I am raising my two boys and we have as a couple discussed the use of corporal punishment. The boys are too young at the moment but we want to decide before they get to a certain age whether it is right to spank or not. We don’t live in a country where it is illegal to do so.
I was spanked as a child by my parents, not harshly, and believe when used in moderation it is a good tool to have especially for boys. My wife disagrees. The bible speaks a lot about this but some of this is out of tune with modern thinking and norms. Your advice which is great on so many subjects would be helpful.
Dear Stuart (and all parents of young children),
How to discipline your child is a never-ending debate. Spanking has been a “tool” in the disciplinary tool kit and still is for many parents. But there’s no doubt that opinions have been changing about the wisdom and effectiveness of spanking your kids.
My mother was quick with her hand, especially her backhand, when I was a boy. There was no interval between the crime and the punishment. I don’t remember my father ever spanking us, and sometimes he objected to my mother’s quickness to hit us. She once got me in the back of the head as I ducked under the table and dad said, “Don’t hit the boy in the head.” Another time, however, as I ducked under the dining room table she hit her hand on the wood instead of my butt. Everyone laughed, and finally so did she (as she held her smarting hand).
Later in life she regretted that she had been so hard on us. “If I did that today they’d arrest me for child abuse,” she said. But apart from her quick temper, she wasn’t alone in terms of parents inflicting corporal punishment. It was common lore from my friends in our neighborhood that they could be spanked with father’s belt or mom’s big wooden spoon. The one benefit I could see to my situation is that the punishment was immediate and then done with. I didn’t have to hear, “Wait until your father gets home”…and then wait. I’m sure that was agony.
I don’t recall hitting or spanking any of my three children. I won’t say “never,” because they pushed my button on a number of occasions. Certainly my wife never laid hands on them except in love. I might add that I never received any hugs from my parents. In the stoical 1950s blue collar households I guess that wasn’t done. To be touched in anger but not in love is not a good thing. I learned to hug my kids as they were growing up and I still do so now that they are adults.
Home and school were in sync as far as punishment was concerned back in the 1950s. Corporal punishment was still possible in the schools. Assistant principals were usually in charge of discipline, but in my school the administration of corporal punishment was left to the girls’ gym teacher. You didn’t want to be sent to see Miss Petersen, and I’m glad I never had to experience her administration of discipline. But for any infractions the elementary school assistant principal called the parents, and even if there was no corporal punishment at school the kids could be sure of receiving it when they got home.
Some teachers who applied the rod were legendary. Our diminutive Irish music teacher in elementary school used her baton to whack kids on the head who weren’t paying attention in class or those in the orchestra who kept playing wrong notes. (Mrs. Hull was, nevertheless, a favorite teacher at the school.) The kids who went to the Catholic parochial school told about the sisters who would smack their hands with a ruler for various infractions. Heaven help you if you were sent to the mother superior who would whack your butt (girls as well as boys). But I guess this was nothing in comparison with the punishment at British boarding schools, which has been the subject of novels and movies. Caning on your bare butt could leave serious welts.
Today caning and other forms of corporate punishment in the schools is illegal in the UK. However, the British penchant for caning was carried to countries that once constituted the British Empire and is still practiced in those countries today, including Singapore and Malasia and several countries in Africa. Singapore is also known for its judicial caning on the bare butt of naked victims.
In many Asian countries corporal punishment, including caning, is practiced by parents even if it is not practiced in the schools. Smacking a child’s hand with a ruler or a stick is common for ordinary infractions. Caning is reserved for more serious offences. But sometimes the punishment of a child by parents has seemed excessive and there is conversation about the appropriateness and value of physically abusing children and youth as a form of punishment.
In the US schools corporal punishment is still legal in 19 states, mostly across the South and Southwest. A disproportionate number of African American children receive corporal punishment in the schools and by their parents in the their homes and even in public places. Reasons for this are complicated, including the facts that corporal punishment by flogging was practiced by masters on slaves, that African-Americans are generally more religious and believe that the Bible teaches parents to discipline their children, and that “whupping” a child is thought to help communicate the idea to children that they have to be respectful to their elders and to observe ways to be safe in their communities.
It’s not illegal in the UK or US for parents to apply corporal punishment to their children. Court cases have upheld the right of parents to spank their children. But in my view dads and moms should use their belts to hold up their pants and their wooden spoons for stirring the soup. Corporal punishment is neither as biblical nor as effective as many people think.
I know that passages in the Bible have been used to support corporal punishment and conservative Christians think that spanking is God’s wisdom on how to raise children. As is often the case, however, people read into biblical passages what they assume on the basis of their culture. The famous phrase “spare the rod and spoil the child” was actually coined by a 17th century English poet and satirist names Samuel Butler in his poem Hudibras. He may have been paraphrasing Proverbs 13:24, which reads in the 1611 King James Version, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he who loves him chasteneth him betimes.” The “rod” in question is the shepherd’s crook, which was used to keep the sheep from straying and to show them the right path. Remember Psalm 23? “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” Thus, using the rod in this verse has to do with the father providing guidance for his son more than it has to do with punishment.
Hebrews 12:7-11 is also cited by those Christians who espouse corporal punishment. It speaks of a discipline which seems painful. But I would note that the passage begins with an admonition to “Endure trials for the sake of discipline (paideian).” The trials the author is speaking of are the trials of faith. The experience of suffering sets the Christian alongside Christ, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith,” and should therefore be welcomed as a chastening or purifying of God’s people. The word “discipline” (paideia) refers to education. From it we get the word “disciple,” one who learns the way.
Children have to be taught. What are they learning if they are subjected to physical pain for poor judgment or infraction of the rules? Parents are usually angry when they hit or spank their children. Since children learn more from their parents’ actions than from their words, they learn to strike when they are angry. They learn aggressive behavior. And while the questioner is thinking about whether or not to spank his boys when they get older, girls have also been subject of a hand, paddle, or even a belt applied on their behind from either mother or father.
Even if the parent doesn’t spank immediately but sets up a ritual of spanking like the solemn school canings were, the child learns body shame (especially if their pants are pulled down for the spanking). The bare buttocks were exposed to prevent boys from padding their pants to lesson the pain. But to have their butt exposed and subjected to such treatment, sometimes even in front of other family members (or in school in front of other miscreants who were awaiting their turn with the cane), means that the youth has been totally humiliated. An older child might even shift the focus to the parent’s behavior rather than to what can be learned from his own behavior, in which case the punishment would totally undermine its intended affect.
And let’s not forget that spanking is also a sadomasochistic fetish. Can that aberrant form of sexual pleasure be promoted by parental/school-administered corporal punishment? Perhaps not generally, but in some cases—yes! Don’t forget that the buttocks is an erogenous zone. In many people it is a primary area of sexual arousal. Physically, what’s the difference between an adult spanking another adult and an adult spanking a child other than the child’s lack of consent?
Moreover, spanking or paddling a child can be physically risky for the child. The child can be struck in a truly harmful way by injuring a body organ. In a small child there are a number of organs near the buttocks and the parent can’t assume that his or her aim is accurate, especially if the child squirms (which he is likely to do as painful punishment is being applied). Moreover, Elizabeth Gershoff, PhD, a leading researcher on physical punishment at the University of Texas at Austin says: “Physical punishment doesn’t work to get kids to comply, so parents think they have to keep escalating it. That is why it is so dangerous,” she says. This is what leads to genuine child abuse.
The other physiological issue to consider is that when boys reach puberty, it doesn’t take much for them to get an erection. Spanking the buttocks causes a surge of blood flowing in the pelvic region, which will also engorge the penis. That, combined with the heart pumping faster, will undoubtedly cause an erection and maybe even produce precum. It’s not a sexual response, its a physiological response. But it can cause a young boy double humiliation. How would you deal with this with your young adolescent? Ignore it? Give an on the spot anatomy lesson?
How can we discipline our children without spanking them? There are forms of punishment that don’t involve physical pain. If there’s an issue at the dinner table, the child can be sent away from the table or denied desert. If there’s an altercation with siblings, the child (or all of them) can be given “time out” in their special “time out places.” If the fight is over a toy, the toy can be removed. If the child throws a tantrum, the parents should remain calm until the child calms down. If the child hits, he or she can be removed from the room. The object is to remove the child from a social situation when the child displays anti-social behavior. A moral lesson can be taught if the parent is not one who hits. He or she can say to a child who hits a parent, “I don’t hit you. Why are you hitting me? We don’t hit people in this house.”
The teen age years present special difficulties. You’re not going to put your teen age son over your knee or treat his bare butt to a paddling. There are the time-honored punishments of being grounded and removing internet or driving privileges, depending on the infraction. The lesson here is that with maturity comes responsibility and privileges are taken away until they can be handled responsibly. I saw one cartoon in which the son asks his father, “Can I go out with my friends tonight?” The father says to his son, “you’re grounded, remember?” The son responds, “Couldn’t I get the belt instead?” In any event, this is already leading to a conversation if the parent wants to make use of it.
Obviously, the other side of discipline is positive reinforcement and effusive praise to reward children for good behavior. When a naughty action has been diffused and the child is calmed down, take the time to sit down and discuss it with the child. Affirm that you love the child and end the conversation with a hug. Finding creative ways to discipline a child and have the child learn something positive at the same time is hard work. But it is noble work. I wish you well in your child rearing.
Pastor Frank Senn