Spanking…Just or Unjust?

In our church there have been near 10 pregnancies/births this year alone. In our small group of five couples, there are two pregnant women, a newborn, and an 11 month old boy (whom I have never seen in a bad mood).

With all the coming children, and the impending title of “parent,” I thought I would do myself, and my son, a favor by reading and thinking about biblical discipline. I thought I would share what I found concerning parental discipline in relation to disobedient children. I hope this helps.

In the Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society from December 2005, there is an article titled, “Discipline in the Book of Proverbs: ‘To Spank or Not to Spank?'” by Paul D. Wegner. It is from this article that these observations arise.

Dr. Wegner, an Old Testament Scholar looks into the book of Proverbs to shed some light on how parents ought to discipline their children. He is attempting to avoid two extremes, corporal punishment (spanking) for any reason and self-esteemism (lack of any punishment). He puts forth 8 forms of discipline (7 will be discussed) found in Proverbs and he puts them forth in ascending order leading to corporal punishment.

1. Encourage proper behavior. This may not seem like parental discipline, but it is, and Proverbs directs parents to discipline their children in this manner. This takes wisdom, of course, and wisdom comes from knowing the counsel of God. To aid in encouraging proper behavior, parents need to know the Word of God. This level of discipline does two things. It guides children to do what is right (see Proverbs 2.1-13, 3.1-18, 4.20-22, 10.5, 23.24-25), and secondly, it shows them the benefits of doing what is right (see Proverbs 3.13-26, 4.3-9, 5.1-2). Proverbs 1.8-9 reads, “Hear, my son, your father’s instruction, and forsake not your mother’s teaching, for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck.” And Proverbs 3.13-15 says, “Blessed is the one who finds wisdom, and the one who gets understanding, for the gain from her is better than gain from silver and her profit better than gold. She is more precious than jewels, and nothing you desire can compare with her.”

2. Inform of improper behavior. This does not mean to scream at your children, “Jonah stop that right now! You don’t want me to come over there!” This is not a healthy means to show children their wrongs. Rather, we should inform children of their wrongdoing before they do it. Wegner writes, “If we educate our children concerning inappropriate behavior early enough, the will begin to associate wrong behavior with undesirable consequences, and thus hopefully avoid the behavior.” If parents wait to inform children of their poor behavior until they are “fed up”, they will certainly be too upset to discipline in any proper manner. Proverbs 1.10-15 is a good example, “My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent. If they say, ‘Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us ambush the innocent without reason…my son, do not walk in the way with them; hold back your foot from their paths…” For other examples see Proverbs 1.7, 10-19, 3.27-35, 13.1, 22.24-25, 23.26-28.

3. Explain the negative consequences of sin.  Parents should have to wells of wisdom on this issue. The consequences of their own sin and the sin of others in their life, and the Word of God. We all know that sin looks great right now, but in the long-run sin is a parasite that sucks the life and joy out of you. It is a parent’s duty to show their children the long-run consequences of sin, show them that it is not worth it and why a holy God calls us to a different lifestyle. Proverbs 5.3-6 says, “For the lips of a forbidden woman drip honey, and her speech is smoother than oil, but in the end she is bitter as wormwood, sharp as a two-edged sword. Her feet go down to death; her steps follow the path to Sheol; she does not ponder the path of life; her ways wander, and she does not know it.” For more examples see, Proverbs 1.18-19, 27-33, 2.14-22, 5.3-23, 6.6-35, 7.6-27, 9.1-18, 13.18, 14.14, 16.18, 26, 17.2o, 18.13, 23.10-12, 24.17-20.

4. Gently exhort. This should be an ongoing event. This is different from the previous forms of discipline because this is a bit more solemn and direct. Wegner writes, “As the level of discipline rises, so does the personal accountability…” Proverbs 4.1-2 reads, “Hear, O sons, a father’s instruction, and be attentive, that you may gain insight, for I give you good precepts; do not forsake my teaching.” Other examples are Proverbs 1.8, 4.1-27, 5.1-6, 6.1-5, 20-35, 7.1-27, 23.22-23.

5. Gently rebuke or reprove. This brings in rebuke. Proverbs shows us that rebuke, or reproof, is often necessary. In fact, God does it to His children as well, Proverbs 3.12 reads, “for the Lord reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights.” For the sake of righteousness and joy, parents ought to rebuke their children’s misbehavior. For other examples see, Proverbs 9.7-8, 15.12, 19.25, 30.6.

6. Corporal punishment that does not cause harm. This understanding holds that “temporary punishment is better than allowing wickedness or evil to run wild and lead to more serious punishment.” Proverbs 19.18 says, “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.” The Hebrew word for ‘discipline’ here has multiple connotations from a verbal reprimand to chastening with a whip. It seems likely that this proverb is warning parents that they should discipline their children, because if you do not, it is like wishing death upon them. Wegner writes, “Thus even within this level of discipline there are various levels of severity, and the wise parent uses only the level of discipline necessary to curb the incorrect behavior.” Proverbs 23.13-14 says, “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.” This form of physical punishment  should not be used with the intention to harm the child, but to save the child. “[T]he implication is that it should not be used in an abusive or harmful way (including being used in anger or our of meanness).” Proverbs 29.15 says, “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” When a child is not corrected, or when a child’s will is not curbed, it will become uncontrollable. If you leave a child to his own devises, in a little while you will have a monster.

Wegner writes, “Disciplining is hard work. It is much easier to let children have their own way and wander off into sin, but parents who love their children will not allow this to happen.”

7. Corporal punishment that causes harm. This form of discipline is usually left to the government in most cultures. Proverbs teaches that for certain destructive behaviors, extreme punishment must be taken. Proverbs 20.30 reads, “Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts.” An example of this would be certain Middle-east countries that cut off hands of those caught stealing. I do not recommend parents cut off their children’s hands!

Proverbs teaches that all children need some form of discipline. A wise parent will use the least amount of punishment to alter a child’s behavior. There are a variety of levels of discipline and a wise parent will implement them all at appropriate times. Discipline is used in increasing severity until behavior is modified. Using reason and discussion early on will help children choose right rather than wrong and will also allow parents to use lesser forms of discipline as the child grows.

Wise parents always discipline out of love, never anger. If you are angry, wait to discipline your child until you can do so with a loving heart. The purpose of discipline is to bring the child to repentance before God and to a deeper understanding of our place before Him.

I highly recommend Parenting By God’s Promises by Joel Beeke. This text has been influential as I think about the roles of parenting within the covenant of Christ.

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5 comments

  1. I wonder if this question has ever been addressed in human history or culture before contemporary US society? It seems that in time past corporal punishment was the rule rather than the exception.

    1. What are your thoughts on corporal punishment? Would they align with Wegner and his exegesis of Proverbs?

      1. For the most part, I do agree with Wegner. His arrangement of disciplinary action is a construct that doesn’t necessarily represent the mind of God with regard to parental correction. In your synthesis of his work, there’s no allowance for the different temperament of the child, the parent and the way the family works. It’s a multi-sided problem. We were introduced to ‘Under Loving Command,’ which helped us become more consistent in our use of discipline at a time when we really needed it. My four children are very different and have gone through different phases of childhood. When appropriate, we used corporal punishment, time outs, conversations, restrictions, and groundings without end.
        In my opinion, you will have to work out what works for baby Judah to best correct his behaviors. There’s no one formula that guarantees great results, corporal punishment should be a tool in your parental arsenal.

    2. Maybe I misrepresented Wegner in my summary, but I am certain he said something alone these lines in his article. He did not say anything about my son in particular though! Wegner correctly notes that there is not a systematic process for discipline as each child is different, but the levels of discipline noted can be used in multiple circumstances with various degrees of rebellion. Spanking is a tool in the tool box. Wegner also notes that corporal punishment should be a last resort and if the other forms of disciplined are employed well in advance, spanking may not even take place.

      1. Got it. Interrogations first, beatings after…

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