I remember as a young mom being flooded with fear when my oldest child yelled, “No, mommy!”, and ran.
I wasn’t going to spank or otherwise punish him, so what was I going to do? And was I making a mistake? Was my son turning into a rebellious child?
Fast forward ten years, and now I don’t flinch when I hear, “No, I won’t!” or “Why?!”.
To be honest, I rarely hear those words.
If I do hear them, though, I know it is time to dig deeper because there is something going on in my child’s life, some unspoken stress or frustration or unmet need.
You see, I have learned through experience that children want to please parents with whom they have a good relationship. Children want to feel at peace in their worlds; they do not want to cause chaos or distress.
I have learned through experience, and also through memory.
I remember being a child.
I remember my point of view.
I remember making wrong choices, and I remember why I made those choices, and it certainly wasn’t because I was evil to the core.
I was simply a child making precocious, not-always-wise decisions. After all, isn’t childhood about experimenting, failing, retrying and learning, over and over and over again?
Parenting author and speaker Barbara Coloroso gives the following guidelines in her excellent book Kids Are Worth It:
“The Golden Rule, as it is called, can serve us well when applied to our relations with our children. If we are not sure whether what we are doing with children is right, we need only put ourselves in their place and ask if we would want it done to us— not was it done to us, but would we want it done to us? If the answer is no, then we have to ask ourselves why we would ever want to do it to our children.”
I wholeheartedly agree. I would not want to be hit, punished or verbally shamed when I make mistakes. So why would I do these things to my children?
And yet, as young parents we are fed so many messages which fill us with fear.
Incidentally, fear isn’t a great baseline from which to parent.
I remember all the confusing, fear-inducing messages I once received.
One was, “always win your battles”.
The idea behind this way of thinking was that children come into this world armed and ready to go to war with their parents; it is therefore the parents’ job to show their children who is boss.
Another was, “teach your children to fear you, because fear is the beginning of wisdom, and fear will lead them to God”.
Again, at the root of this idea was the thought that children were born far from God and desirous of sinning, and it was a parent’s job to send them running toward God.
When I was a teenager, I overheard our next door neighbor brag about spanking his daughter.
He mentioned that even at six months of age, she was rebellious. And so he began to spank her. By the time she was a few years old, he claimed, he had bred an obedient daughter.
Later, when I was a teacher (and before I had kids), I would think to myself, “I’ll never allow my children to be as disrespectful as xyz students. No matter what it takes, I will train them to behave better than that.”
I was assuming that parenting was simple; it was all about control and forcing children to behave.
I once heard child-rearing compared to nurturing a weed-free garden. Children were fertile, producing verdant greenery, but their gardens also invited weeds.
It was therefore a parent’s job to pull weeds, prune plants and drive stakes to bind and straighten the unruly plants. I shudder at the implications of this analogy.
I also inherited a tangible fear of parents who didn’t punish their children.
The implication I received was that parents who didn’t punish really didn’t care about their children.
I often overheard people say they didn’t know how they would control their children if they didn’t spank or punish.
And yet, I could not, just could not, ignore that question: How would I want to be treated?
I could not ignore my heart’s answer either: I would want to be approached with wisdom, insight and opportunities for restoration and repair, not with some wielded implement designed to fill me with pain, shame and fear.
Discipline vs. Punishment
I’ve read many parenting experts who equate spanking with discipline. I heartily disagree.
The way I see it, you can either discipline your child or you can punish your child.
And what is punishment?
Punishment is basically a system of correcting misbehavior which involves making a child pay for their wrongdoing in some way. It may be by spanking or hitting the child, but it could also be shaming a child or portraying a strong disapproval of them until they have sufficiently made up for what they did.
I believe punishment is overall a culturally acceptable way to deal with children.
I have often seen people post on social media: “I was spanked, and it did me good”.
I have seen other people lauded as good parents for publicly shaming their “rebellious” teenagers.
There is another way to teach children, however. It is called discipline.
Discipline has the smaller word “disciple” in it and implies being proactive, relationship-oriented, and restorative rather than reactive and punishment-oriented.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve heard many folks blame behavior problems in schools on teachers no longer being able to wield the “rod”.
I have heard it said that if more parents were spanking their children, then children “today” would behave better.
This makes me sad.
I want to tell people that treating children with dignity and respect isn’t the source of “behavior problems”.
If children are ignored by their parents, then yes, they may struggle to know how to behave “appropriately” in this world.
If they are raised permissively, then yes, they may “rebel”. It is frustrating for children never to know what the boundaries are, just as it would be frustrating for adults if their GPS systems regularly led them in the wrong direction.
It is possible, though, to raise children without shaming, punishing or inflicting pain on them. Trust me, life will deal enough of this to them. We as parents ought to be the safe haven, the shore for their beaten-down ships.
If Punishment Isn’t The Only Way To Raise Children, Why Is It Preached As "The Best Method" In So Many Circles?
Let’s go back to those confusing messages I received as a young parent.
Woven through all of them were some common themes:
These ideas had to come from somewhere, right?
Philip Greven is a history professor at Rutgers University. He wrote an excellent book entitled Spare the Child in which he examines “The religious roots of punishment and the psychological impact of physical abuse.”
I highly recommend the book, especially if you are a parent wrestling with these issues.
In Spare the Child, Greven outlines both religious and secular rationales for punishment.
I was sickened by some of his words in regard to Christians, though I personally know them to be true, “For centuries, Protestant Christians have been among the most ardent advocates of corporal punishment.”
Why is this?
It makes me angry.
Christians, who claim to be all about love and forgiveness, have for so long advocated for violence against children (and so many others seen as "inferior") as “God’s way.” Many still do.
This is not to say that if you spank or punish your children, I am angry with you.
I have no right to judge you.
But I do ask that you take some time to ponder your own thinking on this matter.
I urge you to explore history and culture and ask yourself if this is the best way to raise a child.
And please do not tell me that spanking your child is any different than hitting your child.
How would you feel if someone bent you over a bed and used a belt, a rod, a stick or even a hand to inflict pain on you?
Since this is a blog about faith questions, I would like to examine the reasons Christians advocate spanking. I will be using many ideas from Greven’s book and some thoughts from my own experience.
Deep-Rooted Cultural and Religious Beliefs Affect Our Parenting Paradigms
Punishing children is nothing new. It has been the chosen method of child-rearing and guidance for centuries: http://www.localhistories.org/corporal.html, https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/corporal_punishment.
Since ancient times, corporal punishment was the norm in most cultures; it was in fact considered an equitable method to correct children; it was also a chosen method of correction for criminals and slaves.
Are you as horrified as I am that children in their innocence and incomplete understanding of life would be treated in the same way as hardened criminals (and no, I’m not saying beating criminals is a good idea either)?
There are many reasons Christians site in defense of the corporal punishment of children. Here are a few:
Then there are those themes I mentioned earlier which were woven throughout the cultural parenting messages I received. I’d like to review those briefly:
I posit that this view of children and childhood, combined with the afore-mentioned “Christian” points of view, have led to the belief that not only is corporal punishment mandated by God but it is also the best way to teach children.
The way we think matters.
If we think children are at war with us and born filled with sin, if we are terrified children will “go to hell”, then we can see why parents might take desperate measures.
Not only does the way we think matter, but our way of thinking, or paradigm, comes from somewhere.
Once we trace the roots of our thinking, we can examine it.
We can ask ourselves if there are other ways to think about children.
Next week, I will delve into more of the roots of our cultural thinking about punishment, both Christian and non-Christian.
Meanwhile, I ask you to spend some time imagining your spouse or best friend approaching you with a corrective voice and then inflicting pain on you or publicly shaming you.
What if this favorite trusted person of yours were to proceed to tell you that what she was doing was mandated by God?
What if he told you that what he was doing was because he loves you?
Would it be difficult to look this person in the eye with the same level of trust and devotion you once had? Would you be unsure whether to fight, flee or hide? Which would you pick?