In approaching this difficult and emotionally charged topic, I want to lay my cards on the table. Though I have some experience babysitting children, I do not have any of my own. My assumption is that if the Bible teaches anything prescriptive about how to discipline a child, we should take heed. (As opposed to a descriptive text, that just explains what a person did or what the practices of the time were.)
With that out of the way, I’d like to focus on two primary issues. The tendency for older people to blame the younger generations of people for not physically discipling their children and the biblical statements used to defend physical punishment.
Now, there is a lot of emotionally-charged rhetoric out there, where any mere slap of the hand is determined child abuse. I will avoid such ignorance of nuance. However, I will seek to show that there is an alternative to physical discipline.
Let me start with an anecdote. I was spanked as a young child, when other methods did not work. However, when I was old enough to develop hobbies and friends, my punishment was usually not being able to hang out with friends or losing video game privileges. I can say that for me, grounding me from my friends and video games did far more to deter my bad behavior than spanking did.
Kids Are Bad Because They Haven’t Been Spanked
A common argument or internet meme you might see posted is that the shift into personal and cultural relativism in society today is due to the fact that the younger generations refused to discipline their children in a physical manner. Without such physical discipline, you won’t garner respect from the child and they will refuse to listen to you, the argument goes.
The problem with this argument is that it is an unjustified generalization. It makes an assumption but doesn’t’ seek to prove it. Well, maybe it’s common sense? Well, not exactly. There are negative effects that can occur with physical punishment. I’ll approach this from several angles. First, as a Christian, I would self-examine my intentions when wanting to physically discipline a child. Is it because I’m angry at them or angry at what they did? Is it because I’m being spiteful? Where is my heart in this? Secondly, given the development of child psychology, there are other options that it seems simplistic to just go straight to physical discipline.
In a study conducted by Durrant and Ensom (2012) the researchers found fifteen trends between physical punishment and other behaviors. The behaviors listed by this study are as follows.
1. Increased chances of antisocial behavior
2. More likely to approve of violence against others
3. Greater Impulsiveness and less self-control
4. Higher risk for poor parent-child relationships
5. More likely to engage in risky sexual behavior
6. More likely to engage in juvenile behavior
7. More likely to commit a crime as an adult
8. Poor mental ability (national average)
9. Lower probability of graduating college
10. Higher probability of getting depression
11. More likely to be violent towards their roommates or significant other.
12. More likely to be violent with friends or strangers
13. More likely to abuse their children
14. More likely to abuse drugs
15. More likely to engage in sexual coercioni
Spare the Rod, Spoil The Child
A Bible verse often used to support physical punishment is Proverbs 23:13-14 which states:
Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.
The phrase you might hear regarding this verse is “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child.” Unfortunately, this is not a biblical phrase and as we will see later is not a factual statement.
When most Christians talk about this verse, they focus in on the rod. (shebet in hebrew)
For example, Robert R. Gillogly, author and Associate Director of of The Villages, Inc., a youth residential care facility in Topeka, KS. writes:
“The rod in the Old Testament was basically a wooden walking stick, a stout club, staff, or a tree branch used primarily for defense as in the Twenty-third Psalm, or for marshalling the sheep, or for thrashing cummin. Other uses of the rod included a scourge to inflict punishment or to strike a servant or slave (Ex. 21:20). It was also used as a scepter of authority, the symbol of a king’s power, and an instrument of miracles, such as those performed by Moses and Aaron. But, essentially, the ‘rod of God’ (Ex. 4:20; 7:9; 12:19f.) was used for disciplining people, including children (see Prov. 3:11-12; Heb. 12:5-11).ii
But is this accurate?
First, spanking is probably the most popular form of parental punishment. Yet, the rod passage clearly indicates that the person is to be hit on their back (Proverbs 26:3). The modern idea of spanking itself is actually not biblical at all. Even if we take these passages to literally mean physical discipline, the modern use of belts or hands, the how-to on spanking (flicking the wrist) and the age range of when to spank are all extra-biblical concepts.
The reason this is important is so the pro-physical punishment crowd recognizes that they apply principles to their punishment that aren’t laid out by scripture.
What does Shebet actually mean in this context? Several hebrew lexicons say shebet can mean rod, staff, tribe etc. but what is also important is the contextual use of the word. Matthew Henry comments:
“Here is a parent instructing his child to give his mind to the Scriptures. Here is a parent correcting his child: accompanied with prayer, and blessed of God, it may prove a means of preventing his destruction. Here is a parent encouraging his child, telling him what would be for his good. And what a comfort it would be, if herein he answered his expectation! 17,18. The believer’s expectation shall not be disappointed; the end of his trials, and of the sinner’s prosperity, is at hand.”
Notice here that Matthew Henry does not take this passage to mean physical discipline but rather spiritual discipline.
There are ways to interpet Proverbs without thinking the Bible is on the line in these discussions. Some people want to immediately question whether you even believe in the Bible when you question the idea of spanking.
Spanking Is Bad for Kids
The studies have been done and we’re seeing consistent results. It was found that when compared to spanking and time-out Long-term compliance is decreased after spanking (Gershoff, 2002; Gershoff & Grogan-Kaylor, 2013). Spanking tends to increase aggression in a child.iii
What Can You Do Instead?
The influence of language is visibly present even before your child can talk. (Vivona 2013.)iv You should use identifiers for your behavior as well as your child. (Gedo 2015)v How this would look practically would be as follows.
1. Talk to the Child at their level
2. Listen to what they’re saying
3. Explain why you’re doing a certain action
4. Use Discipline as a Learning Experience
5. Use Positive Reinforcement
6. Teach by Example
Number six is especially important. There is an old story where a mother catches her child hitting another child and the mother stops her child and asks why they were hitting and the child responds, “I’m just doing what you do, mommy.”
Children around the age of 2+ are excellent mimickers and they look for a model. If you’re hitting them when they do something you don’t like, it seems rational in the head of a young child that they can also hit someone for doing something they don’t like. I’m of the opinion that the Bible wouldn’t prescribe as an active behavior something we can now confirm through scientific inquiry and psychological study as harmful. Whether you want to talk about descriptive texts or the deeper meaning of correction, it would not be wise to argue that the Bible openly supports beating someone with a rod to correct them.
Rather, it is important to look at it from an authority perspective. A rod is often used in biblical language as a symbol for authority. Whether or not the beating was literal in the ancient near-east, the modern application to this text is to encourage godly discipline to ensure your child learns and hopefully seeks the ways of the Lord. In no way, however, do I see a modern application to physical punishment warranted by the text itself.
If you spank your kids, I’m not here to tell you that you’re a bad parent and you need to repent. All I would like for you to do is consider the evidence presented here, self-examine yourself like we all as Christians need to do and pray and do more research on your own.
iDurrant J, Ensom R (2012). Physical punishment of children: lessons from 20 years of research. Canadian Medical Association Journal.
iiiGershoff, E. T. (2013). Spanking and child development: We know enough now to stop hitting our children. Child Development Perspectives, 7 (3), 133-137.
vGedo JE (2005). Psychoanalysis as Biological Science: A Comprehensive Theory. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.