Does Christian Teaching Advise Us To Spank Our Children?
Examining scholarship and text, to learn to be a loving parent
To spank or not to spank
Your child is screaming for sugary cereal in a supermarket. It’s already been a stressful day. She didn’t take her nap. You don’t have enough money due to lay-offs.
It’s so hard.
During a global pandemic, you have so many extra preparations to make in order to just get food on the table. You take her aside and give her a very gentle, yet firm, tush-paddling. But then you feel awful when her little face streams with quiet, but accusatory tears. She is silent, and looks wary and sullen.
Upon getting to the car you don’t know what to say, or do. You scowl all the way home.
Many of us were given spankings as children, and we assure ourselves “We turned out okay, didn’t we?”
Many people today feel justified in using corporal punishment, usually spanking, in order to teach young children to mind their parents. Bible verses such as those in Proverbs 13, and Proverbs 22, seem to support this belief.
Indeed, there are some church leaders who even today teach that to “spare the rod” is “to spoil the child.” However, most pastors, and indeed, all biblical scholars today, note that this interpretation is far too simplified, and if taken literally, is completely misguided.
There are at least three reasons for this. I am going to talk about each in turn.
A Rod is not what you think
In ancient times, all scripture was written up on scrolls that were secured at both ends with a stick called a shebet. The shebet is a rod. It is also described in ancient texts, variously, as a kind of Shepard’s staff for leading flocks.
The teachings and writings on scrolls, were designed for learning. Another name for learning is to take on a discipline. The disciples learned everything they learned from Jesus, presumably from verbal teaching, which only later was put down on scrolls, or rods.
You cannot picture a disciple (one who takes discipline) being beaten by Jesus with one of these rods. Although, it is quite fair to say that Jesus would not spare this rod, and therefore would not spoil, or mislead his flock, with his Shepard’s staff, or with later teachings on scrolls. These were later bound into the more familiar books we have today.
It is very clear to scholars that the rod mentioned in Proverbs, is one for actual discipline, just as the disciples were chosen to be given such learning.
Metaphors teach with love
It is quite unfortunate, in modern society, that people use the word “discipline” interchangeably with ‘punishment, hitting, or striking of any kind. That is a very undisciplined use of the word!
The well-known verses in Proverbs cannot be held up as reliable guidance models. This is because Proverbs, by definition, are not literal. They are poetry. They are metaphors. Even if a rod were to mean a stick, in a metaphor, you cannot imagine gentle Jesus, or God the Father, hitting a toddler, or advising anyone else to do so, with an actual rod!
That would be quite absurd, and clearly, not the message of a loving parent to a small child.
Accountability is taught consistently
The final reason that we know that providing discipline, learning, to a child is meant to be non-violent, is that scripture in many places in the texts aligns the idea of learning to accountability, not punishment. Again and again, we are asked to be constant, persistent, patient, even in affliction.
Accountability is of course something all small children are not born with, but that they must be taught over time.
Even as adults, there is an on-going need to realize accountability, and to constantly adjust our behavior for better compassion and loving kindness. For example, few people see the present COVID -19 crisis as a punishment — or God’s wrath.
We can always choose better behavior
We are assured that we can teach our children to choose, because we ourselves are offered the choice to either “teach” (spare the rod) or “spoil.”
A majority see our present crisis not a wrath, but rather, a natural consequence for us not making better choices in globalization, food acquisition, and healthcare preparation. When we love all of humanity equally, we find ways to care for one another, and for the creation.
There is hope for change.
Poetry in motion
Realizing that indeed, Proverbs is poetry and metaphor, the idea of learning from both a scroll based sacred writing, and/ or a gentle direction setting of a Shepard’s staff to guide a flock becomes abundantly clear.
From this perspective, one can see that the withheld “rod” could indeed spoil the child.
What about parents who still believe in spanking their children? There are those people who do it so carefully that they do not injure, but they do seek to get the child’s attention.
For this, we can look at modern psychology and sociology.
Children do in fact, learn by modeling what they experience. You CAN get a child to stop a bad behavior by teaching them that “might means right,” or that the most powerful can always intimidate the most vulnerable.
But, when you stop to think about it at all, why would you want your child to learn that hitting is ever a good solution? They may have no physical scars, but the mental and emotional wounds can stay forever in a person who was taught this way.
When people say “Well, I was spanked and I’m alright.” They may or may not have come to terms with this type of treatment. There are thousands of factors that lead to such a conclusion.
The only question a parent really has to ask themselves is what are all the alternative ways to teach (discipline) that don’t involve risk of psychological damage, or counter-productive punishment?
For the most part, ancient texts teach us that a loving parent is just that, a loving parent. One cannot imagine that we have no choices, or that, we too, are to be punished for our bad choices in ways other than those that direct us towards better choices.