Don’t Wait Until Your Father Gets Home

spankingIt’s past time to talk sensibly about spanking. Parents in this country seems living under a double oppression: (1) the unfounded notion that spanking may damage the psyche of their children; (2) fear of being reported to the child welfare authorities for performing a service to their children. This is insane. Parents have been judiciously spanking their children since time immemorial without harming them in the least. Indeed, one of the most valuable things a parent can do for a child is to set reasonable boundaries and enforce those boundaries with a reasonable and certain degree of force, including the application of the hand to the child’s backside. I shouldn’t have to add this caveat, but I shall: I am not advocating the abuse of children in any way. I am not advocating beating children. Spanking is not beating. It doesn’t leave welts. It doesn’t involve belts or sticks. Spanking is a firm swat to the the padded posterior. That is all. That one has even to say such things demonstrates how clouded our minds have become.

Wisdom. The book of Proverbs is a gift to parents. The biblical proverbs are not immutable laws or magic (if I do x, y will necessarily happen) but neither are they mere suggestions. They are wisdom. That is why they seem to contradict themselves. They don’t actually contradict themselves because each proverb is meant to be understood and applied with wisdom, an awareness of the context, characters involved, and in light of the rest of Scripture and the nature of things (universal sense perception). Wisdom means understanding certain, basic creational patterns. It means seeing things as they actually are, in light of the patterns evident in God’s providence. A wise man (or woman; hereafter “man” is used generically for human) sees things as they are, as distinct from the way we would like them to be. Consider the stoplight. A wise man recognizes (1) there is a signal; (2) it means to communicate something; (3) what it signals. Even if one had never seen a traffic signal, even if he is color blind, a wise man would notice that when the top light is shining, traffic stops. When the bottom light is lit, traffic moves. He could infer that the middle light must be a caution or signal that conditions are changing. That’s creational wisdom based on sense perception. All he must do is pay attention to his surroundings and notice a pattern in order to negotiate the traffic.

Proverbs 13 applies certain observations about the pattern and nature of things to the raising of children. As it is throughout the book of Proverbs, we are presented with two ways: wisdom versus folly. Earlier in Proverbs wisdom and folly are even personified and folly is pictured as a prostitute seeking to seduce us to destruction. Indeed foolishness is both seductive and deadly. So, in Proverbs 13, the contrast between the two ways, wisdom and folly, continues. Verse 1 says, “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke.” There is a moral component to wisdom. Wisdom submits to instruction but foolishness rebels, is unduly independent. The fool will not be taught. v. 9 says, “The light of the righteous rejoices, but the lamp of the wicked will be put out.” There are consequences to foolishness. Sometimes, those consequences can be most serious. E.g., it is manifestly foolish to text and drive. It is not possible to look at the phone, type, and operate a motor vehicle. It’s foolishness to think that it is possible. Yes, it is true that people sometimes do it and get away with it but the traffic statistics tell us that a growing number of people are paying a very high price for such foolishness. Nevertheless, one sees it all the time and not just in city traffic but on the freeway at high speeds! The tell-tale signs are obvious. Not every driver with his head down is looking for a missing quarter or the last bit of breakfast. No, those dropped heads signal that drivers are checking their phone. Then there is the one-handed texting, with the phone pinned against the steering wheel. We think we’re clever but we’re not.

Verse 15 says, “Good sense wins favor, but the way of the treacherous is their ruin.” A wise man is prudent, circumspect. He acts appropriately in a given circumstance. The fool doesn’t and doesn’t care. There is wisdom in disciplining children. Verse 24 famously teaches: “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” There are two ways to parent. The wise parent understand that there are long-term consequences attached to the refusal to discipline one’s children appropriately. The foolish parent refuses to consider the future in favor of immediate gratification (the child’s approval). The wise parent loves his children enough to risk their disapproval. The foolish parent seeks to make his children into buddies, friends, and a source of self-esteem. In its nature, however, love is self-sacrificial. Love risks. Love gives. Love seeks the welfare of the other. Late modern parenting isn’t obviously about love of the other as much as it is about love of self. The slogan of our age seems to be “but what about my needs?”.1

Self-love versus true love. In parenting, the question is: what about the child’s needs? What the child needs is boundaries. He was made for boundaries and parents were made to set and enforce them. The child is depending on his parents to set and enforce moral and behavioral boundaries with an appropriate degree of force. When parents refuse to fulfill their creational duty as parents to love the other (in this case children) more than themselves, to seek the well-being of the children by demonstrating that there are reasonable boundaries and that there are consequences for transgressing those boundaries, they set up their children for disappointment, frustration, and bitterness. When we parents refuse to fulfill our duty, our children reap the whirlwind. They grow up thinking that they are really are the center of the universe, that they are not subject to authority, that they can, with sufficient whining, make people give them what they want. Have you ever seen a child hold his parent hostage in a grocery store? The child whines and stamps his feet and virtually dares his parent to spank him, knowing that the parent cannot (at least not in public) only to see the parent give in? What happens then? As often as not the child doesn’t want the product. What he wanted was to exert control. It’s not about the stuff. The child was also asking, “do you love me enough discipline me, to withstand my displeasure?” Well parent, do you?

It’s About Power. I am old enough to have seen a number of patterns develop in the last 30 or 40 years. Children, in public and in private, are simply not as well-behaved as they were. That claim seems indisputable. There are surely many causes for this but one of them is the misguided refusal by parents to spank their children and the children know it. I have known children to threaten to call child services for being spanked. When was the last time you saw a parent deliver swift, certain, and appropriate discipline to the bottom of a child in public? I’ve not seen it for a very long time. We knew (or at least we believed) in school, in the early 70s, that the authorities could not longer spank us. In case you’ve never seen or heard about it, once upon a time, before “time out,” teachers, vice-principals, and principals used to administer what was called “corporal punishment.” In grammar school I got to know corporal punishment quite well and I think I met his sergeant too. I deserved every stroke. It taught me an invaluable lesson: there are consequences. This is the way life is. Do we imagine that we’re blessing our children by refusing to teach them the nature of human life? How and when do we expect them to adjust if we do not teach them when they are able and ready to learn?

Spanking is not violence. One of the criticisms of spanking is that it is inappropriate to discipline children with violence. No, it is inappropriate to refuse to distinguish between the reasonable application of force to a child’s behind and violence. The latter is a blow to the face, which was not made to be hit. The bottom was manifestly made to be smacked judiciously by a parent, guardian, or someone acting, with their authority, on their behalf (in loco parentis). Outside of a boxing ring or in the case of self-defense, no one ought to hit someone else in the face. It is painful and potentially damaging in a serious way. Striking someone in the face is an assault on their dignity as an image bearer. The same is simply not true of a firm swat to the rear. They are different things. Yes, parents have sometimes erred in spanking (unjustly or too harshly) but the abuse of a rule does not invalidate the rule. This is not heaven. Mistakes will be made, sins will be committed. When a parent errs or sins, that is an opportunity to demonstrate the fruits of grace: humility and repentance and those are valuable lessons too! Refusal to distinguish between violence and spanking is manifest evidence of the foolishness of our age.

My concern is that we are raising a generations of image bearers who’ve never been taught that there are creational patterns and boundaries. They’ve never been taught that there are consequences and that there are God-given family structures (Dad and mom) who exist, in part, to love them enough to do what is right and necessary even though it is temporarily unpleasant. I noted a recent study that indicated that French children have markedly lower rates of ADHD among children than American children. Where “at least 9%” of school-aged American children have been diagnosed with ADHD, in France, it is less than .5% Why? The study’s author concludes that, among other things (e.g., diagnosis and classification) French children are raised with a sense of order, with expectations, with structure.

Spanking might sting for a moment but it won’t damage a child’s psyche. They were made to be disciplined and parents were given to discipline them. The social-services experts aren’t your child’s parent. It is time to take back our children from the utopians and the social-services establishment. God has not entrusted children to them and to their trendy theories but to us and to the application of wisdom and love.


1. I think this was is a line from an 80s TV show but which?

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  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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17 comments

  1. As Wally would inevitably say to the Beaver, “Man, when Dad gets home he’s gonna clobber you.”

    Scott, thanks for putting up this unexpected, yet needed, post for parents. The self-esteem/affirmation/medication crowd dominates the discussion today when it comes to raising children. And that is particularly toxic for child-rearing given how little teaching there is out there (even in the church) regarding the particulars of parenting from a biblical perspective. I started a blog a few years ago on parenting, mainly thinking of my three daughters and my ten (yes, that’s right) grandchildren, but also because of the overall need. The blog has laid dormant now for about two years. You’ve got me to thinking I should maybe crank it up again. Thanks again…

  2. On a related note, I’ve noticed that too many people think of their dogs as if they were children, and coddle them. People need to learn to treat their dogs like dogs.

    And then they need to learn to treat their children more like dogs.

    And I don’t mean that in a way to contradict you, but children require a lot of the same engagement as dogs; they need training and discipline, clear expectations, frequent affection, a healthy diet, plenty of fresh air and exercise, opportunity for self-amusement, etc.

  3. While probably said well be fore then “Of course you’re happy, but what about *my* needs?” is a quote from Star Trek TNG as spoken by Jean-Luc Picard according to IMDB.

  4. As a fairly new parent, I thoroughly appreciate this post. Mrs. Davis and I have previously decided to spank our son, and we try to follow a firm ‘spank’ with an explanation of what he did wrong and why he deserved the spanking.

    Anecdotally, however, we are beginning to fear for our own psyches… Every time Mom or Dad spanks him, for the same reason, with the same explanation given, he returns the favor by immediately laughing in our face. He’s an anarchist, and he hasn’t even turned two yet. And they say ‘two’ is terrible.

    • Some people laugh as a release of emotion, in the same way that some people cry easily. Hopefully that’s the reason and your son isn’t really an anarchist. 🙂

  5. I was spanked as a child, and I so I agree fully with this article. One thing that bothers me though is when I see parents smack their child’s bottom in the spur of the moment out of frustration. Before every spanking I got, I got a lecture. I got an explanation of why my actions were wrong and why I deserved the punishment, and I believe those lectures were vastly more important than the actual physical punishment. So spanking should come only when a parent has had time to calm down and explain the situation, not out of quick release of frustration. Also, my parents never spanked me in public, but would wait until we got home, and would follow through! Because they always followed through, it was almost more of a punishment because you have to go through the next few hour knowing what’s coming and spending time thinking about why you’re not going to misbehave the next time. Great article though!

  6. I strongly think that parents should be given room for error when it comes to disciplining. Mistakes are inevitable, and we should refrain from attempting to correct every thing we think is a mistake, even if they seem to go too far at times. Beatings are a different thing though.

    I will disagree with Dr. Clark concerning spanking being the only viable corporal punishment. The corporal act that I remember most, for which I am thankful today, was when my mother slapped me right on the mouth (not across the face). We were returning from church, she was driving, and I as an annoying teen wouldn’t shut up and stop demonstrating my stupidity; I don’t remember what I was saying, but it was meant to be irritating. So since I wouldn’t stop, my mother unexpectedly slapped me right on the mouth; after that I was quiet for the rest of the ride home. Notice how I said I was a teen and she was driving. I remember it well, in part because it worked well and my lips stung, and am thankful now as an adult. It didn’t hurt me emotionally, it immediately stopped me from continuing a sinful rant, and it actually makes me remember my mother fondly.

  7. “Spanking…doesn’t involve belts or sticks.”

    Hmmm… Proverbs 13:24 would seem to imply otherwise…

  8. Great post, but given our bedtime woes with our little sinners, I am considering heading to Lowes to get what I need for constructing some child sized stocks. I might also start leaving vegetables out past their edible use to use as stock fodder. More likely I will just pray for wisdom and patience and for my kiddos, and stay the course. The good news is my oldest didn’t stay three forever.

  9. All fair enough, but it seems worth considering that the biblical rod was meant less as a violent device and more as a leading or steering device, as in his rod and staff they comfort me–how does a smack comfort? Comfort seems more aligned with being led or steered.

    And there are those of us who were raised without the use of CP and who turned out more or less as mannered as anybody else (including those who were) and who also perpetuate perfectly non-violent discipline on their own to similar effect.

    PS Rube, you mean as in putting a leash on both my dogs and kids? For kids, no thanks. For dogs, sometimes, but don’t even get me started on leash laws.

    • Zrim, by CP do you mean capital punishment or corporal punishment? And what’s your interpretation of Proverbs20:30?

    • The rod and staff bring comfort because they provide safe boundaries for the sheep…by a little knock to the side to tell them which way to go. No shepherd used the staff to snuggle his sheep.

  10. I agree; I don’t think spanking is wrong, but I do think that there are often better, more effective ways to discipline than a spanking. Spanking often becomes a knee-jerk reaction, an easy threat that can apply to anything. Not that schools are in the best shape, but schools are no longer allowed to spank students, and yet they do discipline kids. Parenting with Love and Logic is one book I liked – often logical consequences discipline better, but it does require more work than spanking.

    • Laura,

      I agree that yes, spanking can be a lazy punishment. A thoughtful parent should have a more complete set of tools. I understand that spanking has been abused but I am quite concerned about living in a world with two or three generations to whom no parent has ever set boundaries and enforced them, even to the point of spanking.

      I agree also with those who’ve mentioned the importance of not spanking when angry and of explaining to the child before and/or after why he was spanked.

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