To spank or not to spank? (part 1)

Should Christian parents spank their kids? In fact, isn’t that what the Bible teaches? Aren’t we therefore being disobedient if we don’t spank them?

I’ve been asked such questions from time to time over the years. I was recently asked again by someone who had heard a pastor forcefully advocate corporal punishment from the pulpit. The use of physical methods of discipline has declined in recent decades, and secular authorities generally frown upon them. The questions are still controversial, however, and Christians hold a variety of conflicting opinions. I can’t do the matter justice in a mere handful of blog posts, but hope at least to help parents and churches be more thoughtful about the legal, psychological, and biblical issues involved.

But let’s begin with this. Like many of you, I was spanked as a kid. Not often: I wasn’t one to get into a lot of trouble to begin with (though of course I did things my parents never found out about!). They generally used a wooden stick — a red one, as I recall, maybe a foot long and 3/4 of an inch thick. And spankings were more likely to be angry affairs than calm ones.

Today? I’m a responsible citizen, I don’t resent my parents, and I don’t have a prison record.

Oh, and one more thing: I never spanked my own kids. I didn’t see it as either desirable or necessary to do so.

My point is that everyone has a story to tell, and that our individual stories aren’t necessarily helpful when making sweeping generalizations about what parents should or shouldn’t do. Individual stories may serve as counterexamples: if someone claims that spanking children in anger will necessarily cause irreparable damage to the parent-child relationship, I can honestly say, “Well, in my case, not so much.” That’s a long way, however, from my being able to claim that it’s okay to spank in anger.

Lots of people could tell stories similar to mine. I belong to a whole generation of people who were spanked as kids, by parents who were also spanked as kids. Most of us turned out reasonably well. I am not, therefore, willing to say that spanking is flat-out wrong for all parents with all children in all situations.

But I also grew up in an era in which child abuse and domestic violence became national issues. Again and again, we have heard stories of horrible suffering inflicted upon children by their parents. And as someone who believes firmly in the theological reality of sin and the psychological reality of uncontrolled emotion, I simply do not trust that adults are always capable of knowing accurately when they are crossing a line.

Whatever justifications we may have for spanking, there are risks involved. Some Christians use the Bible, and particularly the Book of Proverbs, to justify the parenting practices they already use. Supposedly, it’s all for the good of the child. But the whole thrust of Proverbs is to instruct us in the ways of wisdom. Let us ask ourselves honestly: how are we approaching such texts? Are we just looking for Bible verses that confirm that we were right all along? Or are we humbly seeking God’s wisdom?

I will address Proverbs in a subsequent post. But first, to clear a space for that discussion, I must briefly speak to some of the legal and psychological issues involved in the next two posts.

(This is part 1 of five. Part 2 will post in one week, on Thursday, and the remaining parts on subsequent Thursdays.)

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