In 2016 a study released by child development and family science experts from The University of Texas at Austin revealed that spanking is closely associated with anti-social, aggressive behavior, depression and anxiety, and an increased risk of thirteen detrimental outcomes. News articles linked on social media are rife with emotionally-driven debate.
How should Christian parents respond to studies that say spanking is harmful?
FIRST, LET’S TALK ABOUT HOW THEY SHOULD NOT RESPOND.
1. Christian parents should not dismiss the evidence on account of their own emotional comfort. Facing articles and reports that feel condemning of your own childhood or your own parenting is emotionally difficult. We must keep in mind that ignoring scientific evidence because it makes us uncomfortable is merely willful ignorance. It is neither intellectually honest nor God-honoring.
2. Christian parents must not perpetuate easily dispelled myths about not spanking. This is, at its core, bearing false witness, which God’s people are commanded not to do. Some myths that are easily refuted:
Myth: Young adults today are so disrespectful because they weren’t spanked/Prisons are filled with adults who weren’t spanked as children.
Fact: In 1999 A study revealed that 94% of parents had utilized spanking by the time their child was preschool age. In 2011 a study corroborated these findings stating that 50% of children had been spanked by the time they were twenty months old. Further, college students who were spanked as children are more likely to engage in illegal behavior.
Myth: Countries that have banned spanking have higher crime rates.
Crimes rates, gun ownership rates, and prison populations have all fallen in countries that have banned spanking, and at a sharper rate than in places without such laws.
Myth: The studies are all flawed and do not differentiate between spanking and abuse. Fact: While there are limitations to any meta-analysis, most recent studies do make a clear distinction between “appropriate” spanking (occurring as rarely as twice a month), and abusive physical punishment that leaves bruises.
3. Christian parents must not claim that because they turned out fine all children who were/are spanked will turn out fine. 17 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with a mental disorder (ADHD, depression, anxiety, and/or behavior problems). The association between spanking and mental/behavior issues is more solid than the association between secondhand smoke and lung cancer. We cannot project our own outcomes on those of the upcoming generation.
SO HOW SHOULD CHRISTIAN PARENTS RESPOND TO THESE STUDIES?
1. We must remember that God is the Creator of science. He not only created the brain, but He also created us with the ability to learn and evaluate evidence. Advancement in science (especially neurobiology) is a gift from our Creator to help us understand His creation.
2. We must admit that spanking is a cultural tradition, not a Biblical mandate. Nowhere in Scripture are parents commanded to spank their children. (We suggest that even the handful of verses in Proverbs are not speaking of using a rod on children but on young adults.) Modern-day spanking is merely a tradition of men that has been taught by leading Christian parenting gurus for less than 100 years.
3. We must recognize that spanking and discipline are not synonymous. While the evidence is clear that spanking has negative long-term outcomes, we cannot throw out all discipline. Children need teaching, guiding, rebuking, correcting, and discipline. They need the opportunity to experience consequences, and to make things right when it is within their power to do so. The root of discipline is disciple. We must be diligent to disciple our children and not fall into permissive (often equally detrimental) parenting.
4. We must look for alternative ways to discipline (disciple) our children that align with Scripture. This can be tricky, and even frustrating when spanking is all we know. Thankfully there are many Scripturally-sound resources out there! We recommend:
Heartfelt Discipline by Clay Clarkson (affiliate link)
The Connected Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis(affiliate link)
- Spanking and Child Outcomes: Old Controversies and New Meta-Analyses
- Does Outlawing Spanking Lower the Crime Rate Years Later?
- College students more likely to be lawbreakers if spanked as children
- Spanking children: Why does it happen and how does it affect development?
- Corporal Punishment by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, Severity, and Duration, in Relation to Child and Family Characteristics
- Data and Statistics on Children’s Mental Health