This might be the hardest post I’ve ever written. It has been a long time coming. There are a few really good reasons I haven’t written it until now. Truthfully, I’m a little terrified to write it. But this time- it sort of grabbed hold of me and wouldn’t let go.
So, here it is. It’s long, and it’s the exhausted outpouring of my heart.
Hopefully, you’ve already heard some of these ideas rolling around, what with the Adrian Peterson chaos and all (although, for the record, I very much agree that what Peterson did was not spanking, and doesn’t belong in the “spanking debate”).
I define spanking as specifically the administering of blows with hand or other object to the bare buttocks or bare legs of a young child. The major heart of this post is directed toward that type of physical discipline. In all honesty though, my husband and I have had many deep conversations in which we’ve been able to imagine the Holy Spirit leading a parent to use some form of physical discipline in a loving and effective way. For my part, I can see this very clearly in Scripture applying to the beating of the back of an adolescent young man in rebellion. Especially in the cultural context, I can understand the heart of such disciplinary action.
However, it seems that spanking, as previously defined above, has mutated and changed to become a very different parenting philosophy, often aimed at very young children and babies, and for parents who want to know what the Bible has to say about this aspect of parenting, I offer here a very different perspective than is perhaps the typical Christian take.
Some of these verses pertain specifically to children, and others to the Lord’s desire for our relationships- all of them- in general.
All of them come with my fervent hope that you will think, pray, and just consider, with heart wide open.
12 Biblical Reasons to Reconsider Spanking
1. “Whatever doesn’t proceed from faith is sin.” -Romans 14:23
When we’re spanking our kids to teach them to obey us, we’re teaching them to obey us out of the fear of punishment, or fear of pain. We justify this by saying it’s how we teach them to obey God in the long run, but really we’ve just taught them to obey God out of fear of pain as well. And when it comes right down to it, the Christian walk often contains a good bit of pain. Following God can lead us to step into very hard, uncomfortable, and downright painful places. The strength to say “Yes” to God in those circumstances comes from FAITH in His deep trustworthiness, not from fear of what He will do to us if we don’t. And since the Bible also tells us 365 times NOT to fear, often specifically in the context of faith in the face of painful trials, to obey God because we’re afraid of getting “spanked” isn’t really the faith we’re going for.
Most of the people I’ve met advocating “biblical obedience to God” by spanking their children are also diametrically opposed to sleeping next to their children, picking them up when they cry “just to be picked up”, and other “Attachment” Parenting type behaviors. But hold on a second. Just what do you think those mothers did with their babies and toddlers back in “Bible Times”? They wore them on their bodies for most of the day, nursed them on demand, and slept right beside them all night. Just as every human culture has before the invention of bottles, cribs, and enclosed structures made it possible to achieve the drastic separation from our children our “modern” parenting culture is so fascinated with.
So when we read those infamous Proverbs about “The Rod” – let’s not forget to put them in the right context. It’s unlikely they’re referring to spanking the toddler happily riding in a sack on his mother’s back all day, with his need for nursing and comfort readily met, and his cries “just to be picked up” met from infancy until they are virtually nonexistent.
3. Be careful about taking the Bible “literally”.
You may have heard by now that the verses in Proverbs that are used to advocate spanking children use a specific Hebrew word for child- na’ar-that specifically refers to a “young man,” and not a small toddler. So if you want to be literal, you’ll need to wait beyond the toddler years (something quite the opposite of what’s advised in most Christian Child-Training books).
Additionally, in proper exegesis, the book of Proverbs is largely poetic, metaphorical, and full of generalized observations, rather than commands. This is illustrated by Proverbs 23:2 which “commands” you to “Put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony.”
Other points to consider? Many thanks to this article for pointing out a few other glaring obstacles in our “literal” applications, and this excellent and thorough book, available for free, by Samuel S. Martin.
4. “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, so that they will not lose heart. ” – Col 3:21
Or, Ephesians 6:4 if you like, in the King James Bible for good, Conservative measure:
” And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.”
Truly, it seems baffling that we can for decades so blindly adhere to a very delicate interpretation of Proverbs to promote “spanking,” while apparently thoroughly missing this much more direct, much more obvious direction to parents.
This warning to fathers seems to have taken a quiet backseat. We remember it occasionally, perhaps even as a reference for encouraging parents to be “loving” while they are spanking. But anyone who can step back, and look squarely at this verse would be hard pressed to imagine spanking in anger or in “love” to be anything less than embittering, exasperating, or provoking to children, especially very young ones. It is devastating to children to be wounded by the ones they love and trust and need the most, and they tell us this clearly by their screams and cries. Perhaps they grow used to it after so many repetitions, but it’s reasonable to imagine that has something to do with “losing heart.”
In fact, many “child training” manuals written to Christian parents seem to indicate that parents should spank specifically UNTIL the child does lose heart.
Michael Pearl writes in To Train Up A Child, “If you have to sit on him to spank him then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he is surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Defeat him totally. Accept no conditions for surrender. No compromise.” (p.49)(Emphasis mine.) To be defeated, by any other name, is to lose. And in the case of a young child, it is not a stretch to call this “losing heart.”
5. The Golden Rule
“So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.” – Matthew 7:12
Jesus has made an incredibly bold statement here, don’t you think? To sum up the entire Law and Prophets with the Golden Rule?
Take a moment, if you will, to examine what this command might really mean for us. Jesus says specifically “in everything,” so this must include parenting. Do for others what you would have them do for you.
I know in our hearts, none of us wants someone to inflict pain to us in our most vulnerable times, just to teach us a lesson. I have heard many an argument that this “pain” to deter from bad choices is a good thing, something God uses frequently to teach us lessons. People argue, “If I were headed over a cliff, I would want someone to do whatever is necessary, including inflicting pain, to stop me from plunging to my death.”
That’s a valid point.
But it doesn’t describe spanking.
And it doesn’t accurately describe how God disciplines us either.
If we’ll be honest, we can admit that He does not respond to our every mistake by sending pain so we will “learn” and stop repeating the mistake. Pain is indeed a consequence at times, but He allows us much room, much grace. He also gently guides us, comparing Himself to a Shepherd, a Mother, a mother Hen, and many other very tender images. He is also patient with us, slow to anger. He reasons with us, invites us to the throne of Grace to receive Mercy. In fact, God is anything BUT “consistent” in His discipline, at least in the way so many “Child Training” books advocate consistency, for instance recommending a swift spanking as many times a day as an infringement occurs.
Despite much twisting of words and theology, the truth is that God does not deal with us in our vulnerability even remotely like we have been told to deal with our young children.
6. “Let your Reasonableness/Gentleness be evident to ALL…”
….the Lord is near.” Philippians 4:5
Depending on your translation, the word is “gentleness” or “reasonableness.” Both are so beautifully applicable, I kept them together.
Be gentle, be reasonable, let it be evident to all.
Especially to your children.
For the Lord is near.
7. “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” -James 1:19
And this lovely verse: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Eph 4:2
If these don’t describe a good parent, I’m not sure what does.
Research shows, children (and humanity in general) learn the vast, vast, vast majority from example and experience, rather than punishment or lecture.
It follows then (and bears fruit in the children and adults researched), that a child whose parent listens to them learns to be a good listener.
A child who’s parent is not quick with lectures, angry or otherwise, learns to have self control and watch.
A child who’s parents are patient and not quick to be angry learn the spiritual fruit of self control, kindness, long-suffering, and peace.
Does this say “slow to spank”? No, it doesn’t. But research shows, time and time again, that parents who will reason, listen, and patiently model grace for their children like the picture James paints here, find that they raise children who do the same.
8. “A wise man looks ahead….”- Proverbs 14:8
Research also shows, time and time again, that spanking whether in anger or in “love”, yields children who are more aggressive, less empathetic, and often more rebellious, although that rebellion waits until they have outgrown the fear of their parents. Until then, yes, spanking does work sometimes to keep young children “in line” and behaving “well”.
But Proverbs says in chapter 14:8, “The wise man looks ahead. The fool attempts to fool himself and won’t face facts.”
Many thanks to Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe and his excellent book, Planting & Building: Raising A Jewish Child, for drawing attention to this point.
It is deeply, urgently, time for parents to face the facts, and wisely look ahead to the consistently negative and tragically detrimental effects of spanking. It is becoming more culturally self-evident that it isn’t true that the Bible commands the sort of “spanking” we have advocated for decades (see here for a few examples), so it is time to let go and allow deeper understanding of Scripture and truth to shine.
9. “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” -Proverbs 15:22
Another gem from our favorite book.
I point out this proverb only to say that the books most Christian parents turn to for “biblical” advice on discipline and spanking amount to the work of only a handful of pastors and authors. Few of them have researched their suggestions, few of them are psychologists, few of them are even fully exposed to Jewish/Hebrew history to understand the true context of their selected texts.
This doesn’t make them entirely invalid, but it does raise just a tiny flag of caution- as you “plan” your parenting, perhaps it is wise to seek a wider multitude of advisers.
For one excellent example of an alternate perspective, the book I referenced earlier by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (a thorough expert in Old Testament text, in its original language and context) is a great place to investigate. This is not an affiliate link, in case it matters to you.
10. “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds” -Hebrews 10:24
In all fairness, I know that most parents and advocates of spanking do so on the firm personal conviction that they are spurring their children on toward love and good deeds.
But the research, and the results looking around at culture, do not confirm this conviction.
So, let’s consider how we could.
Whether you start with modern research or deeper biblical exegesis, you truly will find that the nurturing context of “attachment”-type parenting historically in Bible times, and now, both yields better results in raising children who are concerned with love and good deeds, and creates a family and cultural climate that completely changes the impact of “beatings” that may have been necessary for the most offensive of rebellious deeds, rendering them truly a deterrent from bad behavior, and not a crushing blow to the development of a human person.
This reality changes the world.
(For more understanding on this topic, check out Planting &Building by Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe (Really, by the third time, I hope you’ve already decided to read it!), The Continuum Concept by Jean Leidloff, and The Natural Child by Jan Hunt.)
11. “CHILDREN, obey your father and mother….”-Ephesians 6:1
Although GOD urges His children to obey their earthly parents, this command comes in a list of commands, others directed to wives, slaves, and then specifically to fathers, and it is worth noting that this one is directed to the children.
And then He gives them a reason. “Because you belong to the Lord, for this is the right thing to do” and “for this pleases the Lord,”(Col 3:20) and even “so that it may go well with you and you may enjoy a long life on the earth.” (Eph 6:1)
God does not command fathers, here, to force or make their children obey. He speaks directly to the will of the child, and urges them to choose obedience and honor.
It could follow, then, that the choice for disobedience is largely and often an issue between the child and God Himself, and not the parents.
12. “He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. ” Matthew 18:2-6
Perhaps my personal favorite.
I think it is safe to say, we often rebuke and discipline children for, well, not being like adults. Being forgetful, or opinionated, or loud, or rambunctious, or emotional.
Oh wait, I know a lot of adults like that.
But anyway, in this beautiful verse, Jesus urges all of us to become like little children. In their humility, innocence, enthusiasmm, their boldness to come right up and interrupt Jesus…..They are a picture of the “greatest in the kingdom of heaven”
This should give us pause.
And the warning that follows should, in my humble (but passionate) opinion, forever halt the spanking hand of every parent:
“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believes in me to sin, it would be better for him to…be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
After all of this, can we take one more step back and see? Spanking children, especially the tiny ones, obviously causes them to be angry and fearful. And research and common sense keep showing that it usually causes them to go from angry and fearful to angry and rebellious, anxious, and aggressive.
I think we had better be able to clearly prove not even a hint of sin in any of those results before we lay another hand on any child, and risk causing him to stumble.
It’s worth considering.
“Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly.”- James 3:1