Choosing not to Spank
by Laurie Morgan
INTRODUCTIONOf all the “controversial” topics I address on my web page [Laurie's Humble Home on the Web], the one I get the most negative feedback about is the fact that I don’t spank. I find this sort of humorous, since I have barely written about it at all, which leads me to assume that some folks would actually prefer that I start spanking, despite the fact that our family has been living successfully and happily for years without it! Can this be true? In any case, I have more than my fair share of reasons for making this choice, and evidently it’s long past time since I shared some of them with the curious internet public.
First, to parents that have spanked, or currently consider it part of their repertoire, I want to say please don't feel as though I judge you for that decision. “Discipline” is an issue that has been very clouded by tradition especially for many Christians, and it is rare to find any practical gentle parenting advice in our society, other than what not to do. I actually had someone write to me once claiming that my choice not to spank is unbiblical because, "The Bible says, 'Spare the rod, spoil the child'!" In reality, there is no such phrase anywhere in the Bible. Spanking itself is never mentioned in the Bible either for that matter, but the lady that wrote that is not the first person to believe social myths over what her own eyes could tell her by actually reading the Holy Scriptures. Unfortunately, of all the comments I get about my site, the angriest and nastiest ones are from Christians who are upset about the fact that I don't spank. On the other hand, I am very sympathetic to all parents who care deeply and try their best to do right by their children. It can be very difficult at times.
To Christian parents specifically: God has an individual path for you in regards to guiding your children in the way He intends for them to go, and while I know for certain that it's not right for me personally, your path may include or have once included spanking, even if only for a season. Who am I to say? I do want to encourage you though, that despite popular claims otherwise, the Bible does clearly lay out a way that we can parent our children correctly without spanking. But, just like many of the other good plans God has laid out for us, imperfect people will fail to perfectly implement this plan in their lives. I want to emphasize right up front that I often fail to live up to my goals, even the ones I will describe here.
Now I, personally, think it's obvious that the Bible does not advocate spanking. There are many scriptures that have long been misused to excuse and encourage spanking, but as I have examined them personally with the Holy Spirit's guidance, I have found that they are all only tenuously interpreted that way. I will attempt to present and examine some of those scriptures below. What is absolutely certain is that there is no commandment or clear mandate in the Bible directing all parents to spank. Instead of controlling others, the believer is instructed to live his own life like Christ and share God's Word with his children. How? We are to write it on our “doorposts”, speak it out of our mouths, and most of all we are to live it. So, the short answer to how we are to train our children in the way that they should go without spanking, is through modeling.
I must also address the other common question in the Christian parent's mind, "doesn't the Bible say that children should obey their parents?" The answer is clearly, yes. Likewise, the Bible instructs slaves to obey their masters. Obedience to authority is what leading a Christian life is about; emulating Christ and being humble, submissive and a servant. At the same time, the Bible does not therefore say that we can or should own slaves. It also clearly does not say that parents should force their children to obey. These are two completely separate concepts. What God speaks directly to the individual believer is different from what we have a right to do to one another. God may instruct us as individuals to fast for a time, for instance, but by no means does that give us the right to take away our brother’s food.
Christians parents are tormented by the devil through guilt, when they do not succeed at living in perfect Christ-likeness. Unfortunately, many of them unwittingly try to rid themselves of that guilt by pressuring their children to be more Christ-like than themselves. “I may have screwed up, but I won’t let you do it too.” Is the driving motive for many punishments. But punishment is manipulation and emotional blackmail. Spanking and other such punishments directly depend on instilling guilt, fear, and half-truths to "work" on the child. There is nothing Christian about such influences. The manipulating parent operates on the assumption that the child would not desire what is truly right if given the chance to “fail.” Such an assumption is not based on faith in the superiority of truth and love, it is based on fear.
A lot of the time parents feel the "need" to manipulate because they don't actually have any proof that what they are trying to get their children to do is right, and that is why they have no confidence in their ability to convince their children to do what they want through reason and explanation. Many other times the parent is simply misled about what is right. They have entrenched beliefs that have no basis in reality, let alone biblical truth. For instance, a mother might insist that since she “needs” to make dinner, the child “should” clear the table. The truth is that mealtime traditions and labor divisions in a family are just preferences, and preferences are not fixed absolutes. Dinner might be more enjoyable around the coffee table tonight, Dad might like to clear the table, or some completely different option might be acceptable to all the individuals concerned.
It is very popular to enforce many such arbitrary rules -- like chore duties, bedtimes, politeness, etc. -- for the purpose of “training” a child to give way to others’ needs. However, this is completely contrary to biblical principles, because the child ends up performing to avoid a consequence, not out of a true desire to do right and be a blessing to others. Besides which, real, unavoidable “rules” exist in our world without parents inflicting them, such as that an unclean room is uncomfortable to live in, or that we get tired when we don’t sleep well, or that other people do not respond well to rudeness. Parents don’t need to provide children with contrived experiences for them to learn the truly important lessons of life.
Modern Christian parents often behave as though the Bible just doesn't speak to parental concerns outside of Solomon’s few vaguely applicable words, but it does. God’s word is not flawed or incomplete. Jesus taught very clearly on how we are all to treat all human beings, especially children. In fact, Jesus' messages are simple enough for even a child to understand. Don't hurt other people. Don't seek revenge. Don’t assume you are better than anyone else. Even as a child I was able to see clearly the blatant hypocrisy of parents who professed to believe Jesus’ words but still hit me.
The punitive parenting philosophy says, "Yes, but children don't always do what they're supposed to." That is true, but no human ever does, leastwise parents. Jesus said that he who is without sin should cast the first stone, and He – THE ONE who was without sin -- made a powerful statement when He did not cast a stone at all! Children are even more fragile than adults -- physically and emotionally -- and they have even less experience and fewer responsibilities than adults. So, if anything children should be given more leeway for making mistakes. Besides, as I said, we are meant to model the right behavior to everyone, including our children, by following Christ's example ourselves.
Modern parents may read the biblical term that used to be translated as "beating" as "spanking" now, but I strongly believe that this is nothing but popular interpretation and not at all proper scriptural interpretation. People really used to beat their children on account of the same scriptures parents now use to excuse a simple swat. The main reason why actual beating is not acceptable to most Christians anymore has more to do with social stigma than an honest, critical re-evaluation of the traditional excuses for spanking that I will advocate. For example, if taken out of context, Proverbs 23:13 appears to specifically support beating offspring with a rod, but I, and most modern Christian parents, believe it actually does not. Why not? I will attempt to show that when Christian parents begin to apply the reasons they have for "why not beat?" to the crucial question of "why not spank ?" the truth of the matter becomes clear.
One of the clearest problems with using the Bible to excuse spanking is that the Bible never talks about striking a young child's bottom with the hand. If we are truly supposed to take these passages as direct instruction, then oughtn't we actually strike our children on the backs with whips or beat them with a stick as is truly described (though misapplied)? Wouldn't these forms of what most modern parents would consider abuse, be okay by such standards? If not, why then? And if it is okay to "water down" the word this way, or to take it from literal beating to mere carefully applied spanking, then what is wrong with just treating children as we would wish to be treated, in other words not hit ever? In all reality though, Jesus made it perfectly clear that this is what we are to do.
As far as what one can do instead of spanking, I'll tell you my thoughts in short and let you take them to God and compare them with scripture as you wish. It is helpful to ask; what is the wisdom we are supposed to gain from Proverbs 23:13? If any of it is truly meant to be taken as literal advice to parents, it is surely that withholding correction is a sin. Because of tradition, and tradition alone, many parents confuse correction with spanking, but the two are not the same. To fail to advise our children of our theories and help them accomplish their God given goals safely and wisely is simply wrong from any perspective. Neglect will lead our children to ruin. In short, the Bible as a whole advocates guiding a child and telling them when they are wrong. If, for instance, our child was heading for the fireplace, we’d be neglectful not to alert them to and help them understand the possibility of burns.
To be frank, I am not all-together clear on why some translations of this scripture appear to say that beating a child will not kill him. Beating certainly can kill, but that's a whole other argument entirely. Perhaps God intended for His people to read the Bible all the way through and take heed from the fact that Solomon’s own philosophies did not even “work” on his own sons. To get back to what is clear, traditional parenting methods are generally a series of not guiding children enough, followed by punishment that is then all but required because of the neglect. Running into the street, for instance, is supposed to be handled thus: Ignore your child, don't hold their hand, don't help them explore the street safely, just expect them to stay out of the street because you say to, and when they run out into the street, run after them and swat them, to teach them to obey.
On the other hand, the biblical direction - and my advice - is to guide the child in street safety with very hands-on demonstrations, examples, and when needed, corrections (“You want to be sure to both look and listen before you walk, Johnny.”) The process should be repeated as often as the child desires to become proficient at the skill they are learning. It is in this way that spanking is not even needed. For the sake of clarity this is an overly simplified example, but the principle can be applied many ways to many situations. If you are there, actively, intensively parenting, the apparent "need" for punishments often disappears.
I am seeing it work this way in my own life every day. Instead of creating walls of rules around what my children can and cannot do – say, putting up a gate at the top of the stairs -- I try to help them master their environment as they are developmentally (as some would say “naturally,” which I believe is synonymous with God’s design) interested. Sitting beneath my daughter patiently, ready to catch as she tests her balance at the top of the stairs, for instance. But parents today are generally very fearful of such hands-on parenting. They often object pridefully to anything that appears to be being controlled in any way by the child, and therefore neglect is generally the rule. Society values rapid, superficial independence in children more than true competence and security fostered by a strong foundation of trust developed in the dependent years. Sadly, as I said, in such circumstances punishment almost becomes a requirement to this lifestyle just to give the appearance of ensuring the child’s safety.
As a general rule, I find it easier to lead my children the way God desires when I focus on my own personal relationship with God. Since trying to control and change my children at the heart level (where it really matters) is impossible to do by force and can lead to rebellion, I try to stay focused on allowing God to change me into a wiser, more generous, more patient parent. The endless search for "tools for discipline" is often just a socially condoned way for guilt ridden parents to remove their personal focus off of ourselves and onto the child. But if we sincerely and diligently pursue God's will for our own lives, we will find that we simply don't have time to try to control other people. Instead, I find that using tools to manage my own anger and encourage my own self-discipline go much farther and deeper to eliminate many so-called, "behavior" problems in my children. Because -- while every human being does things wrong on occasion -- most of the time if my kids "misbehave" it is because I am being lazy.
Sometimes, the fact is that I did not help them to eat in a timely manner and they have become cranky and irritable as a result. Or maybe I unwisely planned a stressful outing at their usual nap time. Other times, instead of helping them to do what they need to do -- learn and explore -- I'd rather use the word, "no" so I can sit on my rear-end and relax. It’s embarrassing to admit to being so self absorbed and lazy sometimes, but it’s true. For instance, if my child wants to explore the street: instead of taking her hand and walking out with her and showing her the cars coming, pointing out how you can hear them even from a distance, see how fast they go, and judge when to get out of the way, pointing out how we can be crushed just like the leaves in the street - instead of this, sometimes I'd rather just say, "get out of the street!" The same principle is true of many other conflicts we encounter with our children on a daily basis, especially with toddlers. But such laziness is clearly labeled a sin in the Bible and should not be excused. Nor should our children’s bottoms bear the weight of our indiscretions.
Such hands-on parenting as I aspire to can seem like a tedious chore at first, but really, I’ve learned that to feign control takes much greater effort in the long run. While the properly, biblically, guided and advised child learns to master his environment quickly and becomes capable, confident and discerning through experience, the controlled and restrained child becomes bored. Sometimes he learns that he must be deceptive to get his God-given drive to explore fulfilled, which is far more dangerous both to the child's spirit and body. Would you prefer your child explore a cigarette lighter in your presence and with your advisement? Or behind your back alone? So, while the three year old that I helped learn to find and properly handle the butter knife and jelly jar can fix her own lunch while I change the baby's diaper, another three year old who was thwarted must be re-directed (or spanked) when approaching the knife drawer, must always have her own lunch made for her, and may have to wait through that diaper change to eat (not to mention the fact that such patience is developmentally difficult for someone that age – see Ephesians 6:4 about exasperating children).
When we follow our child’s lead about what he has a natural desire to learn and when, (like showing the two year old child the road right when he wants to walk into it, instead of on some arbitrary day like the first day of kindergarten) we find that we don't have to take extra time to specially "instruct" them later on (which is usually met with resistance and is therefore less effective anyway). Also, knowing that a parent is there to help -- not thwart -- encourages the child to trust and respect their parents. Think about the people you truly trust and respect and ask yourself, did you come by those feelings through force? Genuine trust and respect can only be earned, contrary to what many parenting “instructors” would have us believe, and they are crucial to our children's safety in this crazy world. What good is alienating a toddler to enforce a superficial demonstration of “respect", only to have that same kid grow up to be a teenager who won't talk to his parents about the friends that offered him drugs or the boyfriend that wants her to have sex?
> Next: MY EXPERIENCES
Copyright 2000 by Laurie Morgan
Copyright 1997-2015 by Gentle Christian Mothers™
Scripture quotations taken from the NASB.