What the Bible and Science Say About Spanking Kids | Sojourners

What the Bible and Science Say About Spanking Kids

A wooden paddle similar to those used for corporal punishment sits on a wooden bench. Photo by photosofkorea via Unsplash. 

Many of today’s parents of young children represent a culture shift in regard to corporal punishment. Statistically, many of them were spanked as children but won’t continue that practice in their own parenting. Since the late 1990s, a growing body of research has led experts to advise against spanking, and parents have started to listen. But one group in particular stands by the practice: Christians.

While support for spanking is decreasing among all parents in the U.S., including “born-again Christians,” a 2021 study found that those who attend regular religious services were among the most likely subgroups to approve of spanking.

The gap isn’t a mystery, either, it’s still easy to find Bible-based guidance advocating corporal punishment as a way of showing that actions have consequences and obedience is serious business.

Christian parents are told that, “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them,” (Proverbs 13:24), which may seem to pit religious tradition against science when it comes to disciplining children. But William J. Webb, an adjunct professor at Tyndale University and author of the book Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts , said using Proverbs and other passages to prop up spanking shows a misunderstanding of how scripture should be applied in the life of modern-day Christians.

“If you want to understand scripture properly — not in a static hermeneutic — you have to see the redemptive movement,” Webb said.

He said that the Bible, written in a violent world, frequently recommends punishments and practices that may sound harsh to modern ears. But in context, Webb said, scripture displays incremental steps toward nonviolence that would have seemed radical in their day. Webb doesn’t think Christians should freeze those ancient practices in place, instead they should look at the violence of modern context and ask how to take the next incremental step toward nonviolence.

That includes looking at disciplining children, he said. As parents establish an ethic in their home, he advocates for alternatives to corporal punishment. “Why would you not want to go to a nonviolent method?”

He’s sensitive to the argument that other methods don’t work, which is why the last third of his book is dedicated to practical examples — supported by his wife Marilyn who is a nurse and educator — of how to get children to obey without physically hurting or threatening them. Children can be steered by improved nutrition and sleep, deescalation tactics, and meaningful reward systems. The key is being strategic and proactive so that the situations that lead children to violate the rules — because they are young and impulsive — come up less.

He also recommends having a plan in place for when they fail — a logical consequence consistently applied. Kids will mess up, and the more strategic a parent’s response, the more effective it will be in preventing a repeat offense or the kind of pushback that leads to temper flare-ups and intensifying consequences.

The evidence against spanking’s effectiveness

Hitting a child may seem to get an instant result, said Jorge Cuartas, a researcher at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, but those results can’t really be trusted as positive outcomes.

“It is quite obvious that any human being will stop a behavior if they are hit or receive any form of physical punishment,” Cuartas said. “However, the real question is not whether a slap can stop an immediate behavior, but whether it instills positive behavior in the long-term. The evidence is conclusive in showing it does not.”

Cuartas’ research shows that, on the contrary, the neurobiological effects of physical discipline were similar to those in children who grew up with severe maltreatment. The chemicals and activation in their brain led to increased perception of threats. The stress and vigilance disrupt social emotional development and often lead to more unwanted behaviors. In some cases, he said, the message that gets through in spite of the parent’s verbal instruction and explanation, is that violence solves problems.

Advocates of spanking usually recommend hugs and calm, loving reconciliation after the spanking, as well as parents taking time to calm down and ensure that they are not spanking children in anger. But none of those recommendations affect the brain activity of a child who is spanked, Cuartas and his colleagues observed. In other words, while a parent may feel a distinction between a lovingly administered spanking and child abuse, the child’s brain does not.

“There is extensive evidence linking all forms of physical punishment, even those that are ‘mild’ and are followed by positive affection, with detrimental developmental outcomes,” he said.

Even with this overwhelming evidence, however, Cuartas knows that physical punishment is not an easy practice to end.

“Physical punishment has profound historical, social, and family-level roots,” he said. “This practice has been used since ancient times — not only against children, but also against women and as a punishment for certain crimes.”

Webb too pointed out that to be literally biblical in the application would require corporal punishment to extend well beyond gentle swats to toddlers and into public beatings.

It’s not just religion making spanking so persistent. Like many family customs, spanking is handed down from generation to generation, Cuartas said. Violence is normalized in some cultures, and parents often aren’t informed or trained in alternatives. All of this is heightened when parents themselves are under stress. Any effort to educate and inform parents in other methods would be enhanced by other systemic supports to increase wellbeing in the entire household.

“The first step is to understand that parents usually want the best for their children, so we need to stop blaming parents and instead understand the historical, cultural, and social roots of physical punishment,” Cuartas said.

For Webb, the combined trajectory of nonviolence in scripture and the evidence against spanking’s effectiveness should lead parents to avoid corporal punishment.

“Do something that works,” he said.