does the Bible mandate corporal punishment in child-rearing?

The book of Proverbs is often used, it would seem, to justify the claim that a true Christian approach to raising children must invariably include the use of corporal punishment (see, for example, Prov 13:24; 22:15; 23:13–14; 29:15). Partly because I keep running into this argument, I thought I’d post a few comments and observations relating to it.

First, perhaps the most extreme proponent of corporal punishment I’ve encountered is Sirach who, in chapter 30, writes:

1He who loves his son will whip him often,
so that he may rejoice at the way he turns out.
2He who disciplines his son will profit by him,
and will boast of him among acquaintances.

7Whoever spoils his son will bind up his wounds,
and will suffer heartache at every cry.
8An unbroken horse turns out stubborn,
and an unchecked son turns out headstrong.
9Pamper a child, and he will terrorize you;
play with him, and he will grieve you.
10Do not laugh with him, or you will have sorrow with him,
and in the end you will gnash your teeth.
11Give him no freedom in his youth,
and do not ignore his errors.
12Bow down his neck in his youth,
and beat his sides while he is young,
or else he will become stubborn and disobey you,
and you will have sorrow of soul from him.
13Discipline your son and make his yoke heavy,
so that you may not be offended by his shamelessness.

Ouch!

Fortunately few today go quite so far as Sirach. Nonetheless, my concern is with the derivation from Proverbs of the idea that corporal punishment is required by the Bible, or that “a parent that doesn’t use corporal punishment hates their child” (as I was once told). I know there are quite a few Christian parenting books which endorse forms of corporal punishment almost from birth, and substantiation is almost entirely founded on a few verses from Proverbs. I want to say that this is a gross misunderstanding of Proverbs virtually akin to the mistake made by Job’s friends who assumed that Job must be suffering because of some personal sin since that’s what wisdom taught.

My problems with this application of Proverbs are as follows:

  • Proverbs should not be interpreted as rules in this way. I know people pay lip-service to this very fundamental hermeneutical strategy for Proverbs, but then subsequently jetison it when trying to draw lessons from the material. Proverbs attempts to teach profound truths in brief aphorisms which become guides to the wise to know how to act. It is clear from Proverbs itself that you need wisdom to apply its wisdom, for in the hands of fools the material in Proverbs is open to abuse (cf. Prov 26:7, 9)!
  • The only form of discipline for children (or “youths” cf. 22:15; 23:13) explicitly identified in Proverbs is “the rod,” yet I know of no-one who suggests that corporal punishment should be the only form of discipline parents mete out to their children, despite the fact that a literalistic reading of Proverbs would lead one to conclude that this is the recommended course of action.
  • “The rod” is clearly metaphorical in a number of passages (e.g. Prov 14:3). This is also reflective of the poetic nature of aphoristic wisdom literature, which employs all manner of poetic devices to convey its messages.
  • This understanding is reinforced by the observation that Proverbs never contrasts methods of discipline: the antithesis to discipline is always lack of discipline, not another supposedly inferior form of discipline. Were corporal punishment being exclusively endorsed, I would expect some such contrast to appear.
  • The use of “the rod” is influenced by the terse nature of the aphorisms, not because it is the be-all and end-all for biblical discipline. Once “the rod” is established in the aphorism as a reference to discipline, it is appropriate to use the symbol to develop the instruction countained in the aphorism.

The upshot of this is that while Proverbs teaches the importance of disciplining children, it should not be taken as endorsing particular forms of discipline. It clearly doesn’t eschew corporal punishment, but neither should it be understood as requiring it or even making it normative. Wisdom requires wisdom, and so one ought to recognise that individual circumstances need to be evaluated and dealt with individually. To my mind, to entirely exclude corporal punishment as a legitimate tool in discipline is as legalistic and blinkered as suggesting that it ought to be normative. Every child is different: what works for one will not work for another. Every circumstance is different: sometimes an urgent response is needed, sometimes not.

Finally, I’d also like to highlight Eph 6:4 as another passage which instructs us in how to apply discipline. I like Andrew Lincoln’s comment on the passage in his commentary on Ephesians:

Fathers are made responsible for ensuring that they do not provoke anger in their children. This involves avoiding attitudes, words, and actions which would drive a child to angry exasperation or resentment and thus rules out excessively severe discipline, unreasonably harsh demands, abuse of authority, arbitrariness, unfairness, constant nagging and condemnation, subjecting a child to humiliation, and all forms of gross insensitivity to a child’s needs and sensibilities.

6 thoughts on “does the Bible mandate corporal punishment in child-rearing?

  1. Martin,
    I agree that proverbs is “a guide to the wise”. Rather than mandating corporal punishment, Heb 12:4-11 (esp vs 8) takes corporal punishment for granted. The question then is, how to practice it? The answer is after the manner of our heavenly Father – not out of human anger, as an act of love and care, for our good etc. Discipline is accociated with setting clear boundaries then enforcing them consistently. If a single swift slap on the buttocks is required from a young age (say from about nine months of age on until five years or seven if need be) along with a word of caution (eg “No”)then so be it. This method seemed to work well with my kids. Not acting out of anger seems to be important.

  2. Thanks for the comment, David. I don’t think that Heb 12:4–11 can justifiably be taken to mean that corporal punishment as a means of disciplining one’s own children is taken for granted by the author. I’d agree that the author is probably identifying physical suffering among his readers as an example of God’s discipline, but I don’t think that it is appropriate to then read the text as suggesting that we subject our own children to the same forms of discipline that God may be subjecting you (or the original audience of Hebrews) to! Again, the key is discipline over against lack of discipline, not a specific form of discipline. If we’re to mete out discipline wisely then we need to treat each child as an individual and recognise that what works with one may not have the desired effect in another (so if the method works for your kids, then that is fine, so long as you recognise that it may not work for other children). Otherwise, I think your point about anger is quite correct.

  3. When the bible was written, there was no research regarding the outcomes of corporal punishment, or discipline or punishment alternative strategies. It was considered permissible by the Bible, but so was killing your child for disobedience. Is this parental execution considered wise, appropriate or justifiable now? So why is hitting still preserved as “reasonable?” What is the basis of this assumption? It seems reasonable to say limited spanking exercised in a premeditated fashion does less or no harm compared to more harsh or impulsive spanking, but what is this based on? Sometimes what seems logical, turns out to be counter intuitive. People have a tendency to adopt a perspective that “the middle” or “somewhere between the two extremes” is sensible. That shouldn’t be applied to everything. Is there an acceptable middle ground for sexual acts against children? Was the “reasonable spanking” idea based on evidence, logic, learning, or was it simply assumed? As far as I know evidence contradicts, or at least, does not support this widespread truism. I don’t buy the abusive verses non abusive spanking/physical punishment argument for several reasons. I believe violence against children runs on a continuum from a slap or spank to murder with fists further up the continuum than spanking. And the research indicates that if a parent steps on the physical violence train, even at the very mild end, they are less likely to get off it before they seriously injure or abuse the child. These people are not monsters, they believe, they truly believe, they are good people disciplining their children so they will grow up to be great, moral people. This is what they were told. This is what they learnt at home. This is what they begin to rely on, and when a person feels right about inflicting pain on a smaller, weaker person, it predictably, and often, does not end well for the person receiving the pain. They are honestly surprised to see a wounded, frightened, or still disobedient child. There is no clear categorical difference between abuse and spanking/cp that really matters, just a semantic one, with no evidence to support it, cited by those who advocate spanking. So we should exercise critical and careful thought before accepting that as “gospel.” What’s acknowledged as abuse and “spanking” are intimately linked. And there aren’t just a few “rare cases.” It is common for physical punishment to go further along the continuum to acknowledged as abuse acts. I also believe we should try to make standards as similar as possible in terms of protection for adults and children. If it is illegal to rape a child, it is illegal to rape an adult. But although you cannot legally slap your partner (even if it’s an emergency, in love, not in anger, and very much for their own good and some verses in the Bible seem to justify it, but others admittedly seem to contradict it) then it should not be excusable to do so to a child. All of the evidence indicates spanking or corporal punishment increases the risk a child will develop a variety of extremely undesirable qualities and outcomes, is easily replaced by safer punishment and teaching strategies, and the only “benefit” is superficial compliance. The Old Testament may advocate spanking, but there is information out there about what it does to children.

    I like the saying, “God helps those who help themselves.” And aren’t the books explaining safe and effective ways to discipline and teach children the help in this case? Want a brief list of the undesirable outcomes?

    Increased likelihood of approval of spouse hitting, spouse hitting, aggression, anti social behaviour, lying, cheating, depression and the list goes on.

    See Murray Strauss. Or just Google it.

    Open your eyes up to reality, and research issues before you assume anything.

  4. Lexi, it is easy to uncritically adopt one side of the argument without weighing the evidence. This would appear to be what you’ve done. Although most of your assertions fail your own test — you provide no substantiation for your claims but merely present emotionally manipulative claims with repeated appeals to unreferenced “evidence” — you do make reference to one scholar who has considered these matters. The problem for your claims, however, is that his work has not been accepted uncritically. You seem to imply that all the evidence is on your side, but the evidence is not so unequivocal as you imply.

    Let me point you to a couple of resources which lend balance to the claims you’ve presented: first here, then here.

    Given that the studies demonstrate equivalent negative or neutral outcomes for all forms of discipline including controlled corporal punishment, do you propose dispensing with all discipline in child rearing?

  5. Pingback: Would Jesus Spank a Child? « EVEDYAHU

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