Once, before we had kids, Kevin passed me a strip of leather. About two inches wide, ten inches long, and a quarter of an inch thick, it resembled an extra-large bookmark. “What’s this?” I asked.
“My parents went to a Growing Kid’s God’s Way conference and came back with this leather strap.”
My mouth dropped open. I imagined the welts that could be conjured up by such a thing. “They got this at a Christian parenting conference?”
“Did they use it on you?”
“I don’t think so,” he said. He did recall the many times his dad reached for his belt when he or one of his brothers were naughty.
I had been spanked by hand, though not often enough or traumatic enough to remember. I had been a “good kid.”
Kevin and I had both been spanked by Christian parents who were advised to do so. We turned out fine. I figured that when we would have kids one day, we would probably spank them, too.
Then we had kids.
Our Very Short Run with Spanking
Levi had been an easy-going, lovable, cheerful baby. He also was very determined, and smart. When he was a little over a year old, and autonomy was setting in, he began slapping my face or biting me when he got frustrated. Though I knew the day would come, I mourned that my sweet little boy was, inevitably, human after all.
I didn’t feel great about the idea of physically disciplining him. After all, he was still very little. But I had in the back of my mind that spanking was an appropriate way of fixing the problem, and so the next time he slapped me, I slapped his hand and said, “No.”
His face contorted and slapped me again in the face, harder. Then, he laughed.
I was infuriated. The anger led me to lash out again on his hand, this time harder. Levi cried, and began hitting me repeatedly in the face.
This, I am very grieved to say, happened on a couple of instances before I was wised up enough to realize that it wasn’t going to work.
I researched the issue and determined that my attempt at discipline was accomplishing the opposite of my goal. A hitting/biting phase was common among toddlers who were yet unable to communicate and identify their own emotions. What I was doing by responding with physical punishment was, in fact, teaching Levi that when we are angry, we hurt people. The cycle would continue and escalate.
If my goal was to correct his behavior and physical discipline was only causing more problematic behavior, then it needed to stop. Spanking, I determined, was not going to work for Levi.
The conclusion left me relieved. Something felt wrong about it anyway, and I was glad for an “out.”
What I did instead, was gently hold down his arms and speak gently into his ear or set him down and walk away when he acted out. I explained to him that we don’t hurt others or ourselves, and I always welcomed him back with open arms when he inevitably returned to me, calm. In time, the phase ended.
“You Must Use the Rod” ?
We were sitting in a parenting class at church later, going through Shepherding a Child’s Heart by Tedd Tripp. The text focused on the concept of not merely modifying behaviors, but of appealing to the heart of a child. I engaged with it as I engage all Evangelical Christian texts: defensively. As someone with degrees in Biblical Studies and English, I can be a particularly harsh critic.
When we got to the chapter “Embracing Biblical Methods: The Rod”, red flags began waving. It states: “God has commanded the use of the rod in discipline and correction of children. It is not the only thing you do, but it must be used…If you are going to rescue your children from death, if you are going to root out the folly that is bound up in their hearts, if you are going to impart wisdom, you must use the rod” (pg 104).
Must? I wondered, my blood pressure rising. And that’s when I began to really investigate the concept of biblical discipline.
If you love God and your Child, you must Spank?
Recently, spanking has gotten a bad wrap. Studies have shown how spanking is linked to noncompliance, aggression, poorer mental health, and criminality. Yet many Christians still spank their children. Most argue that it’s what God wants them to do.
And why not, when there are Christian experts that advocate for, even demand, spanking? Here is another passage from Shepherding a Child’s Heart:
“When does a child need a spanking? When you have given a directive that he has heard and is within his capacity to understand, and he has not obeyed without challenge, without excuse or without delay, he needs a spanking. If you fail to spank, you fail to take God’s Word seriously. You are saying you do not believe that the Bible teaches about the import of these issues. You are saying that you do not love your child enough to do the painful things God has called you to do” (pg 145).
While I do believe Tedd Tripp has good intentions, these statements are dangerous and extremely discomforting. I do not spank my children, yet I believe I take God’s word very seriously, and I deeply love my children. In fact, it is because of my deep respect for God’s word and for love of my children that I take issue with the issue of spanking.
What’s also discomforting is his support of spanking babies: “Rebellion can be something as simple as a small child struggling against a diaper change or stiffening his body when you want him to sit on your lap” (pg 152). Tripp explains a situation in which his 8 month old child “disobeyed” his mother by pulling up on a shelf and earned a spanking. “Obviously, he was old enough to be disciplined.”
What this reveals is a lack of understanding of child development. It also reveals an inconsistency in interpretation: while Tripp uses the Proverbs to defend spanking even young children, the word we see translated as “child” is the Hebrew na’ar which is translated as “lad” or “young man” over a hundred times, and only once as a babe.
Jesus would Spank a Child?
Popular Reformed pastor and writer John Piper also advocates for spanking. Here are a few excerpts from his article,”Would Jesus Spank a Child?”
“If Jesus were married and had children, I think he would have spanked the children. The place that I would go to help a person see that he would, when they can’t imagine that he would, is Matthew 5 where he said, ‘Not a jot nor a tittle will pass away from the Law until all is accomplished.’ In other words, all the Law and the Prophets stand until they’re done. And the Law says, ‘Spare the rod, spoil the child.’ That’s a paraphrase. The book of Proverbs says, ‘If you withhold the rod, you hate your son.’ Jesus believed the Bible, and he would have done it.”
(Firstly, “spare the rod, spoil the child” is like the phrase, “cleanliness is next to godliness”; it is often misattributed to the Bible. Secondly, that comes from the Proverbs, wisdom literature, not the law. But I digress.)
“God uses suffering to discipline his children. So do we. Now, you don’t damage a child. You don’t give him a black eye or break his arm. Children have little fat bottoms so that they can be whopped.”
“I just think spanking is really healthy for children. It is a measured deliverance of a non-damaging act of mild pain that makes the child feel the seriousness of what he’s done. It is not beating. It is not abuse. There is a clear difference. The very word ‘spank’ exists because there is such a thing as a loving way to whop a child on his behind or his chunky thigh.”
I find the tone in Piper’s article too casual, almost comedic, for a topic as biblical discipline.
More importantly, I just can’t see my Savior spanking a child. The one record of his aggressive behavior – the cleansing of the temple recorded in Matthew 21 and the other gospels – showed righteous anger against adults who knew better, yet there is no record of him harming anyone. Jesus famously professed: “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 19:14). Can you imagine that same Jesus inflicting physical pain on them to teach them a lesson?
I’m sorry, but I can’t.
What, Exactly, is Spanking?
Now, Tripp, Piper, and others, such as James Dobson, make a big distinction between spanking and physical abuse. Physical abuse, they all argue, is never acceptable, and spanking, they universally agree, should not be done in anger.
A spank, by most, is considered to be a disciplinary measure taken to teach a lesson, and should never be done in anger. It can’t be too painful, nor can it be too gentle, lest the child not learn his lesson. Some say it should be on the buttocks, while others say it can occur on hand or thigh. Some say it should be done by hand so that a parent feels the sting as well, while others suggest a wooden spoon, or, like the Ezzoses did in their Growing Kids God’s Way books and seminars, a leather strap.
Tripp states that spanking must be accompanied by instruction; a discussion of the wrong behavior and why it merited the punishment is crucial (though how one does that with an eight month old, I am unsure). He provides a step-by-step plan, including removing the child from public eye, explaining why the spanking was occurring, telling the child how many spanks she will receive, administering the swats on a bare bottom, then reconciling with the child, telling them how much you love them and how much grieved you to spank them, expressing the hope that it will not need to happen again. All of this should be done with firmness, but kindness. If a child appears to be unrepentant, another spanking should ensue. The repentant heart, Tripp argues, is what the spanking is meant to achieve.
Dobson, as opposed to Tripp, doesn’t believe that all children must be spanked, and he states that no child under the age of fifteen to eighteen months should ever be spanked. According to this revered Christian family expert, spanking is for the young child, though, and “most corporal punishment [should] be finished prior to the first grade (six years old). It should taper off from there and stop when the child is between the ages of ten and twelve.” Spanking is meant to be a “minor pain” associated with misbehavior in order to prevent major pain in the long run.
The opinions about when, how, and with what to spank are varied, but the reasoning for is consistent: it is meant to discipline blatant disobedience. And they use Scripture to defend it.
Scripture that is Used to Defend Spanking
There are six passages primarily used to justify spanking; five of them are in the book of Proverbs, the sixth, found in Hebrews 12, refers to another proverb. Here they are, taken from the ESV:
- Proverbs 13:24 – “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”
- Proverbs 19:18 – “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.”
- Proverbs 22:15 – “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.”
- 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.”
- Proverbs 29:15 – “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”
- Hebrews 12:5-6 – “And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ‘My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.’” (A reference to Proverbs 3:11-12)
What about Context?
At first glance, one can see how leaders like Tripp and Piper would come to their conclusions. After all, we know that God is a just God, righteous and holy. We know and understand the problem of sin, and we know that sin has consequences. It makes sense that discipline, which is part of the dynamic between God’s relationship with His children, is important to parenting our own children. But we can’t take all Scripture strictly at face value.
Now hear me out: I believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. I also, though, believer in the importance of understanding biblical context and in using wisdom and the gift of the Holy Spirit while interpreting it. Sadly, we live in Christian culture of cut-and-paste theology, one that often uses Scripture to fit one’s personal agenda.
And that’s what I am cautious of doing here. I don’t want to use Scripture to argue a point against spanking. I simply want Truth. As a biblical scholar, I want to put this issue up against the entire Redemptive narrative, to understand the context of the verses, to be sure it’s consistent with the character of God. As a literature scholar, I want to know the occasion of the Proverbs, the tone, the style, the choice of words.
I want to be sure.
So I pull out my all-time favorite nerdy Bible student tools: the word study.
Read part two here.