I have been brought up under the impression that the Bible not only permits, but even glorifies spanking of naughty children.  It is implied that the punishment is an act of love, as it will be good for the child.  It is even said that one who does not spank, hates his child. Certainly this is the prima facie teaching of the book of Proverbs:   “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”  “Discipline your son while there is hope; do not set your heart on his destruction.”  “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.”

The letter to the Hebrews seems to go even further by teaching how God disciplines us in an analogous way as our earthly fathers have, with the same goal of harvesting righteousness through painful punishment:  “And have you forgotten the exhortation which addresses you as sons? – My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor lose courage when you are punished by him.  For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.  It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons; for what son is there whom his father does not discipline? ... For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.”

This makes it seem like parents spanking their children would be actually following the example of the perfect love of God.  However, this teaching seems to be in direct contradiction with the recent findings of social science.  Could you comment on the scientific validity of such studies?  If the science is right, then is the Scriptural teaching mistaken?  Or have I misunderstood it?  If so, why is it so easy to get it wrong?



I take the texts you mention to mean, broadly, that parents who do not discipline their children are asking for trouble later on.  From the fact that some of the texts refer to specific forms of discipline, I don’t understand the texts as requiring the employment of just these modes of discipline.  In a culture in which, say, a switch is the most common way to punish disobedient children, it would be natural to refer to discipline in general by the phrase “the switch.”  We speak that way even in contexts in which it is obvious that we do not intend to be taken literally; for example, we may say that a worker was “taken to the woodshed” by his supervisor, even though no workers are literally taken to any woodsheds.

So, if I am reading the texts correctly, it would not be a violation of biblical teaching for a parent to forgo corporal punishment if another form of punishment turned out to work better with his child.  The point is that discipline is neglected only to the child's peril.

As to the empirical question -- how well does corporal punishment work? -- I don’t know, but I would hesitate to leap to broad conclusions from recent research when I don’t know whether they controlled for cultural expectations, or even what they meant by corporal punishment.  Beating up children is obviously wrong.  Giving a child’s butt a whap or two with a paddle – as was done with miscreants in my high school – is a very different thing.

My own experience makes me a bit suspicious, just because different children respond differently to the same punishments.  Some children do respond badly to spanking.  Some don’t.  There are some surprises with older people too.  It would never happen today – but I know a man, a retired city planner, who blesses the day one of his college ROTC instructors grabbed him, took him over his knee -- and swatted his behind for not taking his studies seriously!  To be a young adult, and yet be treated like a spoiled child, shocked him out of a deepening pattern of slack and irresponsible behavior.  I would never do that to a student, nor would I ever recommend doing it.  (Hear that, O my administrators?)  I wouldn’t have reacted as he did either.  But he swears that it changed his life.  Interesting.

And as to resentment, do you know what?  My own students sometimes resent me just for giving them grades less than B for their essays.  Yet I haven’t found that it works better to give them all As.