I stood over him, wooden spoon in hand, facing that all-too-familiar look of defiance in his eyes. I had exhausted my patience with him. It started with telling him to come to dinner, but what should have been a simple transition from playtime to mealtime was now an all-out war of wills.
I had issued my warnings, and with each successive “I’m serious!” my blood started to boil. When I entered the room and was met with that defiant you-can’t-make-me look, I had had enough.
He saw it in my eyes. He had seen it in my eyes many times before. My rage.
The spanking didn’t even correct his attitude in the short-term, because what followed was not a broken will, nor insolence, but a look of fright. I had scared him, and that rage that came through my demeanor and my words had hurt him far more than the single swat to his bum.
This was the last time I spanked my son.
To Spank or Not to Spank
I expect at least some angry responses for an article like this, but for two separate reasons. Some likely think I should be locked up for spanking my son in the first place. Some, on the other hand, believe spanking is the only divinely sanctioned punishment available to parents and that by sparing the rod I’m doing my son a great disservice.
One study suggests 50% of toddlers are spanked in America1 despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics opposes all forms of spanking.2
Parents have been banned from using corporal punishment in dozens of countries, including Spain, Sweden, Poland, Kenya, and Israel, and there is an outspoken anti-spanking sentiment in the worldwide psychological community.
For many parents—as it was for me—the habit of spanking is not based on diligent psychological research but rather time-honored common-sense parenting. “I was spanked as a child, and come to think of it, I probably deserved it,” we often say. “I was spanked as a child—so were all my friends—and we turned out alright.”
Some might label this attitude overly simplistic, but a few modern researchers have muddied the anti-spanking waters with their own findings—claiming that mild forms of spanking, when accompanied by loving correction and reasoning, have no negative impact on children at all.
So, is spanking right or wrong? Wise or unwise?
What Does the Research About Spanking Say?
I start talking about the research not because it is our final authority on this subject. The Bible is our authority. I start with the research because, quite frankly, it is what is driving a lot of the discussion today and it is important to be informed about what the research actually demonstrates.
Let me summarize before diving into the data: there has been a lot of research on this subject, but there are so many nuances, it is difficult to come to any firm conclusions. In the long run, does spanking benefit or harm a child? Perhaps it is best to answer: It depends.
- A landmark meta-analysis of 88 research studies concluded that corporal punishment is associated with increased child aggression, increased antisocial behavior, increased risk of spousal abuse later in life, decreased parent-child relationship quality, decreased mental health, and a decrease of children internalizing morals.3 (Incidentally, this analysis has been criticized for including too broad a range of physical punishments beyond spanking—such as striking with an object, pinching, and slapping.)
- Multiple studies have concluded that spanking children, especially after age 6 and especially with harsher forms of spanking, correlates to higher levels of antisocial behavior later in life and an elevated risk of various personality disorders, such as paranoia and passive-aggressiveness.4
- In another meta-analysis of 26 published corporal punishment studies, even mild physical punishment—if used as the primary mode of discipline—is associated with negative behaviors later on.5
- However, the same analysis also concluded that when spanking is administered without anger and immediately after the misbehavior, it is associated with favorable outcomes for 2-6-year-olds—more so than threats, scolding, and timeouts that are not accompanied with reasoning.
Further studies have softened the blow (pardon the pun) of the above research. One meta-analysis of longitudinal studies concluded that the impacts of spanking on later negative behaviors and low cognitive performance are minimal.6
Some studies have pointed to other contributing factors when it comes to the potential negative impacts of spanking, such as genetics7 and cultural context.8 In one study, harsher spankings were associated with later negative behaviors, but not milder spankings. The same study found that children who were spanked once a month or less were no more likely to develop negative behaviors later on than those who weren’t spanked at all.9
Much of the reason why my attitude about spanking was wrong can be summarized by these findings. We can safely conclude from these studies that spanking can have some negative impact on children, especially if spanking is the primary mode of discipline, if they are spanked harshly and frequently, if they are spanked in anger, or if they are spanked for infractions they don’t remember.
Guilty as charged.
Could Spanking Be Beneficial?
Still, other research points to positive correlations. One review of the literature found that when mild spanking was used in conjunction with other disciplinary tactics, there were beneficial outcomes (such as reduced disobedience and reduced fighting). The same review found that the detrimental outcomes of spanking were primarily due to the overuse of spanking.10
Dr. Marjorie Gunnoe of Calvin College has found that spanking of children from ages 2 to 6 is associated with better performance in school as teenagers, a greater likelihood of engaging in volunteer work, and a greater likelihood to want to go to a university.11 “The take-home message,” says Gunnoe, “is that many of the best parents spank their children, and these children report better adjustment than their peers.”12
Psychologist Robert E. Larzelere has done extensive research on corporal punishment and has found that much of previous research wasn’t also looking for negative impacts of other forms of discipline in the home. One of his own studies found that while spanking led to later antisocial behavior, so did other disciplinary measures—like grounding, psychotherapy, sending a child to his or her room, or removing privileges.13
For me, refusing to spank my button-pushing, obstinate child was only the beginning. I quickly learned that my temper is unfortunately visible through nearly any form of discipline. Having a no-spanking rule for him is a good stop-gap for me to check my attitude—but I quickly learned that it was my heart that needed to change, not just my behavior.
For 2-6-year-olds, Dr. Larzelere advocates what he calls “backup spanking.” Relying primarily on other discipline tactics and working through problems verbally, but then using “backup spanking” to correct persistent defiance—a couple swats with an open hand, always followed by affirmations of love for the child. The trouble, he says, are when parents are overly punitive without affection or overly permissive to the near-exclusion of any negative consequences.14
Bans on corporal punishment, Larzelere says, undermine loving parental authority.15 Recent research may confirm his thoughts. A study published in the Akron Law Review revealed that since Sweden has outlawed all forms of corporal punishment in the home, violence has only increased: including children hitting parents, minor-on-minor assaults, and parental abuse of children.16
The Critical Factor of Anger
I chose to stop spanking one of my children for one critical reason: I simply could not do without gratuitous anger. I hated the man I was becoming around my son.
I find it interesting that in one of the above-mentioned studies, researchers found that parents who spank mildly and infrequently are 50% more likely than other parents to spank harshly and frequently a year later.17 Spanking often begets more spanking—and this was certainly true with me.
For many parents—and for me as well—the decision to stop spanking has less to do with a philosophy on spanking generally and more to do with our thoughtfulness when it comes to correcting and training our children. For me, spanking had become the default, and combined with a quick temper, this was a recipe for disaster.
One research study said it best: “The expression of anger, coldness, or hatred that accompanies the physical act of parental aggression could well be more detrimental than the act of aggression itself.”18
What the Bible Says About Spanking
The Book of Proverbs contains several admonitions to parents about spanking:
- “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (13:24)
- “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” (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.” (23:13-14)
- “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” (29:15)
It seems clear from the context that corporal discipline is in view here. The word translated “rod” is translated several ways in the Old Testament, but here and in other places it is a stick meant for striking (Exodus 21:20; Proverbs 10:13; 26:3; Micah 5:1). Similarly, when God providentially brings calamity into someone’s life, often the Bible says He is using His rod (Job 9:34; Psalm 89:32; Isaiah 10:5; Lamentations 3:1).
From these verses we learn that spankings should be done in a context of holistic discipline and love. When the book of Proverbs uses the word “discipline” it is speaking primarily of instruction and correction. The rod must always be coupled with “reproof” (29:15), that is, verbal correction and reasoning. The rod must be used in a spirit of love (13:24).
Is It Wrong for Christians to “Spare the Rod”?
It should be remembered that when reading the book of Proverbs, we are not reading universal truths or absolute commands but rather “rules of thumb.”
Take, for instance, two proverbs that are smashed right next to each other: “Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest you be like him yourself,” and then “Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:4-5). The clear meaning of these proverbs (taken together) is that there is a time to answer a fool according to his folly, and there is a time not to do so: the wisdom is in knowing what response is needed at what time. They are not meant to be taken as isolated proverbs stating universal, ironclad truths. Proverbs are situational truths and general rules for how the world works.
While Proverbs clearly endorses judicious spanking as a form of discipline, it also speak about the dangers and counterproductive nature of human anger.
- “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding, but he who has a hasty temper exalts folly.” (14:29)
- “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (15:1)
- “A hot-tempered man stirs up strife, but he who is slow to anger quiets contention.” (15:18)
- “Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” (16:32)
- “Better is a dry morsel with quiet than a house full of feasting with strife.” (17:1)
- “Whoever restrains his words has knowledge, and he who has a cool spirit is a man of understanding.” (17:27)
- “Good sense makes one slow to anger, and it is his glory to overlook an offense.” (19:11)
- “A man without self-control is like a city broken into and left without walls.” (25:28)
- “A man of wrath stirs up strife, and one given to anger causes much transgression.” (29:22)
Yes, spanking is an appropriate form of discipline when used wisely. But spanking in a spirit of anger and without self-control only stirs up my household to more strife.
I have heard some parents often say that they cannot correct their children unless they are angry; to whom I have usually answered, then you ought not to correct them at all.
– John Witherspoon, 1723-1794
It is sometimes easy for Christian parents to endorse abuse that masquerades as spanking.
Flipping out on my son was as hypocritical as it was ineffective. By putting up the no spanking boundary, it forces me to think hard about my attitude, my word choices, and my disciplinary tactics.
- It forces me to listen for underlying desires and feelings under my son’s tantrums rather than defaulting to fury.
- It reminds me to work more with my son, not against him, in solving conflicts.
- It reminds me to be the example for my son.
- It reminds me to teach my son biblical motivations for obedience that help him to internalize his morals.
Will I ever spank my son again? I don’t know. But what I do know is that God is teaching me to be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger with my children. The anger of man doesn’t produce the righteousness of God—neither for myself nor for my kids.
Do you struggle with habitual anger with your kids? For me, this has been a defining struggle in my character as a parent. While the Bible clearly endorses spanking as a useful means of discipline, it also recognizes the folly of anger.
Losing It: A Christian Parent’s Guide to Overcoming Anger is a short guide to help parents who want to get to the root of their sinful anger. It is more than mere anger management techniques. Breaking the grip of anger is not primarily about behavior modification but about repenting of often hidden desires of the heart that rule us—and running to the living God who alone can satisfy us.