I’ll admit that the moment we started talking about how we would discipline our son, my mind was already made up. I did not want to spank.
Like the majority of my peers, I was spanked as a kid. While I “turned out just fine,” my memories of being spanked are memories of feeling helpless, chaotic, and embarrassed. I was a compliant kid who didn’t get in trouble very often, but between my four brothers, there was often someone getting spanked in my home. I hated the energy when someone was being spanked; it affected the entire atmosphere of the home. And I remember once standing outside a closed door and hearing a brother sobbing, over and over to himself, “I am a bad boy. I am a bad boy.” My mom had probably ended the session as she often did, by assuring him that it was his behavior she was punishing—not him. But the message got lost in the spanking.
I know for certain that my parents were motivated out of love for us and a desire to honor the Bible’s wisdom on parenting. So hearing my experience will be painful for them, which is painful for me.
But when it comes to this issue, I give my parents a pass that I can’t give myself. That’s because the results of spanking studies have only recently come in, and they largely share the same conclusion.
Spanking does not work.
Spanking studies are inherently difficult to conduct, for a lot of reasons. For one thing, researchers can’t assign certain kids to be spanked and others not. For another, spanking in a clinical research setting would violate ethical standards, which limits the kinds of studies that can be done. And for a long time, there weren’t enough kids in society who weren’t spanked to study in contrast with those who were.
But studies are being published, and the vast majority find no positive connection between spanking and long-term positive behavior—regardless of sample size, age of child, or length of study. Instead, studies are finding connections between spanking and anxiety, depression, self-regulation issues, decreased IQ, aggression, mental illness, and violence. Pretty much every major pediatric association has written a policy against corporal punishment, and at least 42 countries have banned it. (The U.S. is not one of them.)
Between my memories and the data, I simply saw no way to justify spanking my child. Except for that one issue. Isn’t spanking the “Christian” way to discipline? Am I neglecting the wisdom of scripture if I don’t spank?
Of course we know that all true wisdom is God’s wisdom. If the Bible seems in conflict with modern data, one of two things is happening. Either the data is incorrect, or else our understanding of how to read and interpret the Bible on the matter is incorrect. Both are matters of human error, and neither threatens the integrity of the Bible.
So what does the Bible say about spanking?
The New Testament contains no instructions to use corporal punishment. None at all. It does show us that Jesus respected children as whole human beings in a culture where they were mostly treated as property. Paul admonishes parents to discipline but not aggravate their children. The author of Hebrews compares God’s discipline to the discipline of fathers but does not specify physical punishment (perhaps it was assumed). That’s about the whole of it.
Proverbs contains several verses about using the “rod” to discipline. But as soon as we take context and genre into consideration, making an argument for spanking based on that imagery is untenable. Old Testament writers believed that God permitted them to beat their slaves with a “rod” (possibly the same household rod used to beat children) so long as they didn’t kill them, and that he commanded them to stone to death their rebellious sons. Proverbs is attributed to a king who had 700 wives, 300 concubines, and likely hundreds of children. Timeless wisdom he did pen; modern Christian parenting guru he is not.
Most importantly, especially to those of us who believe God’s Word surpasses the times and places from which it was written: Proverbs is wisdom literature, which states general truths in general terms, even if the imagery and symbols it uses are specific. It is not a book of precepts, promises, or methods. Treating it like a how-to manual or recipe book imposes our cultural preferences on the Bible instead of honoring it for the gift that it is.
Even though I’ve always heard spanking taught as something of a religious duty, all I could really find in the Bible was a symbolic image of discipline tied to an ancient culture. Which is why I now see spanking as a traditional practice, not a biblical mandate.
One thing I’ve learned from living in Indonesia is that it’s much easier to spot a “traditional practice” when you’re an outsider to the culture. For example, the vast majority of Indonesian girls are circumcised as babies or young girls. The practice is only vaguely tied to Islam, but most Muslim Indonesian parents believe it’s important. There’s a widespread belief that it’s healthier for women and makes them less likely to be sexually immoral. “My parents circumcised me, and I turned out fine” passes as an argument. Outlying studies “proving” that it’s more hygienic are cited. Despite the greater breadth of research, despite the ethics, despite the official ban, despite the fact that you can’t make an argument for it from the Quran: it’s simply what’s done. As an outsider, you immediately identify it as a harmful practice. But challenge it, and you’re seen as posing a threat to both religious duty and personal autonomy.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with traditional practices, but there’s nothing necessarily good about them either. Our traditions hold great beauty and wisdom, but they can also sustain outdated and unethical practices, giving them a weight of legitimacy that persists beyond logic and reason and wisdom. Discerning the old and unethical from the timeless and beautiful doesn’t undercut our traditions; it keeps them alive and active. It reminds us that we’re a part of a bigger story that’s moving toward something.
That’s why I don’t dismiss Proverbs 13:24 the way I wholly reject, say, instructions to stone disobedient sons. I see timeless truth in the passage: “Whoever spares the rod hates his child, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline.
For me, being careful to discipline means teaching my son that he has choices and that every choice has a consequence. If he doesn’t do his homework, he’ll fail. If he disobeys the law, he’ll be arrested. If he doesn’t show up to work, he’ll be fired. I can teach those things now by implementing natural consequences for his choices and by respecting his developing capacity for reason. My goal isn’t to have a five-year-old who knows that if he’s not “quick to obey” he’ll suffer a few swats of my hand or kitchen spoon. My vision is to raise an adult who has internalized the gift of discipline. I believe all parents who discipline their children with intentionality, whether or not they spank, share that vision.
But beyond responsibility and respect for authority, there are other important lessons I want to teach my son. I want to teach him that violence and aggression are not the most powerful ways to assert control. I want to teach him that he should never hit someone he loves. I want to teach him that no matter how small he is, he has ownership of his body and the right to defend himself.
I can hit him and tell him all of those things, explaining that I am the exception to all of those rules. But why, exactly, am I the exception to those rules? And what happens if one of those lessons gets lost in the spanking?
As for the rod: I want to put down that ancient weapon of punishment and pick up something like the ancient shepherd’s staff. I want to correct and guide my child according to his bent. I want to do that without sparing.
Non-violent discipline is the best way to honor the Bible’s teachings on discipline. It’s using the fullness of wisdom that’s available to us. I honor my parents for doing that when they were raising me, but I don’t serve them or my cultural traditions. I serve a God who is continually leading his people upwards and onwards in his kingdom. We know enough now to know that the fullest expression of God’s wisdom does not include hitting our kids.
Why Spanking Doesn’t Work (Time)
Spanking, Corporal Punishment, and Negative Long-Term Outcomes (Clinical Psychology Review)
Spanking and Child Development: We Know Enough Now to Stop Hitting Our Children (Child Development Perspectives)
Christians Have No Moral Rationale For Spanking Their Kids (Jonathan Merritt)
Spanking Linked to Mental Illness (American Academy of Pediatrics)
Policy Statement on Corporal Punishment (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology)
Where We Stand: Spanking (Healthy Children)
AAP Issues Policy Statement on Parental Discipline of Children (American Family Physician)
Spanking and the Making of a Violent Society (Pediatrics)
Why Spanking Doesn’t Work (Dr. Phil)
The Case Against Spanking (UNH Today)
The Bible Tells Me So (Peter Enns)