You may have noticed that discipline is a fairly controversial topic in our day. If you watch a news digest program regularly, you'll eventually see a story that somehow involves spanking — either about someone who was abused as a child or someone who is in trouble for abusing their children. The subject is almost always treated with suspicion or even horror, as though anyone who spanks a child is unenlightened and barbaric. It is rarely presented as rational and frequently portrayed in its extremes. And yet the Bible, which quite a few of us still believe is true, says things like "Do not spare the rod." How are we to sort out the controversy and be obedient to God?
Actions and words — it all goes back to those two Hebrew words, yasar and yakach.1 The concept of yasar is chastisement, and it almost always implies something physical. Proverbs 13:24 is clear: "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him." It doesn't say the one who spares the rod has the wrong opinion about discipline, it says he hates his son. Proverbs 22:15 is also clear: "Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him." A lot of people may not like those verses, but the Bible doesn't really give us the option of picking our favorites and ignoring the ones we don't like. These are part of the inspired Word of God, and we have to approach them that way.
Though spanking is controversial, I would suggest that there are, in fact, times when it's appropriate to spank your kids. I understand that for some parents, that's hard; discipline is not for the faint of heart. You don't need to spank very often, especially if you do it properly and early in their lives. At certain ages and in certain circumstances, spanking is the most effective — and compassionate — approach you can take.
For example, you may have told your nine-year-old son that you don't want him hanging out at the home of the kid who lives three doors down. You know the parents are often away and that alcohol is available and guns aren't locked away. Say that God graciously ordains, as He often does for parents, that you drive by at the exact moment your son is coming out of the front door of that house. You make it very clear to your son that if he ever does that again, there will be an uncomfortable consequence, and he knows exactly what you mean when you say that. A couple of days later, you drive by and see him coming out of that house again. What do you do?
You have to follow through on your word and impose the expected consequence. Children go through various phases of rebellious attitudes, such as talking back, lying, and stealing, and even though they know where the boundaries are, they'll cross them to see what happens. When we as parents fail to follow up consistently with firm, concrete discipline, it makes our children very insecure.
In one way or another, every child will fight this battle with his parent. The earlier you win that battle, the better, both for your sanity and your child's. You can win it when your kids are toddlers, or you can wait and try to win it when they're teenagers. Victory comes a lot easier when a child is two, and it's more quickly accomplished at that age when you use spanking, appropriately and lovingly applied, to enforce it.
Using "battle" terminology when talking about discipline may seem harsh to some, but from all the psychological research I've done, a clear and controlled spanking is far less damaging to a child than the repeated yelling and screaming a lot of parents go through. It's also far less damaging than the ambiguous boundaries and mixed messages a lot of parents give their children. When a child knows he's done something wrong — something that is clearly forbidden — and is spanked for that wrong, shown love, prayed with, restored, and allowed to proceed with a clean conscience, he experiences much less trauma than the child whose parents don't know how to enforce discipline.
In contrast, when a child is sent to her room for a time-out, the measure of discipline is more protracted. The message usually isn't as clear, the resolution is often more uncertain, and the opportunity to cleanse the conscience isn't immediate. There's less sense of closure. Sometimes it may be a good first consequence when verbal instructions are ignored — I don't encourage spanking as a necessary first resort in every situation, since a loss of privileges or a time-out can often get your point across — but I don't believe parents should be afraid of applying physical punishment in a godly way. The idea ingrained in some people that time-outs are always better than spankings is a false assumption.
I want to be very clear that discipline never involves slapping or hitting a child. Anyone who has a problem with this needs to get help immediately. If you come from an abusive background, the last thing you want to do is continue the cycle with your children. If that is your situation, let me strongly encourage you to swallow your pride, override your fear, and do whatever it takes to protect your kids from physical abuse. Also, remember it's never appropriate to spank babies or toddlers younger than fifteen to eighteen months of age. Even shaking a very young child can lead to brain damage or death.
Spanking — not slapping or hitting — should always be done by a parent who is in control of his or her emotions. In our home, we used a wooden spoon to spank. My kids dreaded seeing the wooden spoon coming, but they never had to dread the hand of Mom or Dad. Our hands were used exclusively for loving touches, caresses, and hugs; an inanimate spoon was the object of discipline. That may seem like hairsplitting to some, but I believe that in the psyche of the child, there's a tremendous difference. Scripture makes a strong case for the use of appropriate spanking, and it also identifies an object (the rod) as the tool. Some may believe that the rod implies discipline of any kind. All I know is that using an object fits with biblical instruction, and I'm much more comfortable reserving my hands for loving touches.
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