Spanking Is Not Biblical

We have a very lively daughter (our son is on his way as well).  She keeps us constantly on our toes mostly in good but in sometimes trying ways.  As such we have and continue to think long and hard about issues of discipline.  This of course inevitably  leads to the spanking question.

What we believe is controversial in a few quarters, but I hope you will hear us out, take a deep breath, and stop and consider why exactly it is that you spank and consider if it is really effective or necessary.

First, let’s dispense with the cute euphemism of “spanking.”  We are not discussing “spanking” or “chastisement” but hitting.  We are talking about hitting.  So is it right to hit, to use physical violence against, children?

That’s the question.

See it already sounds silly doesn’t it?  Are we really talking about this?

We both feel strongly in our consciences, in our image of God bearing souls, that hitting our children in any fashion is morally wrong.  We’re not perfect.  We’ve both occasionally done it . . . but it’s still wrong.  There’s just something dehumanizing about it to the child and the parent.  We both have felt this when we’ve occasionally slapped our daughter on the wrist.

And if you step back for a second from the emotions of the issue, it’s just common sense.  How does hitting a child teach a child not to hit?  

We know for us at least, when we’re tempted to hit our kids it is due to either laziness or desperation.  In every disciplinary scenario there is something else we can do that’s more effective than hitting.  The question is are we willing to make the extra effort?  To take it a step further, are we willing to put in the work to avoid the desperate meltdowns in the first place?

Yes, it takes a lot work to discipline children using other means.  It takes work to remove them from a situation, to design and keep a system of accountability, to take away something important to them.  All the above is much harder, more draining, and longer lasting than hitting.  But that’s just it.  True, loving discipline is hard work.  It takes a parent constantly living in the moment, constantly guiding and nudging and challenging the child to do right.  In short, it takes imagination.

Where’s your imagination?  Where’s your creativity?

 In our anecdotal experience it is this discipline described above is the key, not spanking.  If parents are consistent they will likely see resulting obedience whether they hit or not.  Thus in our minds hitting is unnecessary.  

But that’s anecdotal.  What does the evidence say?

While pediatricians are ambivalently split on the issue, there is not a single study done showing any benefit whatsoever to hitting children.  None.  Several, however, suggest its futility.  Consider the following research:

A study to determine whether hand slapping had any long-term effects showed that toddlers who were punished with a light slap on the hand showed delayed exploratory development seven months later.

Adults who received a lot of physical punishment as teenagers had a rate of spouse-beating that was four times greater than those whose parents did not hit them.

Spanking seems to have the most negative long-term effects when it replaces positive communication with the child. Spanking had less damaging long-term effects if given in a loving home and nurturing environment.

Husbands who grew up in severely violent homes are six times more likely to beat their wives than men raised in non-violent homes.

Adults who received a lot of physical punishment as teenagers had a rate of spouse-beating that was four times greater than those whose parents did not hit them.

This is not to say that everyone who hits their kids will see the side effects described above.  Many responsible, loving people put proper safeguards in place and do not hit in times of anger or frustration.   So why open the door to those types of side effects at all when there is no observable benefit?  You are already a loving family with a structure of discipline in place.  Why do you need hitting?  Why risk it?

We think many well meaning parents risk it because they are told it’s right there in the bible and that settles it!  “Spare the rod, spoil the child . . . right!”  Well . . .no.  “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” is actually a line from a 17th Century poem mocking religious extremism.  But yes, there are a small handful of verses in Proverbs which on a surface level reading in English appear to endorse corporeal punishment.  Proverbs 23:13 can serve as our example.  It’s the strongest statement in the bible on the issue.  It reads:

Don’t withhold discipline from a youth; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. (HCSB)

A few comments.  One, unless you hit your kids with a large, wooden rod you are relativizing this verse.  You are not following it literally.  So anybody using rods? If so please email me so I can contact the police.  Rather than a literal, nuts and bolts parenting manual, this verse is a poetic parallel extolling the virtue of discipline and guidance.  The takeaway is children need consistent guidance in order to gain wisdom, not that they must be beaten.  How do we know this?  Doesn’t that make us  squeamish yuppies reading what we want into the verse’s plain meaning?  The answer lies in the context.  First, what exactly is a “rod?”  Remember, Solomon is a poor shepherd’s son, probably knows the trade himself, and king over a pastoral nation.  The rod was a shepherd’s tool used to both GUIDE and protect sheep, not to beat them into submission and “break their will.”  Likewise, the verb used for “to beat” has a wide semantic range.  It can mean everything from striking lethally to gently nudging.  Thus, in the this case we think it refers to the gentle nudging a shepherd gives a wandering sheep to keep it safely on the path. Need some more evidence?  How about Psalms 23:4 where Solomon’s father writes:

I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

Hmmm.  The rod is a comfort?

So rather than reign terror over our children as a precursor to the wrath of God if they don’t repent, it seems to us we are to gently, patiently, and humbly guide, nurture, and correct our children. We are to steadfastly walk alongside them as they encounter new obstacles and new situations in life.  You know, kind of like God does with us.

Furthermore, other than those handful of similar, poetic verses in Proverbs there is nothing in the bible that could remotely be construed to support hitting children.  We would argue in fact that hitting is completely contrary to the nature of the one to whom all scripture points, Jesus Christ.  Are we adults to live a life of unending grace and forgiveness while our children suffer physically at even the slightest appearance of disrespect.  Does beating a child until they cry genuinely as James Dobson advocates reflect the character of Christ or the arc of scripture?  What about hitting toddlers as young as 15 months?  We think not and we’re tired of such advice being called “biblical.”  And what of Paul’s consistent exhortations to fathers to not exasperate children but rather to patiently encourage and train them in the Lord (Eph. 6:4, Col. 3:21)?  Why do tiny portions of Proverbs taken out of context outweigh the entire thrust of the New Testament?

In sum, the bible does not require godly parents to hit their children.  It requires discipline but not violence.  It requires loving, firm guidance but not hitting.  Rather than hitting, why not like Jesus seek creative ways to inspire the moral imagination of our children?  Why not seek means for them to understand and explore goodness and virtue without coercion and fear.  Does not perfect love cast out fear?

This post is not intended to condemn or judge parents who choose to hit, though we personally believe it to be wrong.  Rather, we want to challenge you to think about why you hit your kids.  What is your true motivation?  Have you wrestled with the biblical texts yourself or do you assume hitting is right simply because it was done to you?  Are there more effective, proactive ways to put your children in a positive position to thrive that don’t involve hitting?  And perhaps most disturbingly, why are we as an evangelical culture so quick and unthinking in our defense of hitting children?  Why are evangelicals virtually the only element in society that won’t even question the practice?  Why is there so little critical reflection on this issue in our churches?

Let’s start to change that.

Peace,

Jenny and Ben

***Please note the Dr. Sears family website and Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood by Charles Fay served as the source material for this post.

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12 thoughts on “Spanking Is Not Biblical

  1. That’s not an easy position to take in evangelical Christianity, but I applaud you for taking it, nonetheless. We have 3 kids, ages 10, 8, and 4. We initially used spanking, but we stopped around the time we left Christianity. And we regret that we ever used it at all.

    Each child is different, and he or she will respond differently to different tactics, but my wife and I now firmly believe that spanking is never the right approach. It might get certain results faster than other methods, but I think the long term effects aren’t worth the immediate results.

    1. Thanks. I definitely appreciate your perspective and you’re definitely right that each child is different and requires a unique approach. I think that’s why it’s all the more disturbing to see such a uniform approach in Southern evangelical circles. I too was pro-spanking or at least hadn’t thought much about it until recently. Even though its a relatively minor issue in the grand scheme of things, it’s become very unsettling that conservative evangelicals are virtually the only defenders of spanking in our society. I”m not sure what that says. At best it’s a thoughtless defense of “traditional” values against a perceived secular/Yankee onslaught…at worst…yikes.

  2. Thank you for your article. It mean a lot to me that there are other Christians who understand that it is wrong to hit out children. I believe that to be a Christian means that we must do our best to act as Christ wanted us to act. Many of my friends have left churches in frustration duu to preachers pounding on the pulpit and saying they must use the rod on their children. I even heard a preacher say that the problem with our world today was the pansy liberals who want laws to keep the righteous Christians from spanking their children. I am struggling to find a church to attend in my area even as I write this.

    1. Thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear about your struggle but I can certainly relate. My wife and I get looks of “oh thats so cute and niave” whenever we bring these things up.

  3. I realize this is an old post but hopefully it’s ok to still comment. I have 3 kids and we spanked for a limited time until I couldn’t reconcile it with Jesus and how he loves me any longer. Jesus doesn’t whack us one when we sin. He’s patient and gives grace. I was abused by a mom who hit me and I grew up rather angry. Spanking is proven to alter a child’s brain. You are literally spanking the gray matter out of him or her.

    Being in christian circles, the argument goes like this “it’s not hitting if you don’t do it in anger”. Uhhhh it totally still is. Did you raise your arm? Did your hand or object (belt, rod, ect) come in contact with your child? That’s hitting. Don’t care if you did it with a smile or not. Also, a tad creepy to me if one can spank when they are calm and rational. What’s so rational about hitting your kid? Absolutely nothing.

    A good parenting resource that I enjoy is called Connected Families. They really bring home this idea of grace and being safe parents and recognizing the gifts in our children. It’s not one of these “you win a gold medal for showing up” kind of parenting resources but it’s rather balanced in taking a look at misbehavior and dealing with it biblically.

    1. It’s definitely not too late to comment. I will check out that book. It may give me some encouragement. I will admit, I have become more conflicted since I wrote this post. One of our children in particular has posed some difficult behavioral challenges in the last few months.

    2. Hey Ben,

      Not sure what ages your kids are, but mine are 12, 10, and 7. We also went through a challenging period, especially with our younger two, which sometimes made me question our no spanking policy. But in our experience, those difficult periods ended up being short-lived. Didn’t feel like it at the time, of course, but it actually went by pretty quickly. And in hindsight, I think spanking might have worked against us if we had started to use it, especially since it would have seemed inconsistent to the kids.

      It’s definitely a tough period, though. It’s such a miserable feeling of impotence. Good luck with it.

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