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.

Parents and Power

I never really dated (how I ended up married is a story for another day), but apparently there’s a dating-related addage about judging your date not by how he treats you, but by how he treats the waiter. [I’m nice to waiters, if you were wondering]. I suppose the thinking is that people are always on their best behaviour when they’re trying to impress someone, but their true character can be seen more clearly in relationships in which they have the power to get away with anything.

As many other addages have pointed out, power is a corrupting force, and few people have the strength of character to resist being vile when they won’t be held accountable. It’s why we are ruder over email, and more vulgar behind the wheel.

In the same way that we often think that greed is only a rich-person’s problem, it’s easy enough to think that abuse of power is a vice that only the powerful can exercise. It occurred to me today, however, that all of us who are parents are at the apex of one of the most asymmetrical and easily abused power relationships there is. Why is it that, in spite of loving my kids more than anything else, I shout at them more than anyone else too? Why do they suffer more of my grumpiness, laziness, impatience etc. than anyone on the planet?

Sure, I have to be a parent and discipline them, and kids are frankly deeply annoying at times, but none of that necessitates a bad attitude from me. At work or at church, I’m able to hold my tongue, measure my tone, and if necessary apologise, and the people there are annoying too. Fact is, parents hold all the power, with almost no accountability. Much more than waiters, kids are a great barometer for what we really are like as people.


McFly fixes BiffI read a thought-provoking article last night from the ever-interesting but expletive-filled comedy site The article is written by John Cheese and called ‘5 bad ideas for dealing with bullies that you learned from the movies‘. On the basis of his seemingly vast experience of childhood bullies, he explains how inadequate is the advice that TV and movies dispense regarding this problem.

What emerges from the article is primarily that the entertainment industry preaches that fighting back is the solution, and once the bully is humiliated or punched hard enough, he’ll learn that his bullying doesn’t pay and fly right. The reality, as John points out, is that bullies are bullies most frequently because of severe emotional damage caused by abusive homes and the like. Getting the weak, wimpy kid to fight the bully only leads to the bully escalating the violence required to ensure that his ego suffers no further, and having taken beatings from a heated-up adult at home, he’s really not so fussed at being jabbed by a delicate little nerd at school.

In short, Hollywood wants to inspire us to find the strength inside ourselves to vanquish the enemies that stand against us, and as soon as the downtrodden rise up against an oppressor, the shackles are thrown off. In reality, it is dangerous and damaging advice that can only make the problem worse. The social, economic, and moral problems that produce abusive homes and hammer children into bullies are deap-seated, horrific problems without easy solutions. Children who have been beaten and humiliated into monstrous shapes at home and who are taking a swing at some dignity and power at school aren’t going to be beaten into a cure for their damage.

This depressing reminder has been brought to in the interests of pointing out how much we love to tell ourselves that we have the power to conquer the world’s problems with heroic swipes of our metaphorical fists. We’d far rather tell ourselves that the world’s gob-smackingly huge problems can be solved in an afternoon than realise our helplessness (or perhaps start the painful incremental changes needed to turn such juggernauts around).

The Lost Art of Parenting

I’m annoyed with your child.

It’s fine, I’ll get over it. Also, my kids are probably annoying on account of some lack in their upbringing, and the following is certainly not meant to be a thinly veiled self-congratulation for my superior parenting skills.

To get to the point, my eldest daughter has just begun ‘Grade R’ — a preparatory year before the rigors of Grade 1 — and she has been accepted into one of the better government schools around, full of the best suburban children the Peninsula has to offer. Yesterday was her first ‘show-and-tell’ day, and she decided to take this pretty lilac handbag that she had bought for herself. I thought it was a really good pick — she loves it, she bought it with her own Christmas money from Gran and Gramps, and there’s a little story to it, because she discovered it at a car-boot sale when we were last there.

When she got home, she was incredibly disappointed, because all the children, even her best friend so far, had said that it was a boring thing to bring.

All the items with good ratings were things like skateboards with flames painted on the wheels (OK, so that is a bit cool), and Hannah Montana books. So we grow our kids up rude enough and media-saturated enough and stupid enough to know that they’re supposed to denigrate someone who isn’t ‘cool’ enough to big-ups Hannah Montana for show-and-tell? How exactly did we grow fully developed high-school attitudes in our 5-year-olds?

I’m glad my child is not (yet) straight out of the sickly Disney cookie machine and that she loves things because she loves them, not because she’s supposed to love them. I’m glad that she isn’t trained to be in step with in-group sameness. I really hope that she doesn’t immediately amputate those things that make her her just to fit in. I also hope that she doesn’t go the other way and aim at being different for its own sake, which is, after all, just the other side of that same coin.

Do us all a favour though, parents. How about thinking of one way in which you can ensure that Disney gets a little less of your money today, and one way in which you can stave off early-onset oafishness in your little darlings.

<End Rant>

Spanker, Spank Thyself

My four-year-old got her first official spanking today (I smacked her hand once when she was one, and quickly realised that she had no idea what it meant to be naughty, and so I was effectively just being cruel — I felt terrible). Her favourite game is ‘making mixtures’, which has recently involved raids of the baking cupboard. The first warning came after half a tub of custard powder, which she then escalated to flour and cocoa powder, and now the mess involved a medium bowl of oil.

I’m not especially in favour of spanking as first choice punishment. I don’t oppose it per se, as long as it’s within certain limits. Too often people hit because they’re angry, and of course it’s a small step after that to child abuse. I don’t think that it should be anyone’s default punishment. Nevertheless, my daughter’s ears haven’t been listening, so I hope that her bottom might. Continue reading