Spare the spanking, respect the child

by Heidi Schlumpf

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I was reading my 5- and 6-year-olds a vintage book of kids' poems when we came across a stanza with the word "spanking."

"What's a spanking?" asked my son, who not only has never received a spanking, but apparently had never even heard the word.

When I explained that some parents use hitting to punish or teach their children, he was aghast. Not only was it hard for him to fathom this method of discipline, but he could not see how it would work.

Wrinkling his forehead in confusion, he asked: "How can parents hit, when they are telling their kids not to hit?"


Corporal punishment is once again in the news, after Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was indicted on felony child abuse charges in September. Peterson allegedly caused bruises and cuts to his 4-year-old son after using a "switch" or tree branch to beat the child. Although he apologized for the injuries to that child, he defended his use of corporal punishment.

In a statement, Peterson said he "never imagined being in a position where the world is judging my parenting skills or calling me a child abuser because of the discipline I administered to my son."

It's not just because I'm a Packers fan that I disagree with Peterson -- and those who came to his defense. It's because I'm a Christian.

Perhaps it's to be expected that some NFL players stepped up to defend one of their own, one player even boasting about his use of corporal punishment on an infant. Nor was I surprised that many callers to radio talk shows -- even those who said they do not use corporal punishment themselves -- defended parents' right to use it. After all, some 90 percent of American families report having used spanking as a means of discipline at some time, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

What really surprises and shocks me, however, is when Christians defend corporal punishment -- and Christians are some of its most vocal defenders.

For example, the evangelical Christian organization Focus on the Family, whose founder, James Dobson, promoted corporal punishment in his book Dare to Discipline, continues that legacy. In a TIME magazine article, Dr. Jared Pingleton, director of Focus on the Family's counseling department, argued that spanking is not only appropriate, it is "loving."

Many Christian corporal punishment supporters cite the well-known Proverbs verse: "Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them" (13:24). But Pingleton quoted Hebrews: "No discipline seems enjoyable at the time, but painful. Later on however, it yields the fruit of peace and righteousness to those who have been trained by it" (Hebrews 12:11).

A parenting philosophy that emphasizes children's submission to parental authority -- even by newborn infants -- has been taken to a sometimes lethal extreme by adherents of the On Becoming Baby Wise sleep training method and the To Train Up a Child discipline method. Both books are written by evangelical Christians and emphasize strict parental control. The former has resulted in failure to thrive and malnutrition, while the latter has been implicated in the deaths of three children.

It seems to me that followers of the Prince of Peace should be practicing peace in their everyday lives, including in their parenting. Now, I readily admit that I'm not a perfect parent and regularly fail in my attempts to parent peacefully. But I believe that parenting without anger and physical punishment is an ideal worth striving for -- and is consistent with Jesus' overall message to love one another and eschew violence.

Interestingly, secular culture seems to be leading the way on this issue. As adoptive parents in the state of Illinois, my husband and I were required to promise not to use corporal punishment as part of the paperwork that determined our ability to adopt, and physical punishment is banned in foster care in all 50 states. It is allowed in schools in 19 states, however, according to the Center for Effective Discipline, which seeks to end corporal punishment.

The American Academy of Pediatrics points out that corporal punishment is not only less effective than other forms of discipline or punishment, but has other negative consequences as well, including aggressive behavior on the part of the child, a negatively altered parent-child relationship and the likelihood that the punishment will lead to injury or abuse, as in the Peterson case.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the Peterson story broke just weeks after another NFL controversy in which Baltimore Raven Ray Rice was suspended after evidence of domestic violence against his wife surfaced. Both forms of violence are remnants of patriarchy, in which men literally owned their slaves, wife and children -- and were free to mete out physical punishment to all three.

Some Catholic leaders have spoken out against corporal punishment, including family expert Dr. Gregory Popcak, who calls it a sin or at least an occasion of sin. A few years ago, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory Aymond also spoke out against it -- and received a ton of backlash. I believe churches should lead the way on putting corporal punishment where it belongs -- in the history books.

[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University outside Chicago. She is the author of While We Wait: Spiritual and Practice Advice for Those Trying to Adopt (ACTA).]

A version of this story appeared in the Oct 10-23, 2014 print issue under the headline: Spare the spanking; respect the child.

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