To spank or not to spank? (part 3)

In this, the third post in a five-part series on Christians and spanking, I want us to briefly consider what the insights of psychological science might add to the conversation.

In the first post, I suggested that we often reason and make generalizations on the basis of personal experience. Though we’re willing to recognize exceptions, we habitually think, What’s true for me must be true for other people as well. To the extent that others are similar to us in key ways, those generalizations may be relatively accurate. But to the extent that people and their situations are different, any such generalizations may fail to apply in individual cases. That’s what psychological science tries to make clear: what principles seem to be valid across the widest number of people, and what are the differences that make a difference?

Rather than my trying to summarize the enormous volume of psychological research on the effects of corporal punishment, here is a link to a 2012 article from the American Psychological Association entitled, “The Case Against Spanking.” Overall, it’s true that spanking as a method of discipline can sometimes get children to stop doing things that parents don’t want them to do. But not always. And at what cost?

Some parents perceive their children as being defiant, and believe that harsh discipline will knock the defiance out of them. Such a strategy, however, can easily backfire. Even if children temporarily stop the undesirable behavior, they may become more defiant rather than less. This can prompt a destructive cycle in which parents clamp down even more, leading to even greater rebellion on the part of children and harsher parental responses.

An impressive body of research now suggests that physical punishment can lead to undesirable consequences, including increases in children’s aggressive and antisocial behavior. As the authors of an article published in a Canadian medical journal have succinctly stated:

  • Numerous studies have found that physical punishment increases the risk of broad and enduring negative developmental outcomes.
  • No study has found that physical punishment enhances developmental health.
  • Most child physical abuse occurs in the context of punishment.
  • A professional consensus is emerging that parents should be supported in learning nonviolent, effective approaches to discipline. 

It’s important to say that none of this means that parents who punish their children don’t love them. What it does mean is that the use of corporal punishment comes with demonstrable risks. In my own conversations with Christian parents, I’ve tried to help them remember the long-term goal of any disciplinary strategy: that their children would learn self-discipline. That’s not the same thing as avoiding a behavior out of the fear of punishment.

What if parents could learn ways of responding to their children that reduced the need for harsh discipline, thereby avoiding the associated risks? The parenting literature is filled with such suggestions, and the research confirms that many of them are quite effective. Why wouldn’t parents want to follow such advice?

In part, because they believe that the Bible is telling them to spank their kids. We’ll turn to that subject in next Thursday’s post.