The Common Good
April 2005

Use the Rod, Spoil the Child

by David Batstone | April 2005

Is corporal punishment the proper way to nurture moral character?

Joey Salvati,

Joey Salvati, a father of two from New Kensington, Pennsylvania, wants to help you raise your children into moral, responsible, Christian adults. A carpenter by trade, Salvati has designed two wooden spanking paddles. You can choose which device better fits your needs at his Web site, Spare-rods.com. With the purchase of each paddle Salvati even throws in a guidebook detailing the number of swats each violation might merit: one for disrespectful behavior, two for cursing, three for cheating or lying. He offers advice for the demeanor of the parent as well: "Use [my paddles] lovingly and NEVER in anger."

"Spare the rod, spoil the child" has long been invoked by Christian parents as a foundation for proper child raising. The concept does indeed have a biblical grounding. The book of Proverbs instructs, "He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him properly." Then again, the Old Testament suggests other guidelines for meting out punishment - stoning to death a woman caught having sex outside of marriage, for instance - that we today consider barbaric.

An evangelical justification for the physical discipline of children goes deeper than a few isolated verses in the Bible, however. Many evangelicals believe that because children are born with the stain of original sin, they cannot help but rebel against what is right and good. In other words, it is in the nature of children to do wrong. The threat (and practice) of pain, in this view, is the only tool that will steer children toward the good. James Dobson expresses the view well on the Focus on the Family Web site: "Corporal punishment, when used lovingly and properly, is beneficial to the child because it is in harmony with nature itself."

It should be noted that not only Christians are strong proponents of corporal punishment. In a national poll conducted by ABC News a few years ago, two out of three Americans stated their approval of corporal punishment as a means of discipline, according to a recent front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle.

I MYSELF am the product of an evangelical church where my parents were encouraged to use physical discipline to keep my siblings and me on the straight and narrow. The tool of instruction in our home was my father’s belt. My mother would occasionally swat us on the behind, though her response to most misdemeanors was a daunting threat: "Just wait until your father comes home." My brother and I (our sister, oddly enough, was spared the ultimate punishment) knew what that meant: THE BELT would make its appearance.

Honestly, I do not hold bitter feelings toward my parents today. Perhaps, in part, I realize that my parents really did not have their heart in the beatings. When we heard my father’s car pull into the driveway, my brother and I would jump into our bed and pull pillows on top of our bodies. My dad would get the report from our mother, make his way into our room, take off his belt, and deliver the requisite number of cracks. The pillows softened nearly every blow. My brother and I thought we were fooling my dad, but once I got older it dawned on me that he clearly knew what we were doing, but was trying to carry out his parental "duty as a Christian" while inflicting minimal pain on his sons.

I today am a father of four children, the oldest 14 years old. I do not hit them, spank them, or whip them. I simply do not believe that corporal punishment is the proper way to nurture moral character. Violence may induce fear, and therefore compliance, but it is unlikely to enable conscience.

Don’t get me wrong. My wife and I do offer a clear structure for our children, and we do deliver consequences when they cross our boundaries. I have friends who believe that children already know how they should behave, so the best thing that parents can do is to get out of the way. Everything in my experience suggests otherwise. Kids crave discipline and direction, even if they are compelled to push the envelope.

I punish my children at times - with a loud voice of disapproval, timeouts in their rooms, or taking away privileges. At the same time, I try to help them think through why they made the wrong choice and the results of that choice. But frankly, I have come to see that my consistent expressions of approval are more powerful motivators for helping them nurture their moral character. Expressing to each child personally how proud you are when they act responsibly in particular situations helps build lifelong habits. Honoring each act before the entire family further reinforces the ethic toward which we strive.

"Perfect love casts out all fear" - that is a biblical mandate for raising healthy children.

David Batstone is executive editor at Sojourners.

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