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.