Living Without Spanking

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Living Without Spanking

Thoughts on the public debate over corporal punishment
From the January 2015 Trumpet Print Edition

Are you a parent with toddlers, children or adolescents? If so, I would like to ask you a question. What are your thoughts about spanking? It is a hot topic on the minds of many. Are you wondering about it too?

Parental use of corporal punishment was thrust back into public debate in America in September when nfl running back Adrian Peterson was arrested on felony child abuse charges for using a switch to discipline his 4-year-old son. Peterson avoided jail time by pleading no contest to a reduced charge of misdemeanor reckless assault as part of a plea deal. Peterson was ordered to pay a $4,000 fine and court costs, to take parenting classes and to perform 80 hours of community service.

Learning of the Peterson incident, child advocates rushed to condemn corporal punishment across the board. Evangelicals answered back with indignation. Several op-ed writers threw the subject of race into the discussion. Parents began arguing with each other on social media and on call-in radio talk shows about the difference between child abuse and spanking. Some parents were hotly indignant, stating that it is nobody’s business how they raise their children.

I personally believe there exists a silent majority of parents in Western society who are confused and conflicted about how to discipline their children, who make their daily lives miserable because of unruly behavior. On a recent business trip, I felt really bad for a mom in an airport whose child was taking swings and hitting her because she was not doing what he wanted her to do.

Spanking and the Law

There is a global movement to eliminate spanking. Forty-one nations prohibit all corporal punishment of children: in the home, schools and other institutions including penal systems. Twenty-seven of these nations passed their laws against spanking in just the past decade. An additional 78 nations prohibit physical punishment in schools.

In America, all 50 states allow corporal punishment of children. Nineteen states, mostly in the South, permit physical punishment in schools. This does not mean that all parents use physical punishment. The debate spawned by the Peterson case shows huge disagreements about corporal punishment among Americans regionally, religiously and racially.

“From the macro data, it seems that corporal punishment is becoming less popular in the United States,” reported the Christian Science Monitor. “Evaluating numerous national surveys taken over the past decades, Murray Straus, an expert on corporal punishment at the University of New Hampshire in Durham, found that the number of parents who say spanking is sometimes necessary dropped from more than 90 percent in 1968 to about 65 or 70 percent in 1994, and then has remained steady through today” (Oct. 19, 2014). Other researchers have found that while the number of parents using spanking has decreased, Americans still use spanking to discipline their children—much to the dismay of the academic voices against corporal punishment.

It is likely that some parents are not being totally honest on surveys, or the surveys are not reaching parents who use corporal punishment. One of the leading academic voices against spanking, Prof. Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Texas at Austin, discovered in the late 2000s “that by the time American children reach high school, 85 percent have been physically punished by their parents” (ibid). Kenneth Dodge, family policy scholar at Duke University, has found similar numbers. Following hundreds of children in longitudinal studies from pre-kindergarten through adulthood, he found that 70 to 80 percent were corporally punished (ibid). Prof. Murray Straus believes 90 percent of toddlers are still being physically punished.

Officially, spanking is still used in many school districts across states that permit it. U.S. Department of Education numbers say 200,000 students are physically disciplined every year. In some school districts in northern Florida, state statistics show more than 1 in 10 students is paddled.

The Arlington school district, located on the outskirts of Memphis, Tennessee, recently reinstated corporal punishment, giving teachers “all possible tools at their disposal.” It is clear that a majority of Americans use physical discipline.

Considering these facts, you may wonder why the Peterson case drew the attention it did. Child advocates against spanking took advantage of this tragic case to advance their cause to have spanking outlawed in America. However, there are large groups in the American population who are willing to fight for the right to raise their families in the manner they see fit, which includes the use of corporal punishment when necessary.

The Case Against Spanking

Child advocates against spanking see no difference between child abuse and spanking. Just after the Peterson case made news headlines, National Public Radio host Robert Siegel interviewed Elizabeth Gershoff about the history of corporal punishment. During the interview, Siegel made this emotionally charged statement: “There are lots of people today who are parents who were disciplined by their parents by being beaten and consider it normal, and therefore beat their children.” This is undeniably a broad, sweeping statement.

Gershoff responded to Siegel’s proclamation: “That’s true. We do see that cycle of violence continuing through generations. Our own parents are our best example for how to parent. We live with our parents for many years. And that’s the most close-up view of parenting we’ve ever seen. But there are many parents who are breaking that cycle and realizing that it is possible to raise children without hitting them.” Please take note that Gershoff refers to spanking as a “cycle of violence.” Did Gershoff’s parents beat her? Do all parents who spank their children beat them? Growing up in the 1950s, I know that I was occasionally spanked as a child—yet I was not beaten.

Anti-spanking advocates view all spanking as hitting, equating it with child abuse. The word hit conjures up horrible images of violent punching and slapping during out-of-control confrontations. Yes, sadly, child abuse does exist. Children have been hurt, physically, mentally and emotionally. All child abuse is definitely criminal against children and should be punished severely. Yet, is a parent who gives his or her unruly child several stinging swats on the behind a child-beater?

Gershoff estimates that a quarter of American households today do not use spanking at all while raising their children. “It’s been a very gradual decline here in the U.S. with still a vast majority of people being in favor of spanking,” she told Siegel. “What’s interesting is that in other countries we’ve seen a very different situation … because of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was ratified in 1989 … and because of that, 38 countries now have agreed that corporal punishment of children, including spanking, violates children’s human rights.”

Anti-spanking advocates see all corporal punishment as a violation of children’s rights, and outlawing spanking in the United States of America is their end goal. To that end, they also want to intimidate all parents who use spanking, even if they use it as a part of a complete child-rearing program.

The Case for Spanking

While the case against spanking didn’t really take hold in America until the 1960s, the case for proper spanking—administered by loving parents—is centuries old.

Robert Siegel also asked Gershoff: “You say the majority of parents physically punish their children about once a year. How much does that practice vary by race, region, education level, class—whatever?” Gershoff answered: “It varies a fair amount. We know that it varies by race or ethnic group. African-American parents in particular spank more often than other groups. Whites and Latinos spank about the same. And Asian-Americans spank the least.”

Gershoff gives a true observation here. Northeast white parents are known to be vocal about their anti-spanking views. Most college-educated parents do not use spanking. Southern blacks are vocal about their pro-spanking values.

Yet Gershoff fails to give an unbiased view of the effects of spanking among groups. She continued, “What we do also know is that there are not differences in the effects of spanking on children by race or ethnic group. And so with a large national sample, we found that even though African-American parents do spank more often, it’s not more effective at increasing children’s positive behavior and in fact has the opposite effect and increases children’s aggressive behavior over time.” Other experts, however, say differently.

It was in the early 1990s that academic experts began releasing studies purporting to show a clear connection between corporal punishment and children’s aggressive behavior—particularly that children who were spanked often were likelier to be involved in partner-to-partner domestic violence as adults. Some studies also said that spanked children suffered academic and health risks and fell behind in many other social indicators. The majority of these studies followed white Americans.

However, experts realized that they could not eliminate corporal punishment unless they could replicate the same findings within other demographic groups. New longitudinal studies were conducted with a focus on African-American families.

“What they found surprised and bothered many of them,” stated the October 19 Christian Science Monitor article. “In various studies, researchers found that the effect of spanking on black children was different than it was on white children. In 2004, for instance, scholar Jennifer Lansford, who worked with Professor [Kenneth] Dodge of Duke University, reported findings from a diverse group of 585 children they followed from prekindergarten through Grade 11. Rather than making black children as a group more aggressive and worse off, some instances of corporal punishment within that demographic seemed to correspond to better outcomes” (emphasis added). That is different from what Gershoff claimed.

At first this study was labeled racist. Yet, what Duke experts (who still oppose corporal punishment) determined is that any damage caused to children by spanking, paddling or other forms of punishment is not as much about the physical act as it is the psychological message imparted by the parent. Actually, the Duke study showed that African-American parents were better at giving corporal punishment than white parents they studied.

“To the extent that the child understands and appreciates genuinely that the child is loved by the parent, and that even though it hurts, the parent’s intent is to help the child—to the extent that the child understands that, the consequences are not negative,” Professor Dodge told Christian Science Monitor.

“If the child interprets it as a parent who is out of control, or a parent who does not love the child—a parent being hurtful and hateful—that is the bad message and the mechanism by which [the negative outcome] happens,” Dodge continued. This is the most important point to consider in regard to the whole corporal punishment issue.

Instead of getting rid of corporal punishment, educators should work to provide the right education for parents on how to properly raise their children, including clear instruction on when and how to use corporal punishment.

The New Spanking

Some scholars warn against the serious psychological harm done to children when parents use non-spanking punishment such as screaming at children. Screaming is now called the “new spanking.” This is common in the more permissive, white, educated families.

Some experts now believe that when a parent “loses it” or verbally “goes ballistic” on their children, it can be more damaging psychologically than spanking. Yet no one is advocating a legal ban on moms and dads screaming at their children.

While the Peterson case certainly flushed the furor and disagreement over spanking back into the limelight, doesn’t it also reveal a bigger problem—the tragic state of confusion and disarray in American families? Spanking does not cause child abuse, partner-to-partner abuse or wrecked marriages. Our selfish, self-centered human nature does.

No academic study can help us here. Who in this country, or in this world, knows how to make family work? Who knows how to build strong families that will not tear down society, but will help build it up? Spanking isn’t the real question. The real question is: What is the right way to raise children?

Parents Are Teachers

Robert Siegel stated this at the beginning of his interview with Elizabeth Gershoff: “The principle of spare the rod and spoil the child was commonly observed until not long ago. Those who beat their children could cite the Bible. The book of Proverbs equates not physically punishing a son with hating him. Kids need discipline. How and when did this change for so many Americans?”

The expression “spare the rod and spoil the child” is not found in the Bible. However, the proverb he referred to is Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” A more modern translation reads, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (English Standard Version).

Many academic, scholarly and liberal-minded people hold contempt for the Holy Bible. You can sense that contempt in Siegel’s words, “Those who beat their children could cite the Bible.” Nowhere in the Bible are parents given permission to physically abuse their children. However, parents are instructed to be loving teachers. In the Authorized Version the English word chasteneth is translated from the Hebrew musar, which means to give instruction, warning, reproof and rebuke.

When God created family, He gave parents a full-time responsibility to raise their children to be respectful, obedient, hardworking, law-abiding, socially contributing, happy adults. This complete child-rearing package requires time and considerable effort. Notice carefully that rebuke—which at times requires physical punishment, or “the rod”—is only a part of proper child rearing. Anyone truly wanting to help their children and fix their family problems must get back to a Bible-based formula for child rearing.

Family was created by God. And God has an incredible purpose for this institution that few understand. God wants every human being to be born into His own divine Family (e.g. Genesis 1:26; John 3:1-8). He is a Father, and He wants His children raised to meet their potential!

Living Without Spanking

Knowingly or not, Siegel makes an important point all parents, but especially American parents, need to think deeply about. After referring to the use of the Bible to support physical punishment, he said, “Kids need discipline. How and when did this change for so many Americans?” At one time, especially in America, parents did rely on the Bible to instruct them how to raise families. Our Founding Fathers built a societal foundation predicated on families following the principles of the Bible to live, grow and build a successful nation. Our generation has lost sight of this primary American value.

What is the result? Our families are dysfunctional, and the nation they constitute is now in obvious and serious decline. America has become a nation living without more than spanking. We are a nation guilty of allowing our children to comfort, teach and nurture themselves. In bitterness and resentment, our children have become our oppressors (Isaiah 3:12). Study this verse. It is more than a condemnation of children—it is an indictment against parents who fail to build proper families.

The Bible is full of examples of what happens to families and nations that desire to live without godly spanking and the love, teaching, chastening, guiding and nurturing that goes with it. Study the life of our first parents, Adam and Eve. They chose to disbelieve God, and they ended up raising a delinquent son who murdered his brother (Genesis 3 and 4).

This common tragedy of dysfunctional parenting does not have to happen to you and your family.

Request a free copy of Herbert W. Armstrong’s groundbreaking classic book The Incredible Human Potential. This book will reveal to you the true nature of God and His purpose for the human family. If you want to do further study on proper ways to rear children, request a free subscription to the Royal Vision magazine. You can also visit our informative website featuring hundreds of articles on Christian living subjects such as child rearing at www.pcog.org.