I'm supposed to be writing about our trip to Europe, but the discussion on a friend's blog (begun here and continued here) tempted me to respond, and why waste a long essay in just one place?

The discussion began with the statement, "I loathe the spanking of children," and some very interesting comments followed.  Herewith my own contribution.

I see no mandate in the Bible either for spanking or for not spanking, so I believe we have to make our own decisions based on general Biblical principles, sound reasoning and experience.  I come down firmly on both sides.  :)

The trouble with the term spanking is that it is so broad as to be almost meaningless.  Think about words like Christian and you'll know what I mean that it's nearly impossible to make general statements.  Still, I will try.

On a very basic level, one must ask the question, Do parents have the right to punish their children?  If the answer is no, the debate ends there.  So I begin with the premise that parents have not only the right, but the duty; that the setting and enforcing of rules is a necessary part of rearing children.

In a well-regulated, healthy home, punishment is a very small element of the total picture.  Discipline, socialization, and the "nurture and admonition of the Lord" are much, much more than rules and punishments, just as our relationship with God far transcends the Law.  Another basic premise of my argument is that the punishment in question takes place in the context of a loving, supportive family where children are honored and respected.

Love is not permissive, but will arrange as much as possible for the child to succeed.  Leaving many breakable knick-knacks within his reach is not the best way to teach a child respect for other people's property.  If we let our yeses be many, our noes will have more meaning, and more power.

When rules are broken, most often it is through ignorance, inexperience, carelessness, or accident on the part of the child, who is still learning his way in the world.  Such events, I believe, require patience, explanation, and education rather than punishment.  Sometimes, however, the disobedience is willful, deliberate, and with full knowledge of what he is doing.  This, too, is part of the child's learning; he must test the limits to see if they are true.  In this case, I believe punishment is necessary, and we fail as parents if we do not give our children the security of firm boundaries.

But what form should that punishment take?  I would argue that there is no one, right answer for all families, nor for all children in the same family, nor for any one child at all times or in all situations.  Those who wish a clear, precise formula for bringing up children hope for something that does not and cannot exist.  The job of a parent requires wisdom, not a set script.

I don't need to go any further than our own extended family to see evidence that healthy, happy, secure, and disciplined children can be brought up both with and without spanking, so arguments that either philosophy is harmful in itself bear little weight with me.  And I have seen marvelous examples of better ways of handling certain situations that I, myself, might have dealt with by spanking.

That said, I believe spanking has a place in a parent's disciplinary toolbox, and am appalled at legislative attempts to have it banned.  First, let me explain what spanking meant at our house, not that we were always successful in carrying out this ideal.  Spanking was almost exclusively reserved for deliberate disobedience, ended when the children were quite young (I don't remember when; probably before age five, having become more and more infrequent as the years passed), and was an "event," not a casual swat.  Whenever possible, I would take the child into a private space, explain both the infraction and the reason for punishment, administer just as many barehanded swats as was necessary to produce sorrowful tears (generally two or three), and follow it up with lots of hugs, comfort, and reassurances of restoration to grace.  Then it was over.  Period.  No recriminations, no nagging reminders of past failures.  Over and done with.  Our children undoubtedly will have something to say about how successful we were in our implementation, but that was the theory, and I think it worked quite well.  (In reference to Jon's comment that spanking seems to work better for dads than for moms, I did not find that to be the case.  It worked very well for me.  What I never did master was "the look" that dads seem to be able to give that compels instant obedience.)

I respect spanking as a tool because I believe it is often the kindest of punishments.  We obscure the issues when we use inflammatory terms like "hitting a child," and "violence" to describe spanking.  One could just as easily refer to a timeout as imprisonment, or taking a way a toy as theft.  All three of these actions involve the forcible imposition of the adult's will on the child.  I have used each of them in my time, depending on what is appropriate to the circumstances.  Abuse of a toy is logically followed by its removal until the child can behave more responsibly; antisocial behavior begets banishment until the child is ready to act reasonably.  But consequences unrelated to the infraction, such as the taking away of a favorite toy when the offense is deliberate disobedience, do violence to the child whether or not there is physical contact.   Spanking has the advantage of being over quickly, so that the issue is dealt with, the lesson learned, and the offense forgiven and forgotten within a short duration, much more appropriate to a young child's sense of time.

Natural consequences teach best—if you live long enough.  The natural consequence of a child's not instantly obeying a parent's command to stop might be that he is run over by a car.  In much the same way as a vaccine is a small assault intended to prevent a deadly illness, our job as parents often involves inflicting small amounts of pain on our children in order to spare them greater suffering.  Pain, as C. S. Lewis said, is God's megaphone.  We do not spare our children pain by not spanking them; all punishment causes pain.  It is only a question of form, duration, and degree.

Spanking, I believe, is not necessary.  Human beings are designed to learn in a great variety of situations and by a great variety of means.  But neither do I think it cruel.  Appropriately administered it can be one of the kindest techniques in a parent's repertoire.  As with all of our parenting decisions, we must always look at the results.  As John Holt said, "We ought all to keep asking ourselves, Where are you trying to get, and are you getting there?"  Sadly, the jury is out on our parenting techniques until we're grandparents, or even longer.  But we can usually get a good picture of the direction in which we are moving, especially if we have friends willing to be honest with us.

Posted by sursumcorda on Thursday, April 19, 2007 at 9:39 am | Edit
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I, too, am supposed to be writing about your trip and more pressingly, learning three new German lessons and reviewing 27 others for my final exam tomorrow morning. Instead, I posted a comment after yours on Beth's blog.

Posted by IrishOboe on Thursday, April 19, 2007 at 3:44 pm