Should we ban corporal punishment?

Posted on November 30, 2011 at 11:20 am,

Today we’re continuing our series critiquing Wayne Grudem’s book Politics According to the Bible. Today we’re looking at Chapter 8: The Family, and its section on corporal punishment. For clarity’s sake, Grudem repeatedly uses the word “spanking” which has a rather different meaning this side of the Atlantic (if you don’t know what that meaning is, let’s just say it’s not appropriate to use it when talking about children). So to avoid people getting the wrong idea, I’m going to use the UK term “smacking”, which carries the same meaning as Americans have when they use the word “spanking”.

The principle of discipline

Grudem starts by looking at the Biblical principle of discipline. There are many Biblical passages that tell parents to discipline their children (e.g. Ephesians 6:4, Hebrews 12:9-11), and I doubt there are many parents who would disagree with that principle. Grudem, however, asserts that the Bible teaches that discipline should include corporal punishment. He cites Proverbs 13:24, 22:15, 23:13-14, 29:15 as examples. All of these proverbs refer to corporal punishment (“the rod”) as a way of ensuring that children get the discipline they need.

Grudem’s weakness here is that he does not deal with the argument that these passages do not require Christian parents to use corporate punishment. The argument, as usually put, is that all of these verses come from Proverbs. And the usual interpretation of this book is that we take the principle that is being applied, but not necessarily the specific application. For example, Proverbs 25:24 says

It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.

Most of us would interpret that as “try to resolve arguments and live in peace with your husband/wife”, rather than “if you get into too many arguments with your husband/wife go and live on the roof”. Applying this to the verses Grudem quotes, it is not necessary to take “the rod” as requiring that Christians include corporal punishment as part of their discipline. Although, equally, it makes it pretty much impossible for Christians to argue that corporal punishment is necessarily bad for children.

What effect does corporal punishment have?

Grudem points out that laws banning corporal punishment do not necessarily prevent genuine child abuse, saying that assaults by adults against children between the ages of 1 and 6 quadrupled between 1984 and 1994 in Sweden despite a law banning smacking.

He also says that studies claiming that smacking is harmful to children are based on very poor methodology. In particular, he cites a 1993 study that showed that, of 132 studies that supposedly documented negative effects of smacking, only 24 had any empirical data. And 23 of those had ambiguous wording and broad definitions that encompassed both clear-cut child abuse (such as pouring boiling water over a child) and the responsible discipline that those on the pro-smacking side argue for (a light smack with a hand or blunt instrument).

Grudem also cites a claim by Gene Edward Veith (Culture editor of World Magazine) that not smacking a child could be considered child abuse. Veith’s argument is, essentially, that because children are learning that adults will not use force against them in any circumstances, they can then ignore those in authority, and hence learn how to misbehave, rather than to behave.

Finally, he takes the assumptions underlying the view that smacking is bad to task, pointing out that many on that side of the argument start with the assumption that children (and human beings in general) start out as basically good, rather than human beings having the tendency towards evil that the Bible establishes. He also believes that some on that side oppose the idea of parental authority – either a dislike of authority in general, or a belief that right and wrong are entirely down to the individual.

So is he right?

I’m not convinced that Grudem is right to say that smacking is a necessary part of disciplining children, but (unless there’s evidence both he and I are unaware of) he’s certainly right that the evidence for it being harmful is inconclusive at best, and that the view you take on this issue tends to reflect aspects of your worldview, rather than anything else. He is certainly right that the people who want to ban smacking in order to prevent real child abuse are aiming at the wrong target. Those prosecuted under such laws would most likely be either a handful of parents who continue to use smacking as the punishment of last resort, or those who at some point lose patience with their kids (which is an experience common to the vast majority of parents) and smack them in a momentary loss of self-control. Genuine child abusers would continue to cover their tracks in the same way they do under existing laws in both the UK and the US.

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