Opposition to spanking (including a total ban) comes from pediatricians, social-science departments at institutions of higher learning, child-rights advocates, publications such as Psychology Today, parents who are earnestly concerned about harming their children, and other spokespersons. The American Academy of Pediatrics speaks for many when it says, “Corporal punishment is of limited effectiveness and has potentially deleterious side effects.” Can all of these well-intended child advocates and experts be mistaken?
They raise valid concerns. After all, discipline initially considered legitimate can so easily spill out of bounds. Nevertheless, many who oppose spanking sweep all corporal punishment into a single bucket without distinguishing between wise and foolish parental correction, as if factors like timing, dose, implement, and advance instruction make no difference.
Just as bad preaching doesn’t disqualify all pulpits, and bad writing doesn’t mean we should banish publishing, and a bad haircut doesn’t mean you should go Nazarite, so bad spanking doesn’t mean there isn’t good spanking.
Spare the Rod?
What is good spanking? Parents spank well when, in love, they apply a predetermined amount of physical pain in direct response to a child’s defiance. Defiance starts in the heart and works its way out into behaviors of the body (tantrums, disobedience, mouthiness, rebellious facial expressions), so spanking works in the opposite direction: it moves toward the heart by first gaining the attention of the body, commonly via the well-padded buttocks.
Christian parents in favor of spanking frequently appeal to several passages in the book of Proverbs, including the following:
- Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. (Proverbs 13:24)
- Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. (Proverbs 22:15)
- Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will save his soul from Sheol. (Proverbs 23:13–14)
Some wonder, however, whether “the rod” refers to corporal punishment at all. Is spanking an appropriate way to apply these passages? Three observations show that it is.
First, the plainest reading of these passages suggests that a rod is a physical device applied physically to awaken attention. Second, mere talk is inadequate to achieve awakening, both in practical experience and in the Bible. “By mere words a servant is not disciplined” (Proverbs 29:19). Third, the rod appears alongside speech as a means of discipline: “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother” (Proverbs 29:15). If the rod were merely a metaphor for reproof, this passage would make little sense.
God-fearing parents may hear from both non-Christians and fellow Christians that they should spare the rod lest they harm their children and damage their prospects for the future. In reality, however, when the rod is applied with consistency and love, it can be a means God uses to help our children flourish.
Protected by Spanking
I recently contacted a number of adults who experienced the loving rod of correction as a child and have subsequently decided to use it with their own children. I’m acquainted with the parents, their children, and the grandparents. I invited their testimonies. Here’s a sample.
My parents spanked me and my sisters on occasion, and I am very grateful for that. I consider spanking to be one of the best ways of protecting children that God has created (though by no means the only way of protection!). . . . I have seen the good fruit of spanking not only in my own life but also in the lives of our children, as they begin to understand from an early age that obeying God’s instructions (such as “children, obey your parents”) leads to joy, while disobedience leads to painful consequences.
Another grandparent said,
I was very blessed to have a father and mother who lovingly disciplined me throughout my childhood. I routinely was spanked, usually by my father’s hand, for disobedience and foolishness. I understood that there were consequences to my actions and attitudes and that there was a standard outside myself that was being upheld. Just as we are to fear the Lord, I had a measure of fear of my father, knowing that he would spank me if I did something deserving of it. I am sure that Proverbs 22:15 (“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him”) proved true in my life, and I am the beneficiary of it.
The child’s sin is in the heart, but visible “outbreakings” (as Puritan Cotton Mather called defiance) should be addressed by parents. While hoping and praying for heart transformation and reform, the minimum objective is to restrain obstinacy, to keep the child from inflicting harm and harassment on others, and to prevent future regrets upon himself.
Six Principles of Good Spanking
How, then, should parents think wisely about spanking? How can we wield the rod so that, by God’s grace, it accomplishes his purposes and creates testimonies like these?
First, understand that the perfect loving Father uses the rod.
I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, but my steadfast love will not depart from him. (2 Samuel 7:14–15)
Second, model acceptance of correction yourself. Let the children observe you confessing, repenting — and paying your parking fines.
Third, be alert to both overreaction and underreaction. Some parents foolishly apply the rod as if every misbehavior were a spank-worthy offense. Others just as foolishly neglect the God-appointed rod altogether. Spanking should be done selectively (for defiance) and only for a limited season in the child’s development, to be phased out as the child shows more and more responsibility, self-restraint, and maturity.
Fourth, spanking should be applied with utmost consistency, not according to whim, weariness, emotions, or impulse, but according to (clearly communicated) boundaries established in advance. When God says such things as, “Lest I come and strike” (Malachi 4:6), he is providing fair warning in advance. Beginning in the garden of Eden, God has communicated the ground rules in advance. He does not punish without tying it back to a command given earlier. Once warned, sureness and swiftness, not severity, are effective.
Fifth, and on a related note, wise spanking establishes boundaries, such as a limited number of strokes; no breaking of the skin; no impact to ears, eyes, and other parts of the anatomy vulnerable to injury; and no administering spanking out of rage. And healthy spankings are strengthened by tender follow-up.
Sixth, spanking is not the only tool in the toolbox, but must be accompanied by other tools of parenting. Wise parents don’t start with spanking, but with other measures: rewards, interruptions, “the look” of disapproval, loss of privileges, restitution.
Peaceful Fruit of Righteousness
I cannot overstress that good parenting gives out way more affirmation — commending the commendable — than it does correction. The absence of healthy affirmation undercuts the effectiveness of any disciplinary methods, including spanking. God himself is eager to say to his children, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:23).
Within a larger ethos of affirmation, spankings are one small, rare, and yet effective aspect of disciplining and discipling a child for the glory of God, the minimizing of regret in the life of the child, and the joy of all who have to share society with him.
Parents who desire the peaceful fruit of righteousness, rest, and delight are wise to decisively stem their children’s defiance (Hebrews 12:11; Proverbs 29:17).