Corporal Punishment of Children in the Covenant of Grace (5/5)

The relationship children have with parents is not simple and there is concern that too much blame is placed on corporal punishment when it is unlikely responsible for how a child develops and behaves. Additionally, findings of correlation do not prove causation, Gershoff warns.(1) It is difficult to find causation, however many advocates against corporal punishment will make statements confusing causality and correlation. Thus experts and non-experts must speak with caution when making conclusive statements while the field is far from conclusive on finding causation.(2) The current position by Gershoff is that till the effects of corporal punishment is seen by researches, clinicians, and parents producing positive effects not just the absence of negative effects, it cannot be recommended by psychologists.(3) Recent research found that reasoning “backed-up” by a form of corporal punishment is effective at preventing future misbehaviors but this may tend to verbal abuse.(4)

Parents can become verbally abusive when threatening or insulting children to motivate certain behaviors. It is found that parents who use corporal punishment tend to yell and result in a cluster of harmful techniques used.(5) The unintentional child abuse can result either from verbal abuse that is fueled by anger or it can occur when it is thought that corporal punishment is the best way to deal with misbehavior. The result is however, that the relationship between the child and the parent becomes tainted, though not severed.(6) Those parents who tend to be more naturally aggressive will more than likely use corporal punishment, therefore there is a call for parents to understand their own temperaments before disciplining.(7) The effects on children can also vary based on ages. According to Gershoff, children who are young (3-5) may comply due to their fear of punishment, while older children who are angered by corporal punishment may defy.(8)

In the Christian community there have been many works published on corporal punishment. Many have even devised a system such as the popular “two-smacks max” method James Dobson has notarized.(9) Many in the non-Christian community have promoted a system of non-corporal punishment.(10) However, in Christian parenting lives of the covenant home should look different from the world. When children are in sin their discipline should be rooted in the Scriptures and not solely rooted in a lecture of rules. We must remember that we are raising and discipling Christians who are still young. The basis of making our children good Christians has to be rooted in the Gospel otherwise it will be only Law that we tell them.(11) Even when Christian parents have good intentions and decide to lecture their child rather than use corporal punishment. If the basis of their behavior is Law then the burden will make our children miserable. We must remind them constantly of the Gospel and the great salvation they have in Jesus, then remind them of their duty to live in obedience to that (Titus 2:11-14). They are Christians not unbelievers out of the Covenant of Grace. They need to be reminded of God’s grace and to be in reliance on him alone. The goodness of our children is ultimately established in the righteousness of Jesus not in their own efforts. The constant reminder is to steer Christians to Christ and our children are no different. As God is gracious to us, so should we be to our child. Fitzpatrick states if a toddler falls on the ground and cries over an object and continues to try to grab it a firm no and a smack on the hand are appropriate.(12) However I disagree. Her rationale is that since a child is not able to understand therefore we must spank or inflict pain to teach. When children are older as Dobson points out, then spanking should wear off because then children can be reasoned with. If Christian children cannot be reasoned with then he supports spanking with this form of discipline fading around the age of 6-10 as it looses its effectiveness.(13)

A common anti-hitting argument is “Hitting teaches hitting.” An argument that I am not persuaded by. There is a difference between hitting in anger and spanking as punishment. The focus should be for covenant homes to be a place that incorporates non-physical forms of corporal punishment using consequences that would be natural or punitive (time-outs). One of the problems with the reasoning of Fitzpatrick is that we would never carry that logic forward to an adult or a child who lacked reasoning capacity. If a child couldn’t reason, inflicting pain doesn’t seem to make sense. Her basis for spanking was that the bible commands it but as demonstrated previously this is simply not the case.

Christians are not under a moral obligation to incorporate spanking into their disciplining at home. If they choose to listen to secular non-traditional models that is a legitimate option. If spanking is incorporated it must be carefully administered due to the sensitive nature and how it can easily cross the line to abuse. The bottom line is that both methods must be rooted in the Gospel. To raise our children on the law and then later try to get them to trust in the Gospel doesn’t set them up for the proper understanding of the Redemptive Story. Both methods can be abusive and weigh down souls. If we can use a method that promotes “thinking parenting” over “hitting parenting” then we are modeling the discipline of God to our children.(14)

1 Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences,”  550.
2 Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences,” 550.
3 Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment, Physical Abuse, and the Burden of Proof: Reply to Baumrind, Larzelere, and Cowan (2002), Holden (2002), and Parke (2002),” Psychological Bulletin 128 (4 2002): 609.
4 Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences,” 553.
5 Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences,” 560.
6 Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences,” 554.
7 Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment by Parents and Associated Child Behaviors and Experiences,” 559.
8 Gershoff, “Corporal Punishment, Physical Abuse, and the Burden of Proof,” 608.
9 James Dobson, The New Strong-Willed Child: Birth Through Adolescence (2; Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1978; repr., Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004), 109.
10 Dobson, SWC, 105.
11 Elyse M. Fitzpatrick and Jessica Thompson, Give Them Grace (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 36
12 Fitzpatrick and Thompson, Give Them Grace, 103.
13 Dobson, SWC, 110.
14 William J. Webb, Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2011), 131.