) startled her and she suddenly understood what “NO” meant.

    I have no advice to give. I was blessed to have a child with whom I could reason, who only threw one tantrum, who was very compliant and who is now a lovely twenty-four year old. Maybe I do have advice – reason with your children. Take the time to explain things – what behavior you want from them and why. And if you have an unreasonable child, good luck to ya’.

    BTW: Whenever my mom spanked one of my sisters or me she would say, “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” I always wondered why she did it then.

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  2. I was raised receiving quite severe spankings until well into my teens. As a young single parent, I spanked my daughter too – not as severely, and I did try to find more meaningful consequences-oriented ways to respond to bad behavior, but still enough that … well, I wish I hadn’t. I think it’s great that you and your wife have thought about this and made a conscious decision. That said, I do believe there is one time when spanking may be appropriate, and that is when a child is deliberately disobedient in a way that endangers them or someone else. For instance, the kid who yanks their hand free and dashes into the road. I would have no hesitation in upending such a kid and walloping them hard enough to make the occasion memorable. Then AFTERWARDS, once the tears were dry and everyone had calmed down, I’d discuss what happened. But I think a reaction as fast as instinct would be appropriate there, because a car doesn’t slow down and think about it before it hits you.

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    • Oh come on, now. Since when did Hobbits start driving cars? 🙂

      Seriously…thanks for sharing this. In the scenario you mentioned, I’m with you in that I would find it necessary to use whatever force was required to protect my child from immediate harm… in this case, physically yanking them out of the road instead of counting on my ability to reason with them in time. (While the car is bearing down is probably NOT the best time to ask, “Do you really think that’s a good decision you’re making?”) But I’m not sure I’d see the need to follow it with a physical punishment. I’d like to think the occasion of being unceremoniously yanked out of the way of a moving vehicle would cause enough shock to allow the message to sink in. In fact, if I did follow it with a spanking, I’d worry that my child’s chief takeaway would be, “He hit me!” rather than “Wow, I almost got creamed by that car. I’d better not do THAT again!” Especially since my daughter knows how we feel about hitting.

      Of course, it’s one thing to calmly speculate about my reaction while sitting in a safe, comfy chair without the rush of adrenaline…

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      • Some Hobbits are more adventurous than others … although my husband would maintain that the biggest adventure of all is to be one of my passengers…:)

        It’s certainly not a simple issue. I have completely rejected the “spare the rod, spoil the child” argument I swallowed as a young, newly “born-again” mother. But I also have ugly memories of parents whose children went to the same Montessori preschool my daughter attended, who were absolutely determined NEVER to “crush a child’s spirit by crossing their will”, and consequently quite often seemed powerless to do anything but manipulate through guilt and nagging. One thing is for sure, parenting these days is quite a lot more challenging than it used to be!

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      • Sorry…all this talk of Hobbits has got me thinking about second breakfast and what a wonderful idea that is.

        Agree that it’s not a simple issue. I think a lot of us have run into examples on the far end of the spectrum, like the one you describe: parents who don’t seem to put any constraints on their child’s behavior for fear of crushing their spirit. I understand the last part. One of the things I’ve tried to share with my daughter is that it’s OK to feel mad or frustrated, that we shouldn’t hide or suppress our feelings…and that what matters most is how we choose to act on them. It’s important for there to be meaningful consequences for bad behavior, even if spanking isn’t one of them.

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  3. This is a refreshing perspective on the impact of spanking, particularly how it relates to societal violence overall. As one who has grown to understand the importance of having action plans to try new methods of discipline, especially with a teenager, I continue to feel the urge to want to use force. I then remind myself of the outcome and find another course.

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  4. This was an issue that annoyed me during our elections here in New Zealand last week. The Conservative Party is all about Christian values, but I don’t understand when conservative and Christian values became the same thing? Jesus was by no means conservative and I can’t imagine him condoning smacking a child. You are so right when you talk about the contradiction of teaching our kids to turn the other cheek and at the same time saying smacking is ok. Thanks for the article 🙂

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    • I can’t imagine Jesus condoning it either. It would seem to fly in the face of everything he taught about nonviolence. If we’re called to subvert evil with love (instead of reciprocating with violence), how much more should we respond with love and restraint when our kids get out of line—which, while annoying, certainly doesn’t rise to the threshold of “evil”?

      Thanks for sharing.

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  5. Anger is such a powerful emotion so few have mastered. We didn’t use spanking as a discipline for many reasons (to do with personal experience). Violence is not the way to change behavior.

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  6. Never, ever say never. Culture dictates the rules of spanking. I grew up black. In my world there was no such thing as the word “spanking”. It was called a “whooping” or one got their “ass” beat. History tells the story. My grandparents grew up in the south. In the south, and many other places, you gave your child a “beating”to keep them alive. Perhaps if Emmett Till’s mother had “spanked” him when he looked at a white woman wrong, he would be alive today. Admittedly, I did not spank my children often, but when I did they still remember. They do not remember those times with malice. I spanked them when what they did could have harmed themselves or others. Never, ever say never or WON’T ! You will do what you must to ensure your child grows up to be happy and safe.

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  7. I wish every young Christian parent could read this. Modeling violence is counter productive to teaching children the appropriate way to deal with conflict. That being said, verbal and emotional abuse also has long lasting scars. I saw an interview once with a young woman who was severely beat by her partner. She was asked what was the worse thing he did to her. She said that the verbal and emotional abuse was worse. Mind you, she was beat so badly that she was hospitalized. Having experienced both physical and emotional abuse, I would have to agree with this…

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  8. Pingback: The effects of spanking kids (infographic) | Ben Irwin

  9. Pingback: Spanking | Links

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