Attention Parents

Assembly Woman Sally Lieber (D-California) is sponsoring a bill to ban the spanking of children in California. As I understand it, violators would be guilty of a misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to a year a prison and a hefty fine. During the piece on the morning news today (in which she was not the only interviewee), the word “hitting” was frequently used in place of “spanking,” which I thought was a nice use of loaded language. What do you make of this? Does Scripture speak on this issue? If so, how?

I wonder if these people have children of their own…

24 Responses to Attention Parents

  1. Susan says:

    If I understand the bill correctly, it applies to children under the age of three (this has been variously reported, I have yet to find a copy of the bill online so I can read it and get accurate information). I am for the bill, if this is the case. It would do parents good to be forced to find alternative ways to guide their very young children . I cringe every time I see a parent swatting a child for behavior that is appropriate for a two-year-old but simply annoying to the adult. This is irresponsible “discipline” and entirely unsupported in scripture.

    Many Christians will quote the “spare the rod” verse, or “all discipline seems painful..” and so on and will justify spanking very young children with all sorts of rules and qualifications (only if it’s willful disobedience, only use your hand so you know how hard you’re spanking, count to ten first , etc. etc. etc. ) When it comes right down to it, and if parents are honest, most spanking happens in the heat of the moment when the parent is annoyed. This is nothing more than selfishness on the part of the parent and this is what the child learns: If you are annoyed with someone’s behavior, strike out at them.

    And yes… I have children of my own. I have three children, they were 21 and 17 months apart in age, respectively. They are now grown.

  2. Clint says:

    I tend to lean more towards Susan’s point of view in this argument especially for very young children (though I am not sure what I think for older children). Regardless, the logic behind spanking seems to be as follows:

    If your child violates your will, you have the right to physically hurt them.

    Yet this seems to conflict with everything we learn about socially acceptable behaviour outside the context of parent/child relationships. For instance, could we use Kant’s categorical imperative and universalize this principle? It would look like this:

    If anyone violates your will, you have the right to physically hurt them.

    Surely this is not right. So my point is that parents that spank use an act inconsistent to what they tell their children to do when they get angry. Even if the parent is right and the child is wrong I am not sure that spanking is justified. In the same way that people got angry with the pope for talking about reasoned dialogue being necessary for internal change (as opposed to violence), why is it any different in the context of a parent/child relationship? Why can’t we sit down with our children, over and over again if necessary, and explain to them why they shouldn’t do certain things? If this doesn’t work, then we can use more passive forms of punishment (grounding, putting in a corner, doing extra chores, etc.).
    One might respond that we can spank children b/c they often don’t have the cognitive ability to understand a logical arg./presentation by the parent of why to do/not to do something is wrong and that spanking gets the point across. Yet, this is simply based on an ethic of pragmatism (which more often than not, in the end it just doesn’t “work”), and it seems like this line of argumentation could be used to justify physically harming much older mentally retarded individuals that disobey.

    With all of this said. I am open to spanking being a valid form of punishment. I mean, God is going to punish many of his created people with physical forms of judgement for their direct disobedience. Yet, we are not God. So, I am thinking out loud, and these are my thougts thus far. I do not have children, therefore, I am not sure that I can speak with as much authority as someone who does. Further, if I heard a really good philosophical arg./biblical arg. that argued for spanking then I might change my mind. However, I am not so sure that I agree with it at this point in my life…which might be a problem, b/c the girl I am about to marry agrees with it. I should probably come to a conclusion!

  3. Clint says:

    It should be noted that my arg. was more philosophical in nature. Keith, I realize that you did ask for a scriptural point of view. Sorry. I will also say, that I think that the country is too divided on this issue for a law to be passed that is simply taking the side of one polar extreme of the arguement.

  4. Susan says:

    Hey Clint… on a totally different note:
    Would you be free to meet me and Sarah S. in the student cafe tomorrow at 10am to talk about the Christian Thought Student Fellowship?
    We’d like you to present at our next CTSF meeting if you’re still up for it.

  5. Clint says:

    Susan,

    I would definitely be interested in presenting. When is the next meeting? I am not sure that I could be ready if it is really soon. Also, I have class tomorrow morning from 9:30-10:45. I could meet at 9 or 11.

  6. Susan says:

    Clint,
    We’ll be discussing the “when” tomorrow. I’ll check with you before we commit you🙂
    -Susan

  7. Xavier says:

    I have a little one that we spank occasionally. She’s very well behaved (to brag) so it doesn’t happen often. I don’t believe there is any scriptural endorsement (or encouragement or the like) of spanking. My wife and I simply see it as one of many tools in our “discipline toolkit.”

    Perhaps this might be cultural. I grew up in the Caribbean where spanking is a long held socially acceptable tool of discipline and, after receiving my fair share of it, it seems to me to be effective in certain circumstances and within certain limits. I also find that children are readily able to discern between a spanking and an act of simple physical violence–at least that was the way I expereicened it, and I find that my little one thinks the same. But I speak coming from a loving family myself and I do not mean to minimize the real fact of physical violence against children that happens daily.

    All this said, I would not be upset if spanking were altogether outlawed. It would just seem strange to me that the government might have that sort of power.

  8. Nancy says:

    Great discussion. First, I’m agnostic on spanking. We chose not to do it. I know for a fact that I would spank out of anger. Much better to put my kids (and sometimes myself) into timeout when the house gets a little heated.

    Clint, do you have kids? Boy, I sure wish I could rationalize with them. Sometimes I can, but having painful (and getting grounded is very painful) consequences are needed. (BTW – looking forward to hearing you at CTSF).

    There are several authors that are hot in certain Christian circles who claim (based on really poor exegesis of Proverbs13:24 – “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.”) that spanking is the one and only Biblically ordained form of punishment. I have a copy of one book that promotes this theory, but at the moment, the book is AWOL. If I find it, I’ll comment again with a paragraph or two.

  9. Frank says:

    Hey guys,

    I find this issue interesting since I am currently residing in CA. I had a suspicion that a similar law was already on the books here so I have been discreet when my children needed spanking in public. I guess I don’t have to look over my shoulder until they pass this law.

    In response to Clint’s argument,

    one article detailing this story here
    includes this quote

    “If it’s used in a limited way,” the Oklahoma State University professor said, “it can be more effective than almost any other type of punishment.” He added that children 18 months old or younger shouldn’t be spanked at all, because they can’t understand why it’s happening.

    The analogy of acceptable behavior within the parent/child relationship to the adult/adult relationship does not hold. The parent has the responsibility of training children how to live but does not have this responsibility to all other adults. When they do have this responsibility to another adult, it is because one is in a position of authority over the other which is the case in a parent/child relationship. When the Bible refers to using a rod for correction (either not sparing it or using it on the back of a fool), it does not seem to be calling for its use as a pointer (i.e. toward a corner or other “time out” area). If it can be granted that God intends spanking (or some controlled degree of physical punishment) to be used for correction of one’s own children, then we can reformulate a Categorical Imperative.

    If anyone violates a command of God (i.e. children obey your parents), then a person in authority over them should correct them by performing the action/punishment God has prescribed for that command (i.e. applying the board of education to the seat of learning).

    Now, if my child was so cheeky as to demand a biblical warrant for spanking, I could take them to the O.T. example of rebellious children being stoned and tell him that he is getting off easy today (unless he insists on biblical punishment). Seriously though, I think that the use of the rod and its intended purpose should suffice, but we also see in Romans 13 that those in authority are called to use the sword (and not in vain). Physical punishment seems to have a valid, God-sanctioned place in at least some authority/subject relationships.

    “Why can’t we sit down with our children, over and over again if necessary, and explain to them why they shouldn’t do certain things? If this doesn’t work, then we can use more passive forms of punishment (grounding, putting in a corner, doing extra chores, etc.).”

    I know from personal experience that there are times when a parent needs a child to obey immediately in order to save the child’s life. One time I was loading my children into the car next to a busy street. I told one of them to stay next to me and not move while I strapped the other one in the car. Well, instead he bolted toward the street. I was able to grab him in time and in a very short moment he understood the gravity of the situation. Now, when I call to him in an authoritative voice, he stops running. This was accomplished with minimal spanking to diaper padding. There are many circumstances in which lesser forms of punishment suffice, but certain situations need never to recur for the safety of the child. A small child cannot fathom the idea of a fatal decision. I firmly believe that children should be punished in degrees corresponding to the crime. When I give a direct command (i.e. “do not run into the street” or “do not insert your finger into that socket”) and my child immediately disobeys, I feel that spanking is a viable option for punishing that behavior.

    Back to the legislation itself, I believe it is unnecessary if we do not equivocate “spanking” and “hitting,” “beating,” etc. Spanking can be just as effective without leaving any marks or causing any lasting harm. I tend to think that the 18 month old mark can be more appropriate for children that are sufficiently cognitively developed to understand that they are disobeying. At this young age, a hand spank (i.e. when reaching onto the hot stove he was told not to touch) or a swat on a diaper padded bottom does not seem to be inappropriate to me. What I find deplorable is the type of beating that leaves bruises, breaks bones, etc. We already have laws punishing this type of treatment, and a law depriving a parent of insuring obedience in hazardous situations may in fact put children at undue risk.

    ADMINISTRATIVE NOTE: I shortened the text for the link Frank provided to get the page back to it’s original format.

  10. Susan says:

    Administrator:
    You could have shortened the text even more. Frank’s position is stated with only a few well-worn logical fallacies :

    1) “Experts say…” and “Statistics prove…” (appeal to authority)

    2) God commands us to use the rod on our children, and that use of the rod IS spanking. yep, it’s right there in the Hebrew. (equivocation and appeal to authority)

    3) Discipline = punishment for sin and disobedience. (equivocation)

    4) Spanking is sure better than stoning! Be grateful, I dont kill you, kid! (reductio ad absurdum)

    5) Alternatively, spanking is the only way to stop a child from being killed. We must have spanking in our parental toolbox for this purpose. (reductio ad absurdum)

    6) The old “diaper-padded bottom” argument (False: spanking works because it inflicts pain, a diaper-padded bottom protects from pain, therefore spanking a diaper-padded bottom is appropriate. ) If spanking does not work because it inflicts pain, but for some other reason, why spank at all?

  11. Keith says:

    Frank,

    It’s great to hear from you! Thanks for contributing to the discussion. I suppose this is an appropriate place to ask how your boys are doing—well behaved, as always I’m sure . How’s Amber? (Shoot me an email to answer these, if you prefer) Just so you know, I easily detected the humorous elements of your post (which I think were, unfortunately, lost on others). At any rate, thanks for your input–it’s always welcome!

    Xavier,

    No surprise here: I’m in total agreement with you.

    Susan,

    Regarding your original post: You write that you think “It would do parents good to be forced to find alternative ways to guide their very young children.” Why is that? I was unable to locate good reasons for this in the post. You also write, “I cringe every time I see a parent swatting a child for behavior that is appropriate for a two-year-old but simply annoying to the adult.” This, it seems, is a straw man argument against legitimate spanking. You should be annoyed at people who spank (or discipline in any other way) their children for behavior that is age appropriate, but it’s unfair to equate their actions with those of, say, a good parent like Frank or Xavier. At this point, I think Frank’s distinction between hitting and spanking is especially telling.

    Moreover, I think you’re pretty unfair to parents who spank (still in the original post). You write, “When it comes right down to it, and if parents are honest, most spanking happens in the heat of the moment when the parent is annoyed.” I think this is flatly false, but I’ll settle for the weaker claim that it is guilty of hasty generalization. What do you base this claim on? So, are parents who insist that they spank their kids for good, loving reasons simply being dishonest?

    Finally, you write: “this is what the child learns [from spanking]: If you are annoyed with someone’s behavior, strike out at them.” Wouldn’t this mean that I, since I was probably spanked as a child more times than Xavier, Clint, and Frank combined, and since you think your “parents almost always spank in annoyance” premise is true, have learned to strike someone when I’m annoyed at them? But–and I’m not lifting myself up as a paragon of virtue–I don’t strike out at people when they annoy me. In fact, based on experience with many, many people who were spanked (often) growing up, I don’t think this is what children learn from spanking at all. What they learn from spanking (as distinguished from hitting) is to obey.

  12. Keith says:

    Incidentally, participants in this discussion may be interested to know that Susan’s original comment in this thread has shown up here: http://www.slate.com/id/2158135/pagenum/all/

  13. Nancy says:

    Disclaimer: This is not directed to anyone who has posted here. As I mentioned, I am agnostic with regards to spanking and think that good Christians can disagree. However, I have yet to find a good Biblical arguement that spanking is the God-ordained primary method for discipline for children. Thus implying that other methods like time-out and loss of priveledges are “lesser” methods.

    Proverbs is wisdom literature that provides general principals for living. Proverbs communicates poetically and as such does not contain the succinctness of concise commands found elsewhere in the Biblical text. It is by no means a thorough and definitive set of rules for the maintenance of order in the home.

    So to those who misuse Proverbs to justifiy spanking as the God ordained method of discipline for child rearing, what should be your punishment when you are the guest of someone else and overeat at Thanksgiving or Christmas or indulge in any gluttonous activity?

    Proverbs 23:1-2 “When you sit to dine with a ruler, note well what is before you, and put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony.” (NIV)

  14. Keith says:

    Are Christians who see fit to spank their children compelled to produce “a good Biblical argument that spanking is the God-ordained primary method for discipline for children”? (I am here simply borrown Nancy’s phraseology to keep the discussion on similar terms)

  15. Nancy says:

    Keith – absolutely not. What I object to is the attitude that in essense says “I’m doing it right (spanking) and you are not because my way is in the Bible and yours (time-out etc.) is not.” It’s the arrogance (not saying you or anyone on this blog is doing this – but I have friends who have) of elevating one method above another due to spurious Biblical support that I object to.

    Parents who chose to spank need not produce some long detailed justification for spanking. Spanking is perfectly legitimate form of discipline (hand, spoon or Principal’s paddle) as are other methods. (Okay, so you got me here, I’m not really “agnostic” on the issue.)

    I’m drawing a blank right now (standard fare for Mommies of young children), but there is another verse, that when understood in context implies that we should know the uniqueness of our children and discipline accordingly.

  16. Frank says:

    I believe that there are appropriate uses of authority in argument. When I do not specialize in a particular field, I can look to someone who does and glean from his area of specialty. I should have included this along with the quote

    “Professor Robert Larzelere, who has studied child discipline for 30 years, said his research shows spanking is fine, as long as it’s used sparingly and doesn’t escalate to abuse.”

    I also think God is a good authority on just about anything.

    I checked google and found this “Such an appeal is not always a fallacy, but there are certain things to look out for:

    1. The person is not an expert in the field
    2. The expert is not identified”

    I think the additional info above shows that my original quote does not violate that fallacy.

    I really don’t know what else the rod could have been used for in biblical times.

    Um..is reductio a logical fallacy? I missed that class.

    I’m sure you could make a spanking overly painful even through a diaper. It doesn’t work that way here. The noise helps as well. If you have children that respond to time outs, etc, thank God. Sometimes children need more if it can be done appropriately.

    If you really need biblical warrant for your type of discipline, try “Thou shalt put thy child in time out.” I don’t remember the reference, but I’m afraid it’s a proverb though so it may not be applicable to everyone.

    Keith, I’ll save you the trouble and note that there were one or two humorous parts that slipped through. It really is hard to determine that humor is present when you read typed letters and don’t know the author.

    I really don’t have a problem with people who don’t spank and can get their children to obey. I don’t want the government to be able to take that form of “behavior modification” away. I also do not believe spanking is appropriate for every little annoyance. The child should understand which actions are worse than others by the results.

  17. Susan says:

    Keith:
    You are spot on to point out my own lack of proper argument! I have merely opined, and freely admit it.

    In order to argue this, it must be done, I think, from a sensible theology of discipline. How does God discipline us as sons and daughters? Does he “spank” us and if so, what does that look like? Does God punish his children, or discipline them (the two are not the same thing) and again, what does that look like? Does God relate to us with any “age appropriateness or does He react to us uniformly no matter what our age (spiritual age or otherwise) Once we have examined this thoroughly and honestly (and not merely as a way to justify the conclusion we have pre-determined) we will be on better ground from which to formulate a sensible way to train up a child.

    As for a formal argument from me, … let me see what I can drum up.

    Finally, Keith, “striking out” at someone who annoys you, as a learned response later in life, need not be in the form of physical hitting. It can be manifested simply in an attitude. Children do learn from what we do. I dont know how old your children are, but you be amazed at how much your child’s Sunday school teacher will learn about the way you deal with your child, from observing the way they treat others. They often do, and say verbatum what their parents do; rather humorous, if it weren’t so sad at times.

  18. Xavier says:

    Wait a minute! We’ve been linked to by Slate!?! Susan, we’ve made you famous!

  19. Susan says:

    Xavier,
    I’m speechless.
    😉

    and btw, I have no doubt you and your wife are wonderful parents.

  20. J Cassel says:

    This is very interesting Keith. It seems that Scripture does speak on the issue. Others have referenced Proverbs 13:24, which is one of the more prominent passages concerning the issue. I will attempt to shed some light on this passage exegetically and hopefully we might come to a better understand of what God says about this.

    First, let us examine the hebrew word “hosek”. This is the hebrew word for “spare” or “hold back” in our English translations. This Hebrew word tends to mean “to restrain” or to “exercise self-control”. I have also referenced the LXX and the word used here is Phedetai (I apologize for not being able to supply Hebrew or Greek fonts). The word is a present, middle, indicative verb from the word “Pheidomai”, which means “to be chary of” , i.e., (subjectively) or to abstain or (objectively), to treat leniently.

    Second, the Hebrew word for “rod” is “sebet”. It denotes a part of a tree from which a staff or weapon could be made. Bruce Waltke, professor Emeritus at Reformed Theological Seminary states in his NICOT commentary on the book of Proverbs that: “A person in authority, such as God (Job 21:9; 37:13), a father (13:23-24), or the Messiah (Ps. 2:9) used it to inflict remedial punishment on a slave (Exod. 21:20), a fool (Prov. 26:3), and a “son” (13:24; 22:15). Corrective caning was applied to ‘the back’ (cf. 19:29; and 26:3) of the one who lacks sense (see 6:32)” (see p. 574 for more).To add to this, the Greek word used in the LXX is Bakterias. This word is defined as a staff.

    In Egypt and Egyptian history, the word which means “to rear” is accompanied with a determinative of a man holding a rod (N Shupak, “Egyptian Terms and Features in Biblical Hebrew”. In Papyrus Lansing, a school manuscript of the New Empire (1554-1080 BC), the student says to his teacher, “I grew up as a child by being at your side; you struck me on my back, and this was how your teaching entered into my heart”. Also, Ahiqar, who officiated in the Assyrian court around 700 BC (I think) said: “Withhold not thy son from the rod, else thou wilt not save [him from wickedness]. If I smite thee my son, thou wilt not die, but if I leave thee to thine own heart [thou wilt not live] (ANET, p. 428, lines 81-82).

    In both Biblical and Egyptian wisdom literature, as well as history, the objects of flogging are the youth, the son, the mocker, the fool, and the senseless. It seems that the language used in this verse is not as metaphorical as we think. It is more likely that a physical nature is expressed here by Solomon. The words used are far too expressive towards a physical nature. It is possible that it is symbolic or that Solomon is expressing some sort of symbolism; but this is a stretch considering the nature of the language that he uses. I hope this has been helpful.

  21. Susan says:

    I do not see in Bruce Waltke’s commentary on the Book of Proverbs a reference to the use of a rod on the back of a toddler.

    The Bill in question seeks to outlaw the spanking (flogging, caning, to use the terms above ) of Toddlers. Children under the age of three. I thought that the Bill was the topic of this post, not whether flogging or caning is mentioned in the bible and ancient literature. While I respect and appreciate the commentary above: but it does not seem to apply to the question at hand.

  22. J Cassel says:

    My friend Keith posed the question “Does Scripture speak on this issue?” I was seeking to give clarification on the previous posts concerning this text and to shed light on the verse as well. That is all.

    Concerning the passage in question and to add more on what I have already said, the text is ambiguous concerning the age of the person in question. The Hebrew word “Beni” usually considers his son as his spiritual heir, not merely his offspring. The word can mean “child” as well. But there is still ambiguity as to what is encompassed in the word if it can mean “child”. The LXX uses the word “huios” which means son. The word “teknon” which means child or the word “paidion”, which means infant, is not used. We are only left with the Hebrew word which can mean child.

    It seems the question at hand is whether we think this is ethical or not. Is it ethical to “spank” a child less that three years old? What do we mean by the word “spank”? I completly agree with the fact that abuse which is traumatic and very forceful, or painful beyond measure is unnecessary and should be illegal. However, discipline or spanking that involves a very minimal amount of pain, or any pain at all is o.k. in my opinion. Most times that I have witnessed spanking with two or three year olds, the parent didn’t even touch the child hard enough to inflict pain. I believe the child cried because they realized their mother or father was upset with them; and they were conscious of the fact that they did something to upset their mother or father. If there was pain at all, it was not enough to last for more than a minute. This is how I take the word “spanking”. I believe it should be a judgment call of the parent whether or not to “spank” their child of less than three years. But I do not believe that a parent should be deprived of this option. I know that my parents “spanked” me when I was a toddler. I also know that I respected my parents at a very early age. I believe that their method of discipline helped me realize this and this benefited my relationship with my parents, and that I was not “spoiled”. I believe my parents did this out of love and sought me with diligence. I believe this is what Solomon meant in the verse in question.

  23. Susan says:

    Very young children do, indeed, realize when their parents are serious about their behavior. If they are old enough to make a connection between a parent’s seriousness, and their behavior, they are old enough to receive instruction (aka discipline) of some kind with the goal of maturity.
    A child who is disciplined (in the process of being trained up well) knows they are loved because discipline depends on a healthy relationship with the child; and it takes time, effort, communication and attention. A “do nothing” parent is irresponsible, and does not love their child. I beleive this is what Solomon meant in the verse in question: the parent (and I believe there is good reason to say “father,” specifically, given the nature of the book of Proverbs) who is neglectful is the one who sits idly by and lets the child do “whatever.”

  24. Nancy says:

    J Cassel – thanks for the thoughtful and detailed exegesis. Your analysis has far exceeded the parenting books that have attempted to hold up spanking as the ordained disciplinary method for the Christian parent.

    Susan – I think you get to the heart of the interpretative issue. This is not a detailed command but rather a contrast between that parent who disciplines and the parent who “sits idly by.”

    Overall this can be a huge issue for the Christian who deems the spanking of the toddler to be ordained by scripture because then the law of the state could be in direct conflict.

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