Whether or not parents should spank their children is a very volatile issue and raises strong feelings on both sides.
In this paper I am distinguishing between child abuse and spanking, a distinction that not everybody makes very clearly. Certainly there is spanking which is abusive and there is that gray area in which some people would call it abuse and others not. Some would even say that even very mild spanking is abusive while some conservative Christians would take the opposite view and claim that not spanking at all is what is abusive. It is not my purpose to get all tangled up in these subtleties of discussion but to discuss the issue rather broadly.
I am limiting my discussion to corporeal punishment by parents, which is usually done in private. I am not discussing corporeal punishment that is done by public institutions such as schools. And I am also limiting the discussion to spanking and will only address other forms of discipline as peripheral topics. Another important topic I do consider is whether government should or should not legislate what kind of discipline parents ought to use.
I should mention that there are two general camps of Christians and they tend to take different views of the topic of spanking. The liberal Christians generally side with psychologists and believe that spanking is a bad and even harmful practice while conservative Christians generally take the opposing view, as already indicated. I am a conservative Christian but I have a somewhat different view of the matter. I am unwilling to simply adopt whatever view is promulgated by the Christian coalition but I research topics and make up my own mind, even if doing so makes me somewhat of a black sheep in the movement. And I should also mention, that my wife and I didn't spank our two children and we would say that they turned our pretty good and that both have a love for Jesus and for serving the world through evangelism and missions work.
This paper is not addressing the topic of child abuse, which is certainly a common problem in our society. The question is whether or not spanking constitutes child abuse. Many articles I have read which oppose spanking seem to assume that any form of spanking is child abuse. This is why some people feel justified in passing laws making it illegal for parents to spank their children. In order to address these concerns I will describe a technique for spanking that I present as non-abusive. In the remainder of this paper, when I refer to spanking I am referring to spanking in this context.
One person has advocated "conditional, nonabusive spanking, which he defined as 'two open- handed swats, not out of control due to anger' as a backup for children between the ages of 2 and 6" (Goode, 2001). We also need to consider how often to spank. "Children older than 6 did show detrimental effects when spanking was used too often, for example, three or more times a week" (Goode, 2001). "If spanking does not seem to work, a parent should never increase the severity of hitting. Professional help should be sought, and/or other disciplinary techniques tried. They recommend a single slap to the hand of a young child, and one or two spanks to the buttocks for older children. They recommend hugging the child afterwards" (Robinson, 2001).
For those who advocate spanking, it is important to define what is the purpose of spanking. If it doesn't do anything useful for the child then it should not be used. Spanking needs to accomplish the same goals as any other form of discipline, "direction, discipline, teaching — redirecting the child" (Leman, 1996). "The idea behind the swat on the tail is to get the child's attention and to let him know that Mom or Dad is very displeased with what just happened" (Leman, 1996). In this paper I will refer to spanking done in the manner I just described as "non-abusive spanking" to distinguish it from spanking that is to severe or that may, in fact, be abusive.
Within the Conservative Christian community it is generally believed that the Bible commands us to spank our children. Most of the biblical passages concerning this are from the book of Proverbs written by Solomon, who was a very wise man although he did not himself live to Godly standards. One example is sufficient to express the general tone of these verses: "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die" (NIV, Proverbs 23:13). There are no verses such as this in the New Testament except a reference to discipline in the book of Hebrews: "Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good" (NIV, Hebrews 12:10). At issue is the importance of discipline in the development of a child, not the particular method used to administer that discipline.
It strikes me as odd that the same Christians who interpret culturally an exhortation such as a woman "should cover her head" (NIV, 1 Corinthians 4:6) would dogmatically insist on interpreting the passages in Proverbs as the cultural norm for all times. And we should consider the effectiveness of Solomon's parenting style. Upon his death, Solomon's son, Rehoboam, had a very harsh leadership style. He made the following demand of his subjects: "My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions." (NIV, 1 Kings 12:14). So Christians need to be wary of the idea that spanking is the biblical mandate for disciplining children. This is especially true since when the "New Testament is examined there is no evidence that Jesus ever condoned violence toward children" (Berliner, n.d.).
The idea that spanking is not the preferred method of child discipline is relatively new. The modern psychological view of discipline has "evolved since the 1960s, when practically all Americans, regardless of race, endorsed capital [sic] punishment" ("Spare the rod," 2001). "Most of the older books on child-raising advocated corporal punishment as a normal disciplinary method" (Berliner, n.d.). It is the modern psychological theories that have caused this shift in thinking, but conservative Christians have generally been unwilling to make the shift. But this is understandable given the constantly shifting truth claims that come from the scientific community.
For example, when I was in high school I learned about convincing evidence for evolution, Miller's experiment being the most memorable. But twenty years later, in reading an article in Scientific American, which surveyed the scientific understanding of the evidence for evolution, it stated that all the experiments I was taught had been shown to be flawed. In their place were a whole new set of experiments. I seems like from generation to generation, scientists tend to debunk previous theories and replace them with their more "modern" version. The common thread in all these theories is the philosophical assumptions of materialism in which only matter, energy, and the natural laws truly exist.
The implication of this is that twenty years from now, new psychological research might be brought forth which shows that non-abusive spanking is a good form of child discipline. Another example of the shifting paradigms in science is Freud's theory of child development. At one time his views were considered correct but now very few people take him very seriously. But I should emphasize that his contribution to the field of psychology is foundational, but many important details of his theory are considered to be simply mistaken. If we had passed legislation at the time based on his theories, we would now be scrambling to undo the laws. So we need to be cautious in forcing cultural changes based on the newest scientific theories.
Some conservative Christians seem unaware that there are alternatives to spanking in disciplining their children. The following quote expresses it nicely: "A common thread running through some of these sites is the concept that the only alternative to spanking is to impose no discipline at all" (Robinson, 2001). We should look to modern psychology in understanding the issues of child development and in adopting techniques of discipline. Even if we accept non-abusive spanking as a valid form of discipline, it is not the "holy grail" of child discipline - the one technique that exclusively should be used in every situation. So while it may be true that non-abusive spanking "can be a very effective disciplinary tool, it is not so much due to the spanking itself, but to the entire system which surrounds it. Thus, probably any disciplinary measure would be as effective in the same context" ("On spanking," 1996). This is what is missing in the viewpoint of conservative Christians. In their zeal to embrace spanking as the only way to discipline children, they have ignored the question of whether or not other techniques would work just as well or even better.
Even though the conservative Christian coalition is strongly fighting for the right to spank, not all Christians agree that Christians should spank their children. "Within the fundamentalist Christian movement, there is division over whether the Bible encourages corporal punishment" (Glanton, 2000). We now examine the modern psychological view of spanking.
The common view of most psychologists is that parents should not spank their children. "The American Psychological Association opposes the use of corporal punishment in schools, juvenile facilities, child care nurseries and all other institutions, public or private, where children are cared for or educated" (Berliner, n.d.). This includes the institution of the family. This view is fairly recent. But what has changed over that last four decades that has caused such a shift in thinking? I will address two basic issues: (Robinson, 2001) The rise of the behavioral model of psychology, and (Leman, 1996) the increase in child abuse in our society.
The American Psychological Association (APA) has clearly outlined that violence leads to violence and that children should not be subjected to violence. "Children learn by imitating the behavior of adults, especially those they are dependent upon; and the use of corporal punishment by adults having authority over children is likely to train children to use physical violence to control behavior rather than rational persuasion, education, and intelligent forms of both positive and negative reinforcement" (Berliner, n.d.). Nothing could be clearer. But there are two implicit assumptions in applying the previous statement to the issue of spanking. The first is the assumption that spanking is an expression of physical violence, and the second that the problem is limited to the practice of spanking.
As I described the process of non-abusive spanking earlier, it should be clear that the practice of non-abusive spanking is not, in and of itself, an expression of physical violence from the parent to the child. Certainly it is true that many parents spank their children in a way that is violent, and I would call this child abuse. But just because some parents abuse their children by spanking does not mean that the practice of spanking is in itself the problem. The problem is that some parents are physically abusive to their children, not that there is necessarily anything inherently violent about the process of spanking. And certainly verbal abuse is just as violent and abusive as other forms of physical abuse.
Parents should not abuse their children. And as the quote from the APA demonstrates, children learn violence through imitation of violent behavior. But there are many other ways in which children are able to observe violent behavior in others that they can model and imitate. The entertainment industry in general promotes violence in many ways, often in graphic detail. Even the cartoons that children often watch on Saturday mornings are filled with violence. I would suggest that whenever the topic of spanking is addressed, that we also address violence in entertainment along with it. If spanking is bad because children will imitate it, then much of entertainment is equally bad for the same reason. I hear a lot about the bad effects of spanking but very little about violence in entertainment. And I should note that it is not just children who learn to imitate violence. Adults learn to be violent in the same way. Perhaps our entertainment industry has been a direct cause of the radical increase of violence in our modern world.
Part of the reason for the recent concern about the practice of spanking is because there is an increase in violence in our society. "Over at least the past two decades, there has been an increasing concern about violence in society, including spousal abuse; violent hate crimes; violence motivated by sexism, racism and homophobia; school shootings; etc. It is to be expected that increasing attention is being paid to corporal punishment of children" (Robinson, 2001). The abuse of children results in maladapted behavior, thoughts, and emotions, and this, in turn, leads to all kinds of criminal behavior.
There is a disturbing way of thinking that is common in those who assess the role of spanking in causing the violence in our society. Many people merely assume that spanking is violent and apply scientific research to spanking that is not really relevant to the practice of spanking. The following quotation appeared in an article condemning the conservative Christian view that spanking is necessary and proper: "The vast majority of those who physically abuse their spouses and their children were themselves physically punished often and strongly" (Berliner, n.d.). It is merely assumed that this quote applies to the practice of spanking, but there is no relationship between abuse and spanking.
Another reason given for not spanking is that by spanking we are not using the positive reinforcement of operant conditioning. This is certainly a true statement. But we must remember that in order to apply positive reinforcement there has to be a positive behavior. In the absence of the positive behavior there can be no positive reward. Spanking is practiced in the context of negative behavior such as disobedience, defiance, and danger. In the case of danger it is imperative that the child be protected from the danger. Usually it is possible to simply remove the child from the dangerous situation but there may well be situations in which a swat on rear is the only way to get the child's attention quickly. The APA claims that the "use of corporal punishment by adults having authority over children is likely to train children to use physical violence to control behavior rather than rational persuasion, education, and intelligent forms of both positive and negative reinforcement" (Berliner, n.d.). But even negative reinforcement implies that the parent has been punishing the child for their bad behavior before the child finally exhibits the desired behavior and the negative reinforcement is removed, and why is spanking any worse than any other form of negative stimuli?
Many people claim that spanking is bad because it leads to child abuse. "They seem to be quite aware of the hazards of spanking - particularly the possibility of corporal punishment escalating in intensity and frequency until it becomes serious abuse" (Robinson, 2001). Certainly there is the possibility that a parent who practices non-abusive spanking will begin abusing their child. But it is also possible that a parent who does not spank their children would begin abusing them. And it is conceivable that a parent who does not spank their children would be verbally abusive or use other kinds of abuse. So this argument is really rather pointless. To mean anything we would have to demonstrate that there is a sort of "irresistible urge" that compels parents who spank their children to always escalate into full-blown child abuse. If we accept this argument as valid then we would have to forbid any behavior that could possibly lead to something worse. For example, social drinking would have to be forbidden because it might lead to alcoholism; smoking would have to be forbidden because it could lead to drug abuse; and sex would have to be forbidden because it might lead to rape.
The real issue we need to demonstrate is whether or not non-abusive spanking is bad. Psychologists seem to generally believe that it is bad. "Corporal punishment should never be used, because of negative side effects" (Glanton, 2000). To determine what is bad we first need to define how we can determine the "badness" of something. In this age of relativism, this can be a difficult process indeed. Let's look at a couple of quotes, which will help us to understand the criteria that are used in accessing that spanking is bad.
From the APA: "It is evident that socially acceptable goals of education, training, and socialization can be achieved without the use of physical violence against children" (Berliner, n.d.). In this quote the goals are education, training, and socialization, which seem like very reasonable goals. But there is no connection at all between the "badness" of spanking and the stated goals. It is merely assumed that spanking is "bad" because the goals can be reached without the need for spanking. But this statement doesn't address whether or not the goals can also be reached with non-abusive spanking. The other problem with this statement is that is again assumes that spanking is physically violent, an issue I have already addressed.
Another quote states that "corporal punishment was associated with 10 negative effects, like increased aggression and a higher risk of being physically abused, and one positive outcome: immediate compliance" (Goode, 2001). There is no indication whether or not the reference to corporal punishment is limited to only non-abusive spanking. If it is not, then this quote cannot be used for the topic of non-abusive spanking at all because it has been "diluted" by the abusive spanking and other forms of physical violence. Another problem with this quote is that it implies that the effect of the ten negative outcomes by the weight of their sheer numbers outweigh the one good outcome. But it may be that not all children have all ten negative outcomes. And it may also be that the bad outcomes are not really that bad when compared to the single positive outcome. None of these issues are addressed in this quote and so it is unclear how to apply it to non-abusive spanking.
Another quote states that spanking results in a "warping of personality and the stunting of psychosocial growth, as described by the noted psychologist Erik Erikson (1968). The psychosocial challenges faced by children and adolescents—trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, initiative versus guilt, and so forth, cannot be resolved in ways to promote healthy adult adjustment in households that demand obedience through punishment" (Berliner, n.d.). This view seems extreme and again seems to assume that spanking is a form of physical violence. It is not clear whether or not this quote would apply to non-abusive spanking. In another other study, "children older than 6 did show detrimental effects when spanking was used too often, for example, three or more times a week" (Goode, 2001). But a parent who practices non-abusive spanking would likely have no need to practice spanking this often so this study wouldn't apply. Also, it is not stated whether the spanking employed was non-abusive or severe.
It is not clear at all whether non-abusive spanking is really bad at all - this fact is merely assumed in the psychological research. But there are other reasons why we might perhaps prefer forms of discipline other than non-abusive spanking. A few of these are (Robinson, 2001) that other techniques might be more effective, (Leman, 1996) that it just doesn't work for some children, and ("Spare the rod," 2001) that other forms of discipline might be more effective in certain situations. A few quotes will illustrate that these views are common. "Children of parents who don't spank are better behaved" (Glanton, 2000). There is a quote from a woman who "learned from experience that corporal punishment isn't worth it. 'I used it occasionally and found it didn't work'" (Glanton, 2000). And in situations that apply, "all of behavioral psychology agrees that using positive reinforcement of alternative behaviors gains greater and longer lasting behavior change than does the use of punishment" (Berliner, n.d.). The APA makes an interesting observation: "The resort to corporal punishment tends to reduce the likelihood of employing more effective, humane, and creative ways of interacting with children" (Berliner, n.d.). So just because non-abusive spanking is not "bad" does not necessarily mean that is the best form of discipline. But if we choose not to discipline in this manner, we should make this choice based on an accurate understanding of the facts. If something is not "bad" but we wish to avoid it anyway, we should not decide that it is bad to motivate us to avoid it. Instead, we should avoid it for a relevant reason.
Is non-abusive spanking all that bad for children? Psychologist Dr. Baumrind, who does not advocate spanking, argues "that an occasional swat, when delivered in the context of good child-rearing, had not been shown to do any harm" (Goode, 2001). She also states that "when parents are loving and firm and communicate well with the child, . . . the children are exceptionally competent and well adjusted, whether or not their parents spanked them as preschoolers" (Goode, 2001).
There is a disturbing trend that in the field of psychology, researchers have been sloppy in their research of spanking and drawing unfounded conclusions. For example, one source stated "that social scientists had overstepped the evidence in claiming that spanking caused lasting harm to the child" (Goode, 2001). And "Dr. George Holden, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, agreed that many spanking studies were flawed" (Goode, 2001).
How are we to explain the overwhelming so-called scientific evidence that spanking is bad? Again, a quote by Dr. Baumrind provides an answer: "The studies cited by opponents of corporal punishment, Dr. Baumrind contended, often do not adequately distinguish the effects of spanking, as practiced by nonabusive parents, from the impact of severe physical punishment and abuse. Nor do they consider other factors that might account for problems later in life, like whether parents are rejecting or whether defiant or aggressive children might be more likely to be spanked in the first place. Dr. Baumrind described findings from her own research, an analysis of data from a long-term study of more than 100 families, indicating that mild to moderate spanking had no detrimental effects when such confounding influences were separated out." (Goode, 2001). "Dr. George Holden, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, agreed that many spanking studies were flawed. 'Spanking is pretty complex if you dig into it,' Dr. Holden said, 'and a lot of that complexity has been completely ignored by previous researchers'" (Goode, 2001).
So in spite of the conclusions of the APA, we must rather conclude that non-abusive spanking is an okay practice, but it may not be the best form of discipline in many cases and it certainly is unnecessary many times in which it is commonly used.
However, proponents of spanking claim that there are cases in which spanking is the preferred method of discipline. "The idea behind the swat on the tail is to get the child's attention and to let him know that Mom or Dad is very displeased with what just happened" (Leman, 1996). "Spanking should also only be used for more serious misdeeds, and should never be used when another form of punishment would suffice" ("On spanking," 1996). A couple "decided years ago to spank their three children. . . because they found that timeouts did not always work when the children were small. 'It seemed to get our child's attention a lot quicker'" (Goode, 2001).
There are alternatives to spanking which certainly should be used when appropriate and in many cases should be the preferred method of discipline. Some alternatives are "verbal corrections, time outs, and logical consequences" (Robinson, 2001) as well as the use of reasoning with the child. "For very compliant children, milder forms of correction will suffice and spanking may never be necessary. The child should receive at least as much encouragement and praise for good behavior as correction for problem behavior" (Robinson, 2001). When a child is doing something he or she shouldn't do you can "remove him from the scene" (Leman, 1996). And in cases where he or she "crawls right back and does the same thing again" (Leman, 1996) you can resort to the use of a "playpen. It has soft but firm walls that say, 'Okay, you sit here for a while'" (Leman, 1996). Any method of discipline "should be one element of a discipline system that includes consistency in punishment and praise for good behavior" ("Spare the rod," 2001). Parents should consider the many options available to them: in many cases, "parents who spank are taking the easy way out" (Putre, 2000). And not all children have the same response to spanking: "some children will respond more favorably to spanking than others" (Leman, 1996). "All of behavioral psychology agrees that using positive reinforcement of alternative behaviors gains greater and longer lasting behavior change than does the use of punishment" (Berliner, n.d.).
Many people want spanking to be illegal. It has already happened in parts of the world. "Corporal punishment has been outlawed in at least five European countries, but it remains eminently legal in all U.S. states" (Glanton, 2000) although the severity of the spanking often is legislated. Both sides remain in a heated struggle and "the warring sides have argued their cases on Web sites, in scientific journals and in the courts, where anti-spankers have fought to have the practice legally banned and pro-spankers have fought for laws protecting parents who spank from abuse charges" (Goode, 2001). But the cultural values in America of honoring freedom and parental authority means that "there is little sentiment for a change. Americans tend to trust parents more than their government" (Glanton, 2000). The government should have an involvement in educating parents about the issues involved in child development and discipline, but should not intervene except in cases of abuse.
The real issue is whether or not we should trust parents to decide how they wish to discipline their children. And once the government begins dictating what type of discipline is appropriate, it is just a matter of time before it gets involved in other aspects of child raising such as religious upbringing, and cultural and ethnic traditions. Parents, for good reason, have a "fear of losing control over their children's thinking" (Berliner, n.d.). And "without compelling evidence that spanking is harmful, parents should be free to rear their children in accordance with their own values and traditions" (Goode, 2001). The government should only get involved in clear cases of abuse.
My recommendations are that non-abusive spanking as I described it early in this paper is okay and that parents have the right to choose whether or not they wish to spank their children. I also believe that it is appropriate for the government to intervene in cases of child abuse as well as other type of abuse in the family. Parents should be allowed to exercise the natural God given right and responsibility of raising their children and this includes the right to choose what types of discipline to use. The government should have a role in educating parents about the issues involved in raising children and this includes discipline issues. Parents should take it upon themselves to become educated about the important responsibility of raising their children. But even though I believe that parents have the right to choose whether or not to spank their children, I recommend that they seriously consider not spanking at all or at least to drastically minimize spanking in their system of discipline.
Berliner, David (n.d.). Educational Psychology Meets the Christian Right: Differing Views of Children, Schooling, Teaching, and Learning. Retrieved November 8, 2001 from http://www.courses.ed.asu.edu/berliner/readings/differingh.htm
Glanton, Dahleen (2000). Discipline or abuse? Church renews spanking debate. Retrieved November 8, 2001 from http://www.corpun.com/usd00104.htm
Goode, Erica (2001). Findings Give Some Support to Advocates of Spanking. Retrieved November 8, 2001 from http://www.nospank.org/nytimes2.htm
Leman, Kevin & Carlson, Randy (1996). Retrieved November 8, 2001 from http://www.christiananswers.net/q-flc/flc-f001.html
(NIV) The Holy Bible, New International Version (1984). Grand Rapids, MI: The Zondervan Corporation.
On spanking and child abuse (1996). Retrieved November 8, 2001 from http://www.grahammitchell.net/writings/spanking.html
Putre, Laura (2000). A detective delivers lessons in the lost art of spanking. Retrieved November 8, 2001 from http://www.corpun.com/usd00009.htm
Robinson, B.A. (2001). Child Corporal Punishment: Spanking. Retrieved November 8, 2001 from http://www.religioustolerance.org/spankin3.htm
Spare the rod, spoil the child? (2001). Retrieved November 8, 2001 from http://www.gospelcom.net/apologeticsindex/news1/an010403-11.html