Spanking and Obedience

Solomon was the wisest of all kings, but he failed for lack of obedience. Christian parents these days seem to me to be making sure that none of our kids resemble him in any way, whether good or bad.

I’m no model parent and I dislike reading or writing about parenting, and so I feel a little out of my depth commenting about such things. Nevertheless, I feel like there is an imbalance in Christian thinking about obedience (virtue though it is) and the use of spanking (which is treated like a virtue, though it isn’t) when obedience is lacking.

Corporal Punishment

In government legislation, the trend is increasingly to view any physical punishment as abuse. It has (unless I’m misled) been banned from schools, which has led many teachers to feel that their arsenal of disciplinary measures is worryingly depleted.

While I feel for teachers, I can also understand the blanket rule outlawing corporal punishment. That’s because teachers are frequently insane. For example, I had a history teacher called Mr Nielsen who had only one eye and suspiciously bottle-like scars around the blind one. He used to throw things — even wooden board dusters — at misbehaving boys (surely not a good idea when you have only one eye), and forced some to eat pieces of chalk. I would not have liked to see him with a cane in hand. I heard unconfirmed reports that he eventually fled when it was discovered that his teaching qualification was fictitious. I was also caned with a cricket bat for wearing our official purple athletics shorts instead of our white cricket shorts to practice (as if being the only high-school kid in purple shorts wasn’t punishment enough in itself).

More to the point, even with the practice outlawed, we have regular reports of horrific abuse taking place in the classroom. Lenient sentences were given out to firstly a female teacher who was filmed repeatedly beating a girl’s knuckles with a wooden duster, and a principal who lashed a boy four times with a hosepipe. In another incident this month, four teachers took turns beating a boy so that he required surgery after forming blood clots and losing sensation in one testicle. The boy was not particularly angry, because he claims that such discipline is normal where he comes from (he received twelve lashes on his rear and three on his hands – that was last normal in Ancient Rome, son).

These are sadly not isolated incidents or the worst of the lot; they were just the ones in the news this month. The prevention of abuse must surely be a priority.

Parents fare even worse when it comes to discipline. The NY Times reported in November that spanking and other physical punishments had led to three separate child deaths in America, including a 7-year-old girl literally spanked for hours (with pauses for prayer).

Abuse like this rightly provokes outrage, and this seems to drive the move to ban physical discipline entirely. Nevertheless, we don’t ban kitchen knives because people stab each other with them; similarly, banning spanking itself may be an overreaction. Within limits, spanking can be a helpful way of teaching children that bad behaviour reaps unpleasant consequences. It can be administered without rage and without cruelty. Furthermore, I doubt that banning spanking altogether would do much to stem physical abuse, as I can’t imagine that legality is a strong motivator for an abuser. Even if spanking did die out, it might spare children some physical pain, but it won’t spare it the need for therapy later in life. One less mode of punishment, but the same abusive parents.

If banning spanking would be an overreaction,  some Christian writers have overbalanced the other way, making spanking a virtue.

Spanking for Jesus?

A number of websites have published criticisms of Michael and Debi Pearl’s book called ‘To Train Up a Child’, especially after it received the attention of CNN, and after the book turned up in each of those 3 homes in which the punishments killed the children.

I haven’t read the book, but what I’ve read and watched from him suggests that Pearl is sensible more often than his detractors give him credit for. For example, he advises parents not to spank while they’re angry, which is good counsel. On the other hand, he has spanking advice for children as young as six months old, which is well before children have shed that salamander-like blankness from their eyes, and seems a lot early. He also says this:

A child with unacceptable habits becomes a rejected child, then a dejected child, and eventually a self-loathing kid who feels that he can never please anyone and that no one likes him. I am sorry the psychologists and secular child advocates don’t get it, but then if all parents practiced child training as I have suggested, there wouldn’t be any need for abnormal psychologists or child protection agencies. A lot of people would move on to more practical kinds of work, and there wouldn’t be any more crime or war. (Source)

Good parenting would solve much of life’s problems, but I doubt that utopia would actually break out if we all just followed the steps.

In fact, ‘following the steps’ is one of the problems. Parenting requires uncommon amounts of wisdom. And while we can benefit from the wisdom of others, learning wisdom is learning how to think, how to apply, how to foresee. You have to be provoked into thoughtfulness, not taught a more complicated system of laws. Provoking thoughtfulness is the goal of Biblical wisdom literature, which is why it is so often intentionally paradoxical (see Proverbs 26:4-5). It is a violation of wisdom literature to treat it as law, and yet that is what Christians so often do.

For example, when Proverbs 13:24 says, ‘He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him,’ it is not making a law to specify beatings with a rod as the godliest form of discipline. One can use the rod liberally and hate one’s son, and one can use forms of discipline other than the rod and completely fulfil the Proverb. The rod is a figure of speech: it is at least a synecdoche (where a part, the rod, stands for the whole, discipline), and it is possibly even imagery borrowed from farming where shepherds use the rod to keep their sheep in line, but not necessarily meaning to suggest that we should be applying these farming practices to our children. The proverb is advocating discipline as the hard-but-loving thing to do for one’s children; it is not making a law to command God’s people to beat their children with sticks.

So please do away with the idea that you are somehow more godly, more obedient, more Christian, more Biblical for hitting your children. It is not wrong to do so (lovingly), but there are many other forms of discipline that you can and should use, including positive incentives rather than only negative experiences. Don’t imagine that you’ll somehow get a better seat at God’s banquet for literally using a rod.


Not only do we get in a muddle concerning the mode of discipline, but also in the matter of when discipline is deserved.

‘Gospel Centred Family’ by Moll and Chester seems like a decent enough booklet. The first chapter was fine anyway, although, I was under-impressed by the quote included in the questions for further reflection at the end:

Paul Tripp says obeying parents = ‘willing submission to authority without delay, without excuse and without challenge’.  (Source)

This ‘first-time obedience’ idea has its merits. Obedience is an important, potentially life-saving lesson to learn. Submission to authority is OK as a general rule. Kids also have a habit of begging, coercing, stretching, and bargaining away little pieces of their parents’ souls, so it is obviously an attractive idea for parents that they should be demanding unquestioning, undelayed obedience (and of course, if they get anything less from their kids, it’s a green light to give the kids a spanking!).

Raise your kids to obey unquestioningly if you think it’s good, but please stop calling it Christian.

If Christian parenting has anything to do with teaching our kids about God and modelling God-like principles to them, then first-time, unquestioning obedience is a misrepresentation of His character. God demands obedience, to be sure, and its lack was the downfall of heroes such as Saul and Solomon. But consider the following that is also true about modelling God’s character to our children:

  • Most Biblical laws (more explicitly so in the NT) are given with either a justification, a motivation, or an incentive (look at Ephesians 4 for example). ‘Because I said so’ is rare in the Bible. So why should our kids not be able to ask why before they obey (assuming defiance isn’t their only motivation)?
  • We are not God. This seems obvious to say, but we obey God because we believe He is a good and omnipotent King. We are neither good nor consistently right. Our kids should have the right to appeal against our pronouncements made in error. Fathers, do not exasperate your children, it says.
  • God displays incredible patience towards us, giving us numerous chances to obey.
  • God does not punish us immediately.
  • God does not give us what we deserve.

I’m not advocating that parents allow endless bargaining and backchat; without firmness and consistency you’re sure to breed an unruly mob. Nevertheless, first-time, unquestioning obedience is not what God insists upon from us, or demands what we instill in our kids, and neither is it particularly good for teaching our children to become wise. Again, you may still think it is the best way to raise kids, and it may be (much of the time), but just don’t call it Christian.


4 thoughts on “Spanking and Obedience

  1. Jeff says:

    That was very well written, and appeared to be well thought out. Good point on the wisdom literature. I’ve fallen into that trap before.

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