Nobody deserves a good spanking
By sparing the rod, both parents and children will learn the gospel discipline of nonviolence, argues this mother of four.
Five, four, three, two... This ominous countdown can be heard in my home of four kids under age 5 about every 10 to 20 minutes. What exactly is going to happen when I reach “one”?
So far my luck has held as my children always seem to scurry into compliance a split second before that. (I often have to slow down and start an early math lesson in fractions to avoid revealing the emptiness of my threat.) But I am counting down not their doom but the time Mama needs to cool off and dig up extra patience.
Why not just give them a good whack and be done with it? Some say I spoil the child by sparing the rod. They argue physical punishment that is rare, dispassionate, and well reasoned, aiming to respond to severe cases of disobedience or to dangerous situations, is an essential part of a proper childhood formation. Many believe that modern parents have become wimpy and overburdened by theory, raising wild children who know no boundaries or proper parental fear. But how many can achieve a Stepford-parent level of remove such that our physical disciplines can be dutifully administered uncorrupted by our own personal anger or frustration?
The entire verse from that oft-used snippet of scripture states: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them” (Prov. 13:24). But true discipline does not need to be constructed on a foundation of forced compliance inspired by violence and fear. Rather, it mandates, as the Latin root of discipuli or “student” implies, that the relationship of parent to child be like that of a teacher to student. It is focused on education, learning, respect, and love.
As the ultimate teacher, Jesus shows us what our relationships can and should be with our children. He never resorted to anything close to corporal punishment on his fairly dim-witted disciples. Rather, he showed them the true way to love as God loves.
Despite the days when I’d take compliant children at any cost, as a Catholic parent I am called to nurture something more than fearfully obedient children. It started when I married their father and perhaps somewhat naively made a solemn promise to accept children and to raise them lovingly according to the law of Christ and his church.
Jesus says the greatest commandment is: “You shall love the Lord, your God, with all your heart....You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39). Therefore we must teach our children to love God and their neighbors as themselves, and paddles, rulers, or switches don’t work well.
Gregory K. Popcak, a Catholic social worker and counselor, writes in “Ten Reasons I Can’t Spank” (stophitting.com ): “Discipline’s main objective is to teach the offender what to do instead of the offense, rather than merely stopping the offense.... [I]t is less concerned with teaching compliance with the law than it is with teaching how to have deeper, more respectful, and loving relationships.”
Just as spanking a child for missing a math problem is not a good strategy for teaching math, so, too, should we question spanking a child for a moral infraction. In fact, you undermine real discipline and self-control in your children when you rely on a good whack to get your point across. While corporal punishment undoubtedly gets your child’s initial attention, I doubt parents ever can stop spanking a child who has “learned to be good” through it.
No method of child discipline is foolproof; many don’t show immediate results, but patience and repetition will likely eventually prove their worth. When we discipline our children with violence, we are really releasing our own frustration and anger. The lesson that children learn is not, “I should not continue in this behavior or I will suffer physical pain” (not exactly a wholly laudable message in the first place). Rather it is, “When I am angry it’s acceptable to soothe myself by striking out at the cause of my frustration.”
A relative, a father of four, once was “disciplining” one son for striking a sibling. As he hollered, “We do not hit in this family!” he was, in fact, smacking his son with gusto. I can’t believe this tactic was an effective means of getting his son to later follow such wonderfully pacifist instruction.
Others argue that although spanking is not desirable, it’s justified for specific cases and specific children. They maintain that it is immediately effective and can save a small child from danger. Further, particularly willful or unruly children do not respond to time-outs or other less violent means of parenting.
I have several “runners” in my family who, if not restrained, will dash out into traffic. I have had to grab them physically to prevent them from being squashed under a delivery van, but I fail to see how whomping them on the bottom is going to help them get any closer to understanding pedestrian safety than my earnest admonitions do. What’s likely to work best is to keep a tight grip until they—safely—reach the age of reason and understand that cars can kill. Corporal punishment can’t replace good parental judgment. If, God forbid, a child puts himself in a dangerous position, I would think, “I should have held his hand,” not “I should have hit him more.”
Anyone who knows my oldest would call him willful, loud, and, yes, probably unruly. Time-outs do not particularly phase him, and our little barrister would argue Chief Justice Roberts under the table. I have certainly raised my voice in frustration with him, but I have yet to resort to spanking.
Maybe a quick smack on his rear would shock him into compliance in the short term, but the long-term consequences of using violence as a means of control aren’t worth it. What moral lesson would I be teaching him by seeking a quick, violent fix to a problem? When his brother takes his spaceship from him, he could just push him over and take it back. Nothing actually prevents him from doing that now, but at least I can stand on some solid ethical ground when I tell him not to do it.
I am teaching him God’s love—the love we Catholics are called to bring into our world and into our families. As anyone who has seen the film Wedding Crashers  (New Line) knows, just about every Christian wedding draws a reading from 1 Corinthians. Here Christian parents learn about the difficult task of emulating God’s love. This love is patient and kind, does not envy, is not easily angered, and doesn’t keep a record of wrongs.
As Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1994 “Letter to Families”: “Love is demanding. It makes demands in all human situations; it is even more demanding in the case of those who are open to the gospel. Is this not what Christ proclaims in his commandment? Nowadays people need to rediscover this demanding love, for it is the truly firm foundation of the family, a foundation able to ‘endure all things.’”
In teaching children to love and in truly loving them, we are called to demand more of ourselves and them. Digging deeper, we are called to choose that most difficult task of not giving in to anger, of being patient and kind, and of not tallying the wrongs. We have to do better than employing the easier “solution” of a good whack when our little monkeys draw on the wall in crayon for the 20th time.
Perhaps the greatest argument against corporal punishment comes from the parallels of parental love to God’s love for us. As children of God, we strive to learn to love as God does. Parents are afforded the unique opportunity to emulate God’s love for us in their love of their children.
Unlike the love between friends or lovers, the love between parents and children—like that of God and God’s human children—is not on an equal footing. Just as God loves us despite all our foolish antics and struggles, we accept our children when they make mistakes. Our love must be without condition. The most beautiful gift our children give to us is the opportunity to learn how truly to love them and ourselves unconditionally, despite all our and their shortcomings.
God’s love for us does not involve paddles, spankings, and rulers. It is self-sacrificing: “God so loved the world, he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
So the next time Junior refuses to clean up his toys, take a breath, count not just to five but perhaps to 10, and remember how God’s love for us feels. Then practice it on yourself and your offspring. You might just be building a more peaceful and just society as you build a more peace-filled and just home.