There’s a Reason Evangelicals Justify Spanking as Punishment

In my parents’ bedroom, several paddles hung on the side of my mom’s dresser. Some were vented with holes and others were solid. Which one hurt the least to be smacked with on our clothed, pantied, or sometimes naked bottom was a point of deliberation for my sister and I — but they all hurt.

Spanking was a last-resort punishment in my family. It wasn’t an expression of anger, but thoughtful and premeditated. In fact, spanking your children is still endorsed by evangelical authority Focus on the Family, which calls it both biblical and non-violent (meanwhile, spanking is banned in 52 countries).

The reason why spanking endures amongst evangelicals, despite research proving it to be harmful, may have less to do with a specific Bible verse and more with an overarching theology of what characterizes a loving God.

I didn’t question my parents’ methods until recently. As I’ve pursued therapy to unwind my fears, anxieties, and resistance to attachment, I found myself reading studies on spanking and concluding my parents made the wrong call. Maybe you have a similar story.

Here are the affirmations I am using to reframe the use of spanking as punishment.

Spanking Has Similar Results as Abuse

Several years ago, a friend asked me if I had been abused while we were walking home in the dark from a bar together. “Absolutely not!” I said.

“You were. I was abused and I can see the behaviors in you,” she insisted.

At the time I was appalled and defensive for my parents, who I considered to be the model of good, responsible parenting.

Based on results of five decades of research involving over 160,000 children, researcher and university professor Elizabeth Gershoff says, “Spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree.”

Spanking may result in immediate compliance (good for parents) but doesn’t help kids learn self-control — on the contrary, it actually is associated with less grey matter in the brain, making it harder for kids to balance risks and rewards. Kids learn to be controlled by external forces but not how to make decisions.

I was always a well-behaved child. But, I remember in 6th grade when a teacher called me out for making a mistake in front of the class, I immediately teared up, and couldn’t look her in the eye when she found me after school to apologize. Even recently, I remember freezing when I thought my boss was criticizing what I was wearing at a conference. I may be shy by nature — perhaps that’s genetic — but I also see in myself a fear of authority that I attribute to spanking.

The Bible Is Not Prescriptive

In my journey away from evangelicalism, two of my big epiphanies were preserving context around Bible verses and realizing not all words in the Bible are prescriptive.

For example, would we take Naomi’s words to Ruth and say widows or even all women should seduce a rich man while he’s drunk to get their needs taken care of? We would not, because the cultural context has changed (women can have jobs now) and by forcing a modern application out of the story, you lose the greater meaning.

“Spare the rod and spoil the child” (Proverbs 13:24) was cited by my parents as the biblical justification for spanking.

But, if you aren’t using a literal rod, you are already interpreting, toning down, and dare I say — diluting.

Yes, Proverbs is referred to as a book of wisdom — but Jonathan Merritt calls it “general wisdom rather than universal commands.”

Wisdom itself is defined as good judgement. Refusing to change your ways after both science and personal anecdote prove the harmful effects of spanking is not wise.

My Parents Had Good Intentions

When I was spanked, my mom used to say, “This hurts me more than it hurts you.” I believe she thought she was helping me and perhaps this discipline would make me a better person.Even as a small child, I heard those words and knew she was wrong. Spanking hurt me both physically and emotionally.

How could a loving parent hit their children? Perhaps it’s the same as a loving God who sends his creation to hell if they don’t believe just the right things. I’ve long since rejected the concept of hell. But I believe this nuanced view of a loving God who would punishes with eternal torment is what allows otherwise-sensible evangelicals to justify spanking their children.

I am not a parent, but I know parents have to make a million decisions a day and no matter what you do, your children will grow up with their share of issues. This is simply the world we live in.

I’ve spoken to parents who spanked their children and now feel a horrible sense of shame.

Yes — spanking is associated with mental health problems and diminished IQ, among other things. But, kids are remarkably resilient.

Think about the relationship you want to have with your kids, and what actions, words, and activities can create it. There is no time like the present to commit to healthy attachment styles.

If you are a parent of young children, consider this perspective on childhood behavior from The Book of Life:

“What we call naughtiness is really an early exploration of authenticity and independence. As former naughty children, we can be more creative because we can try out ideas that don’t instantly meet with approval; we can make a mistake or a mess or look ridiculous and it won’t be a disaster. Things can be repaired or improved.”