Tantrums, defiance, and blatant disobedience from your child are behaviors that merit discipline. What is the most effective way to redirect your child’s behavior? Is spanking a biblically sanctioned approach to discipline? Many parents wrestle with questions like these as they discern the best way to discipline their child.
When supporting their position, proponents of spanking often cite biblical evidence like Proverbs 13:24, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” or Proverbs 23:13-14, “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.” These biblical verses show us the importance of discipline. Discipline is one of the ways that we show love to our children. We do it because we care enough to confront and redirect our children’s bad behavior. These texts make clear that discipline is an essential component of nurturing our children and they show how discipline can guide children to righteousness or at least curtail some destructive behavior. But the Bible does not prescribe spanking as the only way to discipline. So, should we spank? Is spanking the best way to accomplish discipline? And what are the challenges of using spanking as a means of discipline?
Spanking typically provides immediate results. When we spank a child who threw a toy at a sibling, the child does tend to immediately obey and refrain from throwing the toy again. However, obedience produced by spanking rarely changes a child’s behavior over the long haul, because the obedience is motivated by fear, not understanding and remorse. When spanked, a child changes their behavior because they fear being hit again, not because of any internal motivation to change. Spanking may be effective for short-term results where the consequences are high. Swatting a toddler on the backside to keep them from going into traffic or giving a slap on a hand about to touch the hot stove may be effective ways to keep a child safe until they are more capable of understanding danger. If you are only interested in the short-term result there is merit in a spanking. However, in the long term, it is important for parents to allow their children to experience the natural consequences of their actions. This creates a link between their bad behavior and the negative consequences and it internally motivates children to change their behavior.
Children who experience natural consequences connect their behaviors with the results of their actions and begin to internalize better choices. In contrast, when parents step in and spank, the child’s focus moves off their behavior and onto the parent. Often, children will become angry at a parent for inflicting pain. They lose the connection between their behavior and its consequences because the pain they experience comes from outside of the situation instead of from within it. It is hard for children to see the love behind a spanking; to a child it looks and feels like violence.
Spanking can undermine the trust and love in the parent-child relationship and instill distrust and fear. Ephesians 6 instructs children to be obedient, but it also cautions parents not to make children angry and exasperated. If a parent offers empathy for the consequences a child must endure then they remain outside of the conflict rather than at the center of it, as when they spank. Other forms of discipline allow parents to be empathetic about the consequences their child will experience. Removing privileges, setting limits, reflecting on the bad choice, and requiring making amends are all options available for parents to redirect behavior. A parent can say “I am sure it is disappointing to lose your computer privileges” or “I know it is no fun to sit on the time-out bench and think about your bad choice.” These expressions of empathy show solidarity with the child and clearly reflects the parent’s love and care.
Spanking has the potential to evolve into physical abuse. Spanking can too often become an impulsive lashing out of anger by a frustrated parent. Striking a child offers a release of the parent’s pent-up anger and it can be easy for self-control to fall away as emotions take over. This can make it difficult for an angry parent to know when to stop. When we spank, we can be tempted to discipline out of rage rather than reason.
Discipline is necessary for guiding our children, but not all forms of discipline are equal. It makes sense that we would want to use the most effective means to discipline our children and avoid causing unnecessary harm in the process. Establishing consequences for disobedience is a very effective way to help children make the mental link between their behavior and its effects. Removing privileges as a means of discipline protects the parent-child relationship. When children are warned in advance what the consequences will be, then they begin to recognize the results of their actions when they occur. “If you don’t clean up your room, then we will remove some of the toys, so that you don’t have such a hard time keeping it clean.” “If you can’t get your homework assignments turned in, then we will help you clear your calendar to make time for school work.” Experiencing these consequences can effectively guide children to make better choices without risking harm to them or to our relationship with them. It is our role as parents to guide our children. “Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6).
Children will test the limits of what is acceptable or unacceptable to determine when a parent will actually follow through with consequences. It is how they discern their boundaries and discover their place in the world. It is our role as parents to exercise effective discipline to guide children to choose wisely moving forward. So as you decide whether or not to spank, consider the options available and choose the best way to redirect your child’s bad behavior. Spanking may be effective in the short term, but remember that our role as parents is to lovingly think long term about how our approach to discipline will empower our children to make good decisions for life!
Rev. Dr. Steven Koster