SPANK ME, PLEASE
Written by Doug Ponder on August 17, 2014
Spanking Leaves a Mark (Figuratively Speaking)
Imagine that for one week you posted an article every day that discusses sin, the reality of hell, and the justice of God. Then, on the following week, you posted an article every day that discusses disobedience, the need for spanking, and the authority of parents.
How much you wanna bet that your posts on spanking would generate more controversy than your posts on hell?
There’s a reason for that highly probable outcome. Despite the fact that two-thirds (65%) of Americans approve of parents spanking their children, the anti-spanking crowd are disproportionately loud about their opinions. They talk as if parents who spank their children belong to a fringe minority group that includes child abusers, barbarians, and executioners.
Because of the shenanigans of the anti-spanking crowd, many parents have been duped into thinking that spanking is inappropriate simply because it’s unpopular in some circles. But popularity has never been the way to determine whether something is right or wrong—just ask slaves in early America.
The truth is that spanking is commanded in the Old Testament and upheld in the New Testament. God says things like: “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is diligent to discipline them” (Prov. 13:24). “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death” (Prov. 23:13-14). “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11).
We’ll talk a bit more about those verses later. For now it’s enough to note that God tells parents to spank as one form of disciplining their children in love. And since God tells parents to do this, that means a refusal to spank children is a form of disobedience and rebellion on the part of the parents.
Just So We’re Clear: What Spanking Is And Isn’t
When God talks about spanking, he often speaks of the “rod of discipline.” God is talking about more than just the wooden spoon your grandmother used to pop the back of your thigh. The “rod of discipline” is a phrase loaded with connotations of both authority (like the rod or scepter of a ruler) and some form of physical punishment. It even extends to the parents, who, in faith toward God and faithfulness toward their children, undertake the responsibility of careful, timely, restrained, and controlled use of physical punishment to emphasize the seriousness of a child’s rebellion and the importance of obeying those God has placed in authority over them. That’s what spanking is. When carried out with patience, love, and faith, spanking is a tool that God uses to preserve children from foolishly continuing in their self-destructive rebellion.
1. Spanking is not the same as physical abuse.
Physical abuse is a very real, very tragic, and very punishable offense, and God speaks severely of his judgment against those who hurt or destroy little children. But the difference between spanking and abuse is plain: spanking is controlled, while abuse is uncontrolled; spanking is restrained, while abuse is excessive; spanking is meant to instruct, while abuse meant to injure; spanking is done in love, while abuse is done in anger. Spanking is not abuse.
2. Spanking is not the sum total of discipline.
Although “discipline” does involve correction and punishment, it also involves instruction and training. This means spanking (or any other kind of punishment) is only a small part of discipline. The larger, and in many ways more important, part of discipline is the positive training and instruction that a child receives in the home. Indeed, these rules should be laid down well in advance and communicated often. After all, the ultimate goal of correction is not punishment but instruction, not merely deterring bad behavior but instilling virtuous behaviors that correspond with what God says is good.
3. Spanking is not a knee-jerk, last-ditch option for frustrated parents.
Far too many parents spank only after trying many other failed means of correction. After repeated attempts to address the child, the parents reach a boiling point and—smack! But this is not effective spanking because it occurs far too late in the game. It’s the disciplinary equivalent of a Hail Mary pass (and like almost all Hail Mary passes, it has virtually no hope of succeeding). Instead, parents should communicate clearly and regularly to their children that disobedience in a particular area will receive spanking. This helps both parent and child see spanking as a natural consequence to the child’s rebellion, instead of an overreaction from highly frustrated parents. For example, we don’t receive speeding tickets because the police officers are ticked off. We receive speeding tickets because we broke the law. The same should be true with spanking. A child must see that their disobedience, not the parent’s frustration, is the ground for their correction.
Why Spank at All?
Beyond the obvious fact that God tells parents to spank their children, there are several other reasons why spanking makes sense:
1. Because children understand non-verbal communication.
God doesn’t tell us, “This is the exact reasoning behind why I command you to spank your children,” but we don’t have to think hard to see the most likely reason. Young children do not have the capacity for abstract thought. Therefore, conversations with young children about the seriousness of their rebellion, the need to do the right things for the right reasons, the nuances of ethical actions, and so forth, are largely wasted on them. In plain speak, you cannot reason with a toddler. What you can do, however, is use non-verbal physical touch to communicate the seriousness of their offense, the importance of respecting mom and dad as the authority, and the consequences that come with disobedience. For example, even before a toddler can understand the words used to say, “it’s not OK to throw your food on the floor,” they can already understand the idea of cause and effect. (In this case, the cause of throwing food on the floor elicits the effect of being spanked.) That’s why spanking is such an effective means of communicating with young children.
2. Because children are not “blank slates.”
Children do not “learn to do wrong” only by observing other people. (And anyone who says this probably has no children of their own.) Instead, children are born with desires and wants that are corrupted by sin. This matters because if children were born morally and ethically neutral, they wouldn’t need correction, just positive instruction and encouragement. But since children are born with an appetite for disobedience and an orientation away from what is good and right and true, then children need both instruction/direction and correction/punishment.
3. Because children are born in self-destruction mode.
Even the sweetest little babies have desires in their hearts that, if allowed to blossom and grow to fruition, will bring about their ultimate destruction. This is why the Bible says, “Folly [foolishness and rebellion] is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far way” (Prov. 22:15). This is also why God says, “Do not withhold discipline from a child… Punish them with the rod and save them from death” (Prov. 22:13, 14). The death God speaks of may be physical, as it is in cases when parents have rules for a child’s safety (e.g., “Do not play in the street”). But the death may also refer to spiritual death, the hellish destination of every soul that remains in rebellion against God’s good authority.
4. Because children do not “grow out of” sin.
The terrible two’s is not a stage of development so much as it is a stage of demonstration. At that age a child is old enough to show you what’s really inside. This should come as no surprise to adults, since we have the war raging within us too. It’s the war against our sin, and kids won’t grow out of it—they will grow more and more into it—unless they are loved and taught and corrected as God instructs. This is why God says, “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” (Eph. 6:1), even as he tells parents to bring their children up “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). For God knows “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death” (Prov. 14:12).
In spite of God’s wise commands to spank (which are given for our good), it’s common to hear the following misguided objections:
1. “Spanking doesn’t work.”
We know that spanking does work because God tells us to do it (and he’s not in the business of commanding us to do things that are pointless). Still, you do hear this objection an awful lot.
However, I’ve never met anyone who could say this about the kind of prayerful, consistent, emotionally controlled spanking that we’ve outlined here. Instead, what they often mean is that their own attempts to spank their children have not seemed to work. This is possibly true, and it’s very likely that they’re doing something wrong along the way (they spank arbitrarily, they spank inconsistently, they spank out of frustration, or they spank too lightly, etc.). [Note: This misguided objection has been promoted through some poorly-conducted studies that seem to suggest spanking might make kids more aggressive and disobedient. Yet these studies lack controls for how the spankings were administered, and they often make the mistake of confusing correlation with causation.]
2. “Spanking hurts too much.”
This is an ironic objection, because one of the main effects of properly administered spankings is an overall decrease in pain for the child. Hence God says, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it” (Hebrews 12:11). The long-term fruit of godly discipline is righteousness and peace, which means far less pain, frustration, and heartache for a child.
It’s not hard to see how this works. Surgeons cut us in order to cure us; they harm us in order to heal us. And the small amount of harm caused by the scalpel is nothing compared with the huge amount harm that would be caused if the cancer were not removed. In the same way, spanking produces a momentary sting—yes, it’s painful (Heb. 12:11)—but the point is to prevent even more pain from much more dangerous sources.
3. “Spanking scars kids for life.”
Some say spankings scar children emotionally and psychologically for the rest of their lives. But common sense tells us this can’t be true. Indeed, 89% of adults report that they were spanked at some point in their lives. However, 89% of adults are not emotionally and psychologically scarred for life. They’re just fine, and they don’t resent their parents. Spanking doesn’t scar kids for life. The numbers just doesn’t add up.
4. “Spanking is hypocritical.”
Some think, “I can’t tell my kids not to hit each other and then turn around and spank them. That’s hypocritical!” For one thing, spanking and hitting are completely different in their motives. One is done in love to correct, while the other is done in rage to retaliate. But beyond this, it’s just simply not hypocrisy for parents to be “allowed” to do things that children aren’t. Parents tell their children (rightly) that they can’t use sharp knives or play with matches, but mom and dad turn right around and use sharp knives and matches. This is as it should be, and it’s not hypocritical. Neither is spanking.
The How-To’s of Spanking
The Scriptures are not a “how-to spank manual,” but that doesn’t mean spanking is unimportant. The teachings of Scripture in other places can point us in the right direction for many of the how-to-spank type of questions.
Who should spank?
The verses in the Bible that mention physical discipline are addressed to family members. They mention fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, and so on. This means spanking should be done by the same family members who comfort the child, take the child to theme parks, throw the child birthday parties, etc. This helps the child understand that their parents who love them are spanking them for their good.
How should parents spank?
Spanking should be a careful, timely, restrained, and controlled form of physical correction. This means spanking is never acceptable as a means of “venting” your anger or a means of “paying your child back” for what they did wrong. Depending on the situation and the age of the child, parents may need to wait before spanking, giving themselves enough time to “cool off” or settle down emotionally. Before spanking the child, the parent should give them an explanation of what they did and why it was wrong, clearly stating that their disobedience is the reason for the spanking. After spanking your child, full reconciliation with the child should occur by leading them to apologize (if they are old enough), followed by affirming your love for them and hugging them or holding them.
When should parents spank?
Parents do not need to spank for every offense. As with adults, the misdeeds of children are not all equally serious or equally destructive. Other forms of punishment (e.g., “time out” or taking a toy away) may at times be appropriate. However, deliberate acts of defiance—especially when parents have already warned the child about their behavior—seem to require spanking to communicate to the child the seriousness of their rebellion.
Who should receive spankings?
When a child is young not much physical force is needed to communicate the wrongness of their behavior. However, as a child grows older the degree of physical force that would be required to inflict sufficient pain becomes far too great. So, while there is no “standard age” at which this transition occurs, common sense tells us teenagers should probably not be spanked. Once again, this is for two reasons: (1) Their age is now such that the degree of physical force that would be a deterrent for their action is bordering on abusive. (2) As a child grows your, relationship with them should shift to include more influence and less direct forms of correction.
Most Christian counselors and psychologists suggest that spanking children is most effective when they are young—that is, below the age of six or so. This does not mean that spanking suddenly becomes ineffective at the age of six; it simply means that parents should adjust their means of correction to other methods as the child grows. For example, the average a sixteen-year-old boy likely considers the threat of losing access to his cell-phone, videogames, and Facebook account to be far more serious than the threat of a spanking.
Closing Thoughts and Recommended Resources
We have focused a great deal on the nature of children and the role of instruction, correction, and discipline in parenting. But these emphases should not be taken to mean that parenting is all about correction and discipline—far from it! Rather, the areas we’ve highlighted are simply those where our cultural context is most out of line with how God says things should be.
Still, we’d like to point out that God actually wants you to enjoy life with your children. This means that you should not view your children as “projects” to be worked on but as little people whom God has entrusted to your care. In other words, if you mainly view yourself as the “enforcer” or the “lecturer,” then you’ve got the wrong idea. Of course, there will be seasons of greater need for corrective discipline and instruction, but the general rule is that as your child grows and matures, they should require less time and oversight.
Additionally, a tremendous amount of what your children will learn from you and your spouse will simply be observed from your life together with them. If your children see you and your spouse joyfully obeying Jesus as you pray and read Scripture together, participate in the life of a local church, help others in need, and so on, they will recognize the genuineness of your heart for Christ and your love for them.
Above all, every parent must sense that their role is a serious undertaking that can only be accomplished, in the midst of failure and repentance, through the grace of God that gives us patience, endurance, and strength. Jesus says, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). That includes parenting.
For more resources on parenting, check out Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp or Standing on the Promises: A Handbook of Biblical Childrearing by Douglas Wilson.
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Twitter @dougponder.