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If Thou Beatest Him With A Rod...

Science shows: spanking actually works!

By Lee Tydings  |  October 13, 2010

While we were looking into scientific proof of the accuracy of what the Bible teaches about public health and about marriage, someone suggested that it might be worthwhile also to verify what the Bible says about child rearing.  Most of what the Bible teaches such as assigning parents primary responsibility for their children's welfare is relatively uncontroversial, but punishment has become a hot-button issue.  As one of the sub-themes of the culture wars, the topic of corporal punishment of children - in a word, spanking - has generated considerable heat but not much light over the last few decades.

The Bible and other religious writings command devout parents to spank their children to save their souls from hell among other undesirable outcomes, but this practice has been criticized by the social-worker community.  Despite many court cases affirming parents' right to spank, the Center for Effective Discipline has been trying since 1998 to get laws passed to criminalize corporal punishment, for example.

The Harvard View of Spanking

Ruth and Henry Kempe, a husband and wife team of teachers at Harvard, were perhaps the most vivid early opponents of spanking.  Widely read among social workers, their views have shaped legislative and agency views of spanking as just another form of child abuse.  These quotes from their book Child Abuse gives you the general flavor of academic opposition to spanking:

Parents, teachers, and ministers alike have believed that the only cure for the "foolishness bound up in the heart of a child" was repression by the rod, and "beating the devil out of him" is still a common expression today. p 4

The Kempes had a pretty accurate understanding of the sense of Proverbs 23:14 which says, "Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell," but they seem to have overlooked the part of the passage which points out why it's OK to beat a child:

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell - Proverbs 23:13-14

These thoughts are at least 3,500 years old; presumably in all that time, if children were dropping dead on every side from spankings, it might have occurred to the sages to revise or clarify their remarks.  Instead, somewhat later on the scene, we have the Kempes:

But values are clearly changing.  The same act that might have met with applause from clergymen one hundred years ago must be referred to the authorities for criminal justice today.  p 6

A doctor should think of abuse every time he sees an injured child.  p 66

There is a group [of abusive parents] amounting to perhaps 10 percent of the total, who are seriously mentally ill--too seriously, in fact, for any treatment to be possible.  For these, there is only one alternative--to end the caregiving relationship by placing the child with relatives or in permanent foster care, or by formally terminating parental rights, to be followed by adoption.  This 10 percent is made up of 4 groups...  p 68

A final 2 or 3 percent who are seriously mentally ill are the "fanatics."  This group includes a great variety of people who use religious or other terms to justify beliefs and approaches to child rearing that to the rest of the world seem clearly and wholly irrationalp 69

We recommend early termination of parental rights, instead of prolonged effort at treatment, when parents are members of one of the four groups described in Chapter 6. p 104  [emphasis added]

The Kempes argued that any parent who is convinced that God requires that parents spank their children as a means of raising them into responsible adulthood is self-evidently a mentally-ill, irrational fanatic who should have parental rights terminated immediately so that their children can be put up for adoption or into foster care.  Thus, modern social-work principles as exemplified by the Kempes are in direct and irreconcilable conflict with the right to free exercise of religion, right to privacy, and any right to autonomy of the family.

To a social worker, any belief that a 3,000 year-old book contains child-rearing principles which are of more value than modern scientific research is "wholly irrational."  The marriage counselors who criticized black Christian women for restricting their dating pool probably feel that the women are being equally irrational for wanting to date only Christian men on much the same basis.

Apply the Board of Education to the Seat of Learning.
Repeat as necessary.

Spanking Works!

Bible believers are getting the last laugh, however.  Newsweek, which is as politically-correct a publication as any, wrote about a recent study which compared parenting outcomes where children were spanked with children who were not spanked:

New research shows that now up to 25% of kids are never spanked, so it's a fair question: How are they turning out? Are they turning out better? Surprisingly, they're not.

What she [the author of the study] discovered was another shocker: those who'd been spanked just when they were young-ages 2 to 6-were doing a little better as teenagers than those who'd never been spanked. On almost every measure.  [emphasis added]

Having been exposed to decades of propaganda to the effect that corporal punishment is child abuse, the Newsweek writers were understandably floored to find out that corporal punishment has positive effects when administered properly.

The Kempes were somewhat premature in arguing that "values are clearly changing" with respect to corporal punishment back in 1978.  The Newsweek article reports that part of the reason it took so long to do any definitive research on spanking versus not spanking was that more than 90% of children had been spanked.  It was only recently that researchers could find a control group of kids who had never been spanked with whom to do a comparison.

No Christian would be surprised to find out that the non-spanked kids didn't do as well, nor find our recent problems with youth delinquency unexpected, but it's interesting to hear science now admitting the same.

How to Spank

Unfortunately, anecdotal evidence suggests that most parents spank in anger instead of rational justice.  They don't use spanking as a means of consistently correcting their children, instead ignoring misbehavior until frustration builds to the point that they lash out.

This sort of anger-driven spanking isn't what the ancient writers had in mind.  This passage states that a father's discipline should be reasonable enough that the children recognize the justice of his position rather than becoming angry.

Honor thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth. And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. - Ephesians 6:2-4

Children are supposed to honor and obey their parents, but parents are supposed to be reasonable.  Note that nurture - that is, love-based caregiving - and admonition - which includes correction and spanking - come in that order.  Nuture comes first, which means that fathers should spank in a calm and sane manner, emphasizing the seriousness of the situation after explaining why it matters.  Spanking without explanation not only makes children angry, they become discouraged, thinking there's nothing they can do to please their parents.

Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.  - Colossians 3:21

Given all the wrong ways there are to spank children, it's no wonder that it took the social work community a while to get at the truth that prudent spanking improves outcomes.  It took more than 3,500 years for the concepts of quarantine, avoiding corpses, hand washing, and circumcision to be accepted by the medical community after they were commanded in scripture; it's no surprise that it took even longer for researchers to admit that spanking works.

Scientists have found that Biblical teaching about spanking is in fact true; can the same be said for the Biblical teaching about capital punishment?

Whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man.  - Genesis 9:6

For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same: For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.  - Romans 13:3-4

The available research suggests that capital punishment does deter murder in that each execution saves the lives of five people.  This research will probably be just as hard for our politicians to accept as research about spanking, but it's true nevertheless.