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?