My wife is a psychologist. I am a pastor. With that combo as their parents, our kids are doomed. That said, my wife recently posted an article about research on the harmful effects of spanking from a psychological perspective which highlighted the need to also address spanking from a Biblical perspective. Here is a summary of the research she shared.
She thought she was being helpful by offering information about this common child-rearing practice. What she did not expect was the theological uproar that accompanied the article. To our surprise, there are Christians who believe spanking is commanded (not just permitted) by the Bible. Well, my wife as a psychologist did her part by showing the psychological research. This post is my attempt to do my part in showing what the Bible actually says about spanking.
For the sake of brevity, I have chosen to only deal with passages that are specifically dealing with children rather than getting into issues related to the broader subject of corporal punishment as a whole. The passages about “spanking” are all found in the book of Proverbs and never use the term spanking. So, we must first understand how to interpret the book of Proverbs. Then, we must understand the specific passages in Proverbs.
Proverbs is a collection of wisdom sayings. Many of these were gleaned from life while others were outright plagiarized from other wisdom sources in existence at the time. This claim may cause the scholar’s hackles to go up, but citing your sources was not an Ancient Near Eastern practice. They were more concerned about getting the truth of a statement across regardless of where they got the statement.
The goal of Proverbs is to teach people (particularly young men) how to act and what attitude to have in various situations in life. The best way to approach the book is to think of it as guideline-type advice (or best practices) for living well. It would not be good hermeneutics (fancy word for interpretation) to read Proverbs as prescriptions (like in a law book such as Deuteronomy). The proper way to approach the book of Proverbs is like a Grandpa sharing the lessons he learned to be true over the years. It offers short, simple and profound statements that are designed to provoke the reader to deeper understanding.
Proverbs are often axiomatic employing images and ideas without explaining or defending its truth. By nature of its style, Proverbs is not as concerned about fleshing out particular exceptions to these statements, but sharing what has been learned in general. So, while some passages in Proverbs may be taken literally, the book is a non-strict, but user-friendly guide that can easily be memorized and carried on the journey of life.
Proverbs uses words, images, and analogies that would have been meaningful to the readers at the time. The burden is on us to determine how this timeless truth looks in our context. To put it in less technical wording, Grandpa shares his priceless advice, but it’s up to us to figure out how his advice applies to our current situation. Not every book of the Bible is this way, but Proverbs is.
The Rod of Discipline
Getting to the topic at hand, Proverbs often uses the word “rod” to express truth about discipline for a child. Here are the key passages:
- Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. – Proverbs 13:24
- Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. – Proverbs 22:15
- 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 23:13-14
- The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. – Proverbs 29:15
You will notice that in every case, the word “rod” is used to describe what modern-day parents assume is spanking. Understanding this word and its use Biblically is the key to understanding what is being expressed in Proverbs.
The same Hebrew word is used each time in the book of Proverbs. It is the word “shebet” which likely means “an offshoot or branch,” but it’s most common usage is “rod or staff” and also at times “clan or tribe” (for this second use, you might think of a branch of a family tree). When most of Christians read “rod” they assume “something to spank my child.” This is an example where we read our modern-day understanding onto an ancient text. In reality, rod has a more robust meaning than that. Rod does not primarily mean “something for spanking.” This word is used in Psalm 23 to refer to the instrument of God as our Shepherd wields to care for His sheep. Take a look at the spirit of this Psalm and how it uses the word “rod.”
The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me besides still waters.
He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for His namesake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
And I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
When understood in that sense, it provides for us an image of God using his rod to shepherd rather than simply beat.
The shepherd uses his rod to bless and comfort His sheep.
The shepherd uses his rod to guide and direct his sheep.
The shepherd uses his rod to protect and defend his sheep from predators.
The shepherd uses his rod make sure all the sheep of his flock are accounted for.
The shepherd uses his rod to make sure the sheep are all in good health.
And, at times, the shepherd will use his rod for correction of his sheep. The form of correction may be a spanking type of action like in Proverbs 23:13-14, but that does not have to be implied necessarily every time that “rod” is used. The point is that reading every passage where rod is present as “spanking” does not reflect the full meaning of the word and certainly does not demonstrate the shepherding heart of God in our parenting. This deeper, more robust approach to disciplining our children where we shepherd them must be our goal, not simply spanking.
Even the word “discipline” gets misused in Christian circles. Often we use the word discipline to mean “punishment.” But, more accurately, discipline often means training like a coach or a personal trainer. Discipline is critical to a successful life, but discipline applies (but may include) to more than just punishment.
Take the use of the word “discipline” in Hebrews 12:9-10. This passage reminds us that “we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10 For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11 For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” The primary use of the word discipline here is training. I can tell you as someone who has recently started working out again, no training seems pleasant at the time. But, I have to grudgingly admit that I am really glad I worked out when I enjoy the benefits of being in better shape.
In our parenting, we should think of discipline as an overall strategy for forming the character of the child. This means putting in practices, traditions, and rituals (disciplines) in our family life that encourage, train and discipline our children to be the type of people God wants them to be. For example, in our little family we practice meal-time prayers with our toddlers to model for them giving thanks to God who has lovingly provided for us. We trust that this practice will help our children to be thankful people over time.
Should Christians Spank Their Children?
I cannot fully answer that question for you. The Bible does not command spanking as some might suggest. Those who treat spanking as a mandate have a wrong interpretation of Proverbs. The explicit point of what is being expressed in Proverbs is that parents should discipline their child. Take a look at these other passages from Proverbs:
- Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart. – Proverbs 29:17
- Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death. – Proverbs 19:18
The main them related to this topic is to discipline in general. When we move to the New Testament (hundreds of years after Proverbs was written), it is telling that the use of rods or spanking is never mentioned. Perhaps that imagery was not as prominent, or maybe it was not a practice that parents used at the time. The New Testament offers only discipline language. Ephesians 6:4 says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” The Bible is clear we should discipline (or train) our children and I think that is best understood in context of “shepherding” rather than simply “spanking.”
Spanking is not specifically prohibited in any text of the Bible either. And, Proverbs 23:13-14 seems to indicate that a “strike” (which is the closest the passages get to spanking) will not kill your child. So, the book of Proverbs is not opposed to the idea of spanking. However, let’s be clear about this passage: the general sentiment is “don’t withhold discipline from your child” not “do spank your child.” The statement about “striking” is in the conditional which indicates permission rather than command. It is saying, “if you choose to spank your child…” It is not saying “spank your child.”
Isn’t permission to spank in direct opposition to the research Laura (my wife) shared about spanking? Yes and no. The research is talking about emotional and relational harm, not physical harm. Proverbs is right that spanking won’t kill your kid; in other words you won’t physically harm them long term as long as it is within reason and non-abusive. I would assume that the researchers would agree with that part. So, what about the emotional and relational harm?
Spanking could provide one type benefit to your child while at the same time creating a negative outcome. Let me offer an example. Spanking a child for lying could help them think twice about lying in the future and avoid it. This is why many parents feel that it is a good practice. However, while creating that positive benefit of truth-telling for your child, it could also induce fear of the parent and damage the relationship between the parent and child. So, while it does provide the benefit Proverbs is promoting, it may also produce a negative outcome of parental fear (or fear-based obedience rather than character formation). The heart of the book of Proverbs (and the Bible at large) is that you need to discipline/train your children. So, if we discover other strategies that also discipline our child without inducing fear in them, we would do well to consider those. The author of these Proverbs is not necessarily prescribing spanking, but encouraging a disciplined/trained child.
Faith in Research
Much of why someone would avoid spanking is based on psychological and sociological research rather than chapter and verse in the Bible. Some Christians believe that they do not need to pay attention to research like that. There is an assumption that the Bible tells them everything they need to know. That is not a Christian idea, though. The Bible never claims to be the only source of knowledge, but the ultimate and only inspired and truly authoritative source of knowledge. If you have been to the doctor or the mechanic, you know that you need more than the Bible to live well. That shouldn’t threaten us as Christians, but help us to see just how good God really is.
God has given humans science, psychology, and many other gifts to help us in life. Part of the creation mandate given to humans in Genesis (to rule over the earth) includes the cultural endeavors we enjoy such as medicine, technology, engineering, art and music, and, yes, even psychology. When something is discovered scientifically, Christians should not ignore it but consider what God might be revealing about how He would want us to live in His world.
This practice of taking scientific research seriously is good theology! Christian theologian and philosopher, Saint Augustine said, “let every good and true Christian understand that wherever truth may be found, it belongs to his Master.” Theologian John Calvin argued that “All truth is from God; and consequently, if wicked men have said anything that is true and just, we ought not reject it; for it has come from God.” Christians need to pay attention to research because it is one of the ways God uses to reveal His truth. Now, of course, some research is skewed or even deceptive in the way findings are presented (usually in clickbait articles after the fact). But just because research is abused does not mean we should dismiss all research. After all, people skew the Bible and present it deceptively all the time and no Christian would say that because some people abuse the Bible it should be dismissed as a whole. So, we need to bring a critical mind to any research (or sermon or blog post) we encounter. The research about spanking is a longitudinal study over 50 years of research looking at the outcomes 160,000 people. That is a HUGE study. It focuses specifically on what most people consider to be “spanking” and does not conflate other forms of physical punishment so that the research conclusions do not get off track. The point? This is an extremely reliable study. I know some research is skewed, but in my estimation (and my psychologist wife) this one is reliable and demands to be considered.
What about the Shultz Family?
My wife and I do not spank our children. Why? For many reasons, but one big one is because of research like the article my wife shared. God gives us freedom to decide what specific child-rearing strategies we will employ. So, Laura and I trust that one way God is revealing His ways to us is through research. Because Laura is a psychologist, much of what we do in parenting is based on attachment theory. We do not let our children cry-it-out (that is a post for another day). And, we tend to focus on rewarding positive behaviors rather than punishing negative ones. We look for the emotions that may be present underneath the challenging behaviors and seek to teach our children how to label and manage those big emotions in the same way we teach them other daily and important skills like using the potty, feeding themselves, etc. They are born with big emotions and it is our job as parents to teach them how to cope with them in a healthy way, all the while acknowledging that it is hard because their little brains aren’t fully developed! Lest you think this is just psychological gobbledygook, I think a focus on rewarding positive behavior as a primary discipline strategy is right in line with Philippians 4:8 where Paul says, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things.”
Like all parents, we have to have a punishment strategy. So, while we don’t spank, we do use time-ins and time-outs. Plan A is a time-in where we sit with the child and talk it through. If they are upset, we start by helping them regulate their emotions (reminding them to breathe and show them how to calm down) before discussing whatever caused the problem. When children’s stress level is too high, their brain won’t let them process what they did wrong or even understand the purpose of a punishment, so we strive to help them regulate those emotions a bit before explaining the punishment. Plan B is a time-out where we explain why we are taking a time out and we ask the child to take a break and think about what they did. After an age-appropriate amount of time (one minute per year: 3 minutes for a 3 year old), we come back and briefly talk about why they were in time-out and ask them what they need to do to make it better (usually offer an apology and change a behavior). We end both with hugs and reminding them how much we love them.
Do we do this perfectly? Absolutely not! I am more guilty of blowing it than Laura. When a hot wheels car goes whizzing by my head, I lose my religion faster than you can say Michael Stipe (if you don’t get this reference, don’t bother looking it up. You will be disappointed). But, like you, we want to be better and we have an ideal image of what we want parenting to look like. So, we do the best we can by God’s grace. Our ultimate hope is that our children will be attached to us and in a loving, secure relationship where there are clear lines of authority, good moral character and values are expected and upheld, grace is present and modeled, and ultimately they become attached to God their Father.
Parenting is hard. Really hard. And, not one of us has it figured out or does it perfectly. If you spank your children, I don’t judge you or cast any stones. I would encourage you to take the research into account when considering your overall plan for your child. For any and every believer in Jesus Christ (including myself), let’s encourage each other and sharpen each other to come up with the best ways we can form the character of God into our children. I am reminded of what is considered one of the most important passages in the Old Testament (and perhaps the whole Bible) from Deuteronomy 6 where we are told to “Love the LORD Your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” And what it says in verse 7 is key to how we raise our children: “You shall teach (these words) diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up.” Whatever you do to train your children, make it an all-encompassing way of life that models for them love for the LORD your God.