Corporal punishment—using physical pain to force a child to behave a certain way—is popular in the United States. Despite the valiant efforts of child protection professionals and other child advocates to dissuade the public from using corporal punishment, and despite not being very effective, it remains widespread. Almost half of American adults support the practice (with religious adults even more likely to support it) and 80 percent of American children will experience corporal punishment by fifth grade. It even remains legal in public schools in 19 states. As I have written elsewhere, it is high time that American faith communities start speaking up and against the practice; it is violence against children and violence against children is always abuse.
One question I sometimes receive when talking publicly about corporal punishment is, “Why would parents do something that hurts their children?” And there are many important answers to this question. Some parents are sadistic and enjoy inflicting pain on more vulnerable beings, so they use their children as outlets for their sadism. Other parents get overwhelmed with life stressors and lash out in a moment of emotional dysregulation. But a good many adults employ corporal punishment because they are told by evangelical parenting teachers that (a) it is the godly thing to do and (b) to disobey God would lead to drastic, horrible consequences.
In this post, I want to focus a bit on this last category of adults. I was recently perusing my library of rightwing books to find some references for Dr. Chrissy Stroop (Stroop was researching and wrote an excellent article about how evangelicals use glue sticks to strike their children; glue sticks allegedly do not leave marks and thus help evangelicals avoid arousing the suspicion of Child Protective Services, or CPS). And one theme kept jumping out at me as I was reading: how frequently evangelical parenting teachers threaten parents with the alleged consequences of neglecting to spank children. These teachers are not subtle, either. They tell parents that every parent’s worst nightmares will come true if they do not inflict physical pain on children to force them to obey.
Children as Criminals
For many evangelical parenting teachers, corporal punishment is necessary because every child is evil. “His very conscience (nature),” write Michael and Debi Pearl in To Train Up a Child, “demands punishment” (p. 46). Most of these teachers argue that children are born with sinful natures and wills and that, if those natures and wills go unchecked, children will grow up to become the worst of society: murderers, rapists and so forth. Even worse, though, is these children’s eternal destination: without parental intervention, the argument goes, these children will go to hell where they will suffer eternal torture.
Let us start with the argument that corporal punishment prevents children from criminality. A perfect example of this argument comes from Reb Bradley and his book Child Training Tips. There, Bradley writes the following: “All children, not just certain children, but all children are born delinquent. If permitted to continue in their self-centered world of infancy, given free reign to their impulsive actions to satisfy every want, every child would grow up a criminal, a thief, a killer, a rapist” (p. 20).
While Bradley’s view of children may seem harsh, it is by no means an anomaly. Another example of this view comes from John MacArthur’s book What The Bible Says About Parenting. MacArthur writes that, without corporal punishment, children will be left to their own rebellious ways and consequently will bring shame to their families. If you do not spank a child, he writes, you will end up with “a disobedient child” who develops “an anti-social personality” and “very often” will become “a criminal adult” (p. 86). Michael and Debi Pearl go even further in To Train Up a Child, suggesting that if you “fail to use the rod” on a child, then “you are creating a modern-day ‘Nazi’” (p. 47).
Children as Hellbound
MacArthur, however, goes further than implying future criminality. MacArthur also argues that failing to spank children can lead to “a spiritual disaster” (p. 86). By that, he means children will spend eternity in hellfire. Since children are born evil, the argument goes, not spanking children will allow that evil to blossom and grow and thus ultimately destroy the child’s relationship with God.
This is, for example, how Tedd Tripp frames his discussion of corporal punishment in Shepherding a Child’s Heart. “Children are not born morally and ethically neutral,” Tripp declares. “The Bible teaches that the heart is ‘deceitful and desperately wicked’ (Jeremiah 17:9, KJV). The child’s problem is not an information deficit. His problem is that he is a sinner.” Left to fester, that sin leads to deadly results: “There are things within the heart of the sweetest little baby that, allowed to blossom and grow to fruition, will bring about eventual destruction.” To save children from this destruction, Tripp says corporal punishment is necessary: “The rod functions in this context. It is addressed to needs within the child. These needs cannot be met by mere talk” (p. 101-102).
For Tripp, the evil nature that children possess is there from Day One. Even infants, Tripp argues, “protest against your attempts to rule them. Watch a baby struggle against a diaper change or wearing a hat in the winter.” And God has explicitly “ordained the rod of discipline for this condition… Spanking renders an implacable child sweet.” But it is not just sweetness Tripp wants. He wants the child’s soul to be regenerated through spanking: “Your children’s souls are in danger of death—spiritual death. Your task is to rescue your children from death. Faithful and timely use of the rod is the means of rescue” (p. 102-103).
Spanking as Spiritual Regeneration
Are there other means by which parents and other caretakers of children can guide children? Tripp says yes, but only spanking can accomplish the aforementioned spiritual regeneration. Thus spanking will always and forever be a necessity, he says: “God has commanded the use of the rod in discipline and correction of children. It is not the only thing you do, but it must be used. He has told you that there are needs within your children that require the use of the rod. If you are going to rescue your children from death, if you are going to root out the folly that is bound up in their hearts, if you are going to impart wisdom, you must use the rod” (p. 104).
Tripp’s arguments about spanking being spiritually regenerative are shared by his peers. Bradley, for example, describes corporal punishment as “soul-saving work” in Child Training Tips (p. 66), adding that “The rod is God’s only means of subduing the self-will and rebellion which resides in every child” (p. 66-67). In What The Bible Says About Parenting, John MacArthur claims spanking “can help deliver [children] from the misery of sin’s consequences up to and including hell” (p. 84).
In To Train Up a Child, Michael and Debi Pearl wax eloquent on the subject: “Stripes (‘scourgeth’ Heb. 12:6) are said to be to the soul what the healing blood flow is to a wound. A child properly and timely spanked is healed in the soul and restored to wholeness of spirit. A child can be turned back from the road to hell through proper spankings” (p. 46).
Non-Violent Parenting as Child Abuse
For non-evangelicals, this language and these arguments are likely surprising. Beating children to save them from their own evil probably (and rightly) sounds extreme, fallacious, and dangerous. Outside of evangelicalism, most of us understand that inflicting pain on less powerful people than ourselves to force them to obey us is immoral and wrong. Treating children as evil and deserving of punishment is an expression of hatred towards children and it encourages child abuse.
But in evangelicalism, everything is upside down. To evangelicals, hitting children is loving. Not hitting children is hateful, because not hitting children will lead children to hell. To evangelicals, hitting children is soul care. Not hitting children is literally child abuse. And I am not exaggerating here. These teachers are explicit about all these points. In Child Training Tips, for example, Bradley briefly acknowledges that, “Spanking is not easy for most parents, because it brings grief to the very children they naturally want to comfort.” But then Bradley immediately heaps on the guilt: “God warns that allowing soft feelings to inhibit spanking is tantamount to hating our children” (p. 67). Bradley even goes so far as to claim that, “A child who is not spanked can hardly be called a son or daughter” (p. 69).
This is a universal sentiment among these teachers. In What The Bible Says About Parenting, John MacArthur agrees: “Parents who fail to correct their disobedient children are displaying a shameful lack of love” (p. 84). In God, The Rod, and Your Child’s Bod, Larry Tomczak concurs: “God’s Word states that to not lovingly correct children is to hate them. To choose to withhold the brief moment of pain needed for correction which, by doing so, allows children to continue on in habit patterns which will eventually harm them, is not genuine love.” Tomczak concludes, “If you permit a child to nurture a habit which he will one day be forced (with greater difficulty) to break, you are the cruelest of parents” (p. 43).
But you are more than cruel if you do not spank children, these authors argue. You are also a child abuser. Yes, not spanking children is child abuse to evangelicals. This is seen most clearly in Philip Lancaster’s book Family Man, Family Leader. Lancaster claims, “‘Child abuse’ would be defined from the biblical perspective as a failure to use the rod. Those who disdain its use do not love their children enough to save their souls from hell! Just as Eli’s undisciplined sons grew into incorrigible rebels destined to the severest judgment, so any child from whom the rod is withheld is in danger of hell. That is why another proverb concludes: ‘He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly’ (13:24). Proverbs presents parents with the choice: they can give their children a moment of physical hurt or an eternity of soul-tormenting pain” (206-207).
Larry Tomczak makes a similar argument in God, The Rod, and Your Child’s Bod. He states that, “Today, some child ‘experts’ say it’s better to simply leave the child to himself; let him grow up naturally to be free and uninhibited. Yet in reality, isn’t that what child abuse really is? Because some parents don’t want to hurt their children, they disobey God, withhold loving correction, and thereby allow their children to continue down pathways to inevitable destruction and even eternal damnation” (p. 44).
While some adults hit children because they enjoy it and other adults hit children because they get overwhelmed, a third group of adults are hitting children because the authorities and leaders in their lives are telling them to. But they are not just telling them to. They are instilling fear and terror in the hearts of parents and other caretakers of children about what will happen if adults do not hit children. This fear and terror might strike outsiders as strange and unbelievable, but it is very real to members of evangelical faith communities.
If we are ever going to change evangelical minds about corporal punishment, we must wrestle with these assumptions and fallacies and figure out how best to reach the people who believe them.