To Spank or Not to Spank? That Is the Question.

It appears the topic of spanking is by far the most popular topic I have ever written on. (No surprise, because it’s also quite controversial). Thank you all for your comments, and for the charitable way in which you approached a contested and emotionally-charged subject. Keeping them in mind, I thought it was best to write a more in-depth follow-up post.

The reason I felt it was an important topic to write on, despite being an extremely conflict-averse person, is that the Christian community has taught for a long time that spanking (defined for the purposes of this post as striking a child for the purpose of changing or correcting their behavior on the hand or the buttocks, with a hand or other small implement designed to inflict pain) is the only/best way to raise a child. I know not all Christians believe this, but in the circles I was raised, this was the prevailing belief.

So when I got married, moved away, and had a kid, I was of course going to spank my child(ren). After all, everyone’s seen the bratty little kid at the supermarket who tells his mother what kind of cereal to buy and screams and cries when she says no and is given everything he wants. And no one wants to raise that kind of kid.

The obvious solution was to discipline him in the only right way to raise a kid, the way all good Christian parents raised their kids–by spanking.

Imagine my surprise, then, when, instead of working like a magic pill to solve all every problem I could ever have with JQ, spanking made both him and me lose control. “Tell your child not to hit!” the books and blogs proclaimed. “Give him a slap on the wrist when he hits you.” But it didn’t work that way. Following my example, JQ started hitting more, going around proclaiming “I JQ ‘pank Mommy! I JQ ‘pank Daddy!”

Having thus exhausted the only tool in my repertoire and fallen back defeated (and yes, there were many other similar situations), I began to question my paradigm. Maybe spanking was not the only way to raise a child. Maybe I could still have a child whom I liked to be around without spanking him.

Perhaps these ideas are common sense to you, but I had never even met–to the best of my knowledge–another person who practiced gentle parenting. Before I published my post a few days ago, I figured they were few and far between. (Not spanking your child is hip now, my mom assured me, and it’s really those who do spank who are the odd ones out.)

So I published my post not only to share my personal story and some of the reasons behind my making that decision (which are far too many to enumerate in a blog post), but also to tell others who may be struggling with discipline: there are other ways and other tools you can use to discipline your kids. Spanking is not necessarily illegitimate, but everyone should agree that it’s easy to abuse it, overuse it, and use it as a crutch to keep you from really connecting with your child.

Every author who writes about how to spank generally adds the caveat that spanking should never be done in anger, if only for the sake of the one doing the spanking. The problem with this is, we’re humans, not Vulcans. At least from my own experience, the people who know you best (like your children) are also the people who are the best at eliciting an emotional response (like anger). Add in misbehavior and disobedience to that mix, and you have the perfect storm for frequently spanking in anger, in spite of your best intentions. Perhaps some of you are more Vulcan-like than others and are sure you never spank in anger. The rest of us, however, should take heed. Indeed, studies indicate that most child abuse begins as a well-intentioned spanking!

To rationalize this abuse of spanking, then, what often happens is that people find “the rod verses” in Proverbs  (Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15), and use them to reassure themselves that spanking is the way to discipline children. The Bible says your kid won’t die if you beat them with a rod. Great–what’s there to worry about?

Aside from the obvious fact that a child CAN die if you beat him with a rod, rationalizing with “the Bible says so” doesn’t make your sin any less sinful. Taking a text out of its context to prove one tiny point is a well-known hermeneutical error (and it happens all the time). And the context of Proverbs is a huge one. Solomon reigned in ancient Israel from 970-931 BC (basically a really long time ago, and his culture would have been extremely different from ours), and, while he was gifted with supernatural wisdom to govern his kingdom (1 Kings 3), he was, to all accounts, a terrible father. Rehoboam, after all, had no time for the advice of the “old men” in his life–a symptom, one might guess, of the sort of relationship he had with his father–and instead chose the advice of the “young men” with whom he had “grown up” (1 Kings 12). Solomon, for all his wisdom, apparently didn’t impart much of it to his own son and heir: the result was the division of Israel and nearly civil war, prevented only by a last minute message from God (1 Kings 12:22).

Solomon’s own father, King David, was perhaps even worse. Scripture is rife with accounts of David’s terrible parenting decisions: his idolization of his children, his refusal to allow them to suffer any consequences for their misdeeds, and his willingness to allow his own emotions to govern his parenting choices (see the story of Tamar and Amnon in 2 Samuel 13). Solomon himself had so many women in his life he probably couldn’t even remember all of their names, and that’s not even counting the children he fathered by them. It’s not hard to imagine that, at the end of his life, Solomon looked back with regret on his poor parenting decisions and the poor parenting of his own father, and wrote these proverbs as a warning to other parents that they might not neglect the discipline of their children, which he says–presumably from experience–is the same thing as hating them (Proverbs 13:24). Anyone who has read the shocking story of Tamar and Amnon cannot disagree.

At any rate, if Solomon was indeed telling people not to neglect their children like he did his own, it would be a shame if we used his wisdom to keep from connecting with our children’s heart. “Oh, little Mary disobeyed again? It’s the rod for her!” without ever taking the time to figure out why she disobeyed or how to effect change at the heart level. I know many good parents who spank who do not do this, but when you believe that spanking is the only way to correct a child’s heart, it’s easy to forget that human connection and love is really the best way to show to a child that you do have their best interests at heart and you want to help them change. And all of this isn’t just my ‘feelings’ on the topic.

The ways in which spanking is abused and overused can and does actually lead to the neglect and even abuse of children, and often. The most reliable numbers I can find suggest 4 out of 5 American children get spanked (more or less regularly)–so, in other words, despite the suggestion that spankers are an endangered minority today, they don’t seem to be; most kids get spanked. So how does this affect these children?

First, multiple studies have found that corporal punishment (such as spanking) makes children more violent, even though nearly all parents spank to try to reduce aggression. In fact, the more parents spanked, the more their children also used violence to try to solve their own problems.

Second, spanking can cause other problems, like depression and anxiety. It should be no surprise that spanking has an emotional effect, since that’s the main reason people spank their children anyways. But it should be sobering that instead of producing model citizens, spanking produces children who perhaps can’t cope as well with the stresses of adulthood.

Third, spanking works no better than other, gentler, methods of discipline, such as using natural consequences or even utilizing redirection. It does work better for shaping children’s consciences and helping them learn self-control than doing nothing at all (no surprise there), but it’s not any better than any other method of discipline (and, given that it often makes children more violent and aggressive, arguably works worse than other methods).

With these harms, how is it that Christians–and those in the fundamentalist community especially–can seem so blissfully unaware of the pernicious effects of spanking? Given all the evidence (for a somewhat contrary view, see here), it should be something we talk about.

There may be certain situations where an extreme punishment–like spanking–is called for. Having a serious view of spanking is precisely what could allow it to be effective in these circumstances. So while spanking may not be always wrong for everyone–some people really are Vulcans (my dad being one of them)–what I do know is it doesn’t work for me. I’m not a Vulcan, and if the evidence amassed by social scientists is right, lots of other people aren’t either.




The Ease of Being You

He listens to the music with a blissful look on his face, arms going “round and round,” feet dancing in circles. He’s just a two-year-old in a diaper, but for the self-assurance he displays, he could be the president ( I dare you to catch the president dancing around in a diaper to “The Wheels on the Bus”!).

Yes, he knows how to take a selfie already. #momfail

I learn something new from JQ every day. His insistence on doing things by himself even when he’s only going to fail (do, Mommy), his patience when he has to repeat himself five times and we still don’t understand what he’s saying, the ease with which he greets people, and the quickness with which he comforts a crying baby. Basically, he’s the person I always wanted to be but wasn’t.

To someone who’s been afraid of everybody her whole life, always second-guessing everything I do and say (and feeling awkward regardless), this utter lack of self-consciousness is mostly only something I dream of having. I’m pretty sure I was terrified of people even when I was two.

This kid, though? I’m pretty sure he escaped the awkward-introvert-who-can’t-think-of-small-talk gene.  He makes friends wherever he goes–with old ladies on the bus, kids on the playground, and anyone who will smile at him on the train. Sure, he doesn’t like creepy old men who stop and pinch his cheeks or try to get him to come with them (just, why?), but then, who does?

Someone once said to me that they thought Christians could only be extroverts–that people who are quieter or find it difficult to talk to people should change their behavior to always be outgoing and friendly, ready to talk to anyone at any time. I’ve thought about this comment a lot over the years: do I need to change who I am (I’ve tried, and so has my mother), and even the way I look at the world? Was I created wrong? Ungodly?

And as I’ve thought about this, the more I think it’s wrong. Yes, it’s decidedly more socially acceptable to be the friendly chatterbox who loves being around people ALL THE TIME. But socially acceptable doesn’t mean it’s the way things have to be. It doesn’t mean that my gifts don’t matter. It doesn’t mean that every Christian has to be your neighborhood joy-exuding person who never met a stranger. If everyone was a chatterbox, who would shut up and listen to them?

As I’ve grown older, I’ve stopped worrying so much about what I have or don’t have and wishing I was different. Now, I focus on what I can do and do it the best I can. Turns out I can talk just fine as long as I know what I’m talking about (though I still don’t like small talk and just sit there in awkward silence most of the time).

So what I’ve learned from JQ? Live life with exuberance and joy, not always wishing for something you don’t have or to be someone you aren’t. I’m not any less of a person because I hate going up to someone just to say hi. And if you’re the neighborhood joy-exuding person? Hooray! The world needs you too.

A Packed Cathedral

Why would 20 or 30 Chinese stand outside a church in -2 Celsius weather for two hours? Most immediately, because there was no sitting or standing room inside the church. More broadly, because there is a spiritual void in China, and many Chinese turn to God to fill it.

This past weekend, we did some traveling in China to the ancient capital of Xi’an. Since we were there over a Sunday, we went to church. Research done beforehand had turned up a few churches, and we settled on St. Francis Cathedral since it was historic (built in 1716) and there was some English  information about it (quite scientific, eh?). Apparently it was closed for 14 years for the Cultural Revolution but made a strong comeback, and even opened up the first soup kitchen for the poor in all of China in 2005. Unfortunately, while our research told us service times, it failed to tell us what language those services were in.


So we showed up at 9:30 for the 10:00 service, and found out it was all in Chinese! We followed along where we could (we understood “Amen” and “alleluia” and “Jesu”. . .and that was about it). All the songs sounded very Chinese, and the girl sitting next to me obligingly held over her songbook so I could “read” along. I tried to sound like I was singing in Chinese, anyways, but it probably didn’t work.

The inside (brightly colored in Chinese style) of the church.

It was amazing, though, to see all the Chinese people who came to the service. The building was completely full–standing-room-only full! Even though we arrived half an hour early, we were still too late to sit in the pews in the nave. We had to sit in the quire. And the people who came after us had to sit behind the priest. There were people spilling out the doorways too, who stood for the whole two hours in the cold.

As we were leaving, we saw on the doorway that they DID have an English service–at 3:00 p.m. So we went back for that that afternoon.

See the weathered stones?

We got there early again, hoping to sit in the regular pews so we could see better what was going on (it’s hard to listen to a sermon when you’re sitting behind and to the side of the preacher!). But no sooner had we sat down than a Chinese lady approached us and asked if we could read one of the readings and the prayers. (They told us they asked foreigners because they’re doubtful about everyone else’s English.) So we put on our vestments and went up to sit where we were before. Thankfully, there was another American there who regularly attended the church, and he explained when we were to read and how to bow and all that.

It was an interesting mix of Chinese and Western architecture.

They never asked if we were Catholic or Protestant. It seemed to be enough that we were there and we were white. In fact, after the service we met a Pakistani who was Catholic. He said, “In Pakistan, nobody cares if you’re Catholic or Protestant, because there are so few Christians. The important thing is that you’re Christian. We have so much discrimination from Muslims that dividing against ourselves would be pointless!” 1.5% of Pakistanis, are Christians, he said, and he went to a church where 10,000 of them (both Protestant and Catholic) worshipped, married, and fellowshipped.


In China, this attitude seems to hold as well. As Evan Osnos shows in his book Age of Ambition, for the last forty years Chinese have sought what Mao denied them: fortune, truth, and faith. Fortune, the Party has done a good job supplying. Truth it tries to counter through censorship (but pure negation is weak). Faith it has tried to supply through nationalism. But nationalism is a brittle and dangerous substitute for true religion, and one that is ultimately unsatisfying.  And so Chinese are turning to God.

Mao did his best to destroy traditional China. Then in the Reform and Opening period (starting in 1979–this church re-opened in 1980), Communist China was reformed and has gradually disappeared (even the ugly buildings are slowly being torn down). In the words of eminent historian John Lukacs, “Communism is a wasm.” Now, according to the Economist, China has a quickly growing–to the tune of 10% a year–Christian population. The light persecution offered by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), like taking crosses off of churches and stopping large house churches from meeting, makes Christianity more attractive to many Chinese. The blood of the martyrs (as long as it’s not too widespread, as it was in Tokugawa Japan), is indeed the lifeblood of the church.

So visiting this church, seeing so many Chinese praying and singing to God in their native language, was a reminder of God’s faithfulness. Old farmers, young children (who loved turning around and staring at us, until we winked at them and they blushed), middle-aged mothers and fathers all gathered together to worship God. That’s why people are so eager to come to church that they’ll stand outside in the cold for two hours–because they know that their God lives.