Along with the misdeeds of a handful of the NFL's domestic violence offenders, the case against Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson—accused of child abuse after whipping his son with a switch from a tree—has started countless conversations all over the country. Pundits across the spectrum have weighed in for and against spanking and its various forms. It is a subject that arouses passions on both sides.
Retired Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Boomer Esiason, now a CBS Sports football analyst, took a hard line: "I never even heard of [a switch] until the other night. It's a tree branch that parents use to whip kids. I found it so reprehensible. I got emotional about it and was very intense about it."
On the other side, former NBA star Charles Barkley argued that "switching" or "whipping" is a regional and cultural issue: "I'm from the South. Whipping—we do that all the time. Every black parent in the South is going to be in jail under those circumstances. . . . But I think we have to really be careful trying to teach other parents how to discipline their kids. That's a very fine line."
Just this week, Matt Silver's statistical analysis website, fivethirtyeight.com, published a story on corporal punishment, validating Barkley's point. Using the University of Chicago‘s General Social Survey, which supplies data on the subject going back to 1986, the author found that attitudes regarding spanking vary depending on a person's religion, race, political views, and region. Christians spank more than non-Christians (and evangelicals more than other Christians). Blacks use spanking more than whites, and other racial groups are even less likely. Republicans administer corporal punishment more than Democrats or Independents. And, as Barkley averred, people who live in the American South are more prone to spank than those in the Midwest, West, and Northeast (in that order).
Why Christians support spanking is not that difficult to figure out: The Bible endorses it as a valid method of child discipline. Among several similar teachings, Solomon advises parents in Proverbs 22:15, "Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction will drive it far from him." Even the New Testament provides a few instructions along this line, including Hebrews 12:6, which cites God's own practice: "For whom the LORD loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom He receives." Christian parents who believe in following the Word of God take such admonitions to heart.
The modern squeamishness over spanking is only as old as the rather recent child welfare movement, which got its start with an increase in the founding of orphanages in the early nineteenth century. Even so, the idea that society had an obligation to enforce minimal social standards for childrearing did not gain momentum until 1874, when the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children was established in the wake of a particularly horrendous case of child abuse. Since then, child welfare advocates have increasingly argued against all forms of corporal punishment as fundamentally abusive and violent. As the nation has edged away from biblical Christianity and toward more liberal views, the notion that spanking is abuse has gained traction.
These same anti-spanking advocates decry the biblical language describing spanking, most of which is a remnant from the stark wording of the King James Version. Such phrases as "beat him with a rod" (Proverbs 23:13-14) and the aforementioned "scourges every son" (Hebrews 12:6) provoke emotional reactions because they make spanking sound harsh and cruel. Many modern translations give a better sense. For instance, the New English Translation renders the latter verse as, "For the Lord disciplines the one he loves and chastises every son he accepts." The Hebrew for "beat him with a rod" is similar to our more modern phrase, "strike [or spank] with a paddle."
In no way does the Bible advocate any kind of child abuse; one who wounds a child through spanking has gone far beyond the biblical intent. Notice what Solomon teaches in Proverbs 13:24: "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly." In Scripture, corporal punishment is framed in terms of looking out for the best interest of the child. According to God, administered properly, spanking is not harmful at all, and in fact, failing to use it when it is called for shows a lack of love for the child!
As we have seen from Hebrews 12:6, God also disciplines or chastens His children whom He loves. His punishments for sin are always delivered justly, lovingly, and correctively. The apostle explains, "For [our human parents] indeed for a few days chastened us as seemed best to them, but He for our profit, that we may be partakers of His holiness" (Hebrews 12:10). God, in love, provides the discipline that we need to ensure that we have the righteous character to participate in His Kingdom.
And so it is with Christian parents, as the next verse expands the principle to all forms of correction: "Now no chastening seems to be joyful for the present, but painful; nevertheless, afterward it yields the peaceable fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11). By definition, chastening hurts, but when it is applied correctly, the pain produces a change of behavior that makes the child's life better.
Christian parents must approach their children's discipline with their future good firmly in mind. Corporal punishment is a tool that should be used judiciously and carefully, meaning that parents should be restrained and thoughtful like a judge and full of care and love for their children. A parent should always be in control of himself and his emotions when disciplining.
We should also realize that the Bible does not restrict our child-training tools to spanking. In fact, spanking will not be appropriate for many infractions. Rebuke and reproof—correcting them through words—are effective in most situations. Some children respond better to a parent taking away a favorite toy or activity. Many a little girl will wilt at her father's stern and disappointed gaze. Whatever method we use in a given circumstance, we should make sure to be consistent; we should mean what we say and follow through—every time!—if disobeyed.
Properly administered, parental corporal punishment is not child abuse but a tried-and-true tool to give loving correction and direction to a child. We have God's word on it.
- Richard T. Ritenbaugh