A recent trend in some parenting circles is something that is called “gentle parenting.” A good sample of representative reasoning can be found here.
Unfortunately, the reaction against spanking that this represents (and it is a reaction) is not going to be able to deliver on the promised gentleness. There will be discrepancies between what is promised and what actually happens.
Now of course gentleness is a trait most to be desired in bringing up little ones. In writing against gentle parenting, I need to make it very clear that I am not in any way against gentle parenting, if you follow me here. I mean, look at how Paul describes his ministry among the Thessalonians.
“But we were gentle among you, even as a nurse cherisheth her children”
1 Thessalonians 2:7 (KJV)
So there is a gentleness in parenting that is fully and completely biblical.
“Like as a father pitieth his children, so the LORD pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; He remembereth that we are dust.”
Psalm 103:13–14 (KJV)
But there is also a parental softness and indulgence that allows hardness of heart in the children to grow and develop without taking any kind of effective actions. And in contrast with this, there is such a thing as a wise parental hardness that doesn’t tolerate hardness of heart. All parents are hard and all parents are soft. But if you have been following this blog for very long you might be able to anticipate the next questions. Hard on what? Soft on what?
Important Qualifier at the Front End
In order to be able to address this subject at all, I need to draw some very careful lines at the outset.
There are some very strict parents out there who believe themselves to be “biblical” and “firm” and “principled” when they are actually just mean and cruel, petty and vindictive. They beat their kids in anger, and with rejection and disapproval administered in every blow. It is hardly surprising if kids who grew up under that kind of regime are attracted to something like “gentle parenting.” And this is why Christian leaders who believe the Bible (please see below) need to be really careful as they publicly praise the corporal discipline of covenant children. That is because foolish and cruel parents might abuse their kids in their name, and then, after they get arrested, claim that they were only doing what they read about in the Wilson’s “family books.”
In reaction to this kind of cruelty, sentimental parents react, and try to avoid any kind of corporal punishment at all. When it comes to the moral government of the home, these parents are pacifists, and they have not yet learned from the history of the world what happens to pacifists.
Now if you are going to abuse your kid, this latter approach is certainly the way to go. You can really mess your kid up, and you can do it in a way that can never be traced back to you. These wounds don’t bleed until the child is grown, and the parents have all the deniability that they could ever want.
Getting the Background Right
We need to begin by discussing the name for this. Gentle parenting is not really gentle at all, because Scripture teaches us that refusal to discipline in this way is tantamount to disowning a child, rejecting the child as an illegitimate bastard. It is actually a form of hatred (Prov. 13:24). Hating your child is not gentle. Disowning your child as a bastard is not gentle.
This is what we are taught in the book of Hebrews.
“And ye have forgotten the exhortation which speaketh unto you as unto children, My son, despise not thou the chastening of the Lord, nor faint when thou art rebuked of him: For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not? But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons. Furthermore we have had fathers of our flesh which corrected us, and we gave them reverence: shall we not much rather be in subjection unto the Father of spirits, and live?”
Hebrews 12:5–9 (KJV)
Our earthly fathers used to chastise and correct us, doing so physically. In response, we learned to reverence them. How much more should we reverence the God of Heaven, who has adopted us as His children? We do not contrast the physical discipline of our fathers to that of God the Father. Rather, we compare them, putting them in the same general category—although it must be said that God’s discipline of His favorites is usually far more severe, as we shall see momentarily.
The verb that is here translated as “scourgeth” is mastigao, and it means to “whip, flog, or scourge.” The Jewish method of doing this was by means of whip with three thongs of leather. According to the Mishna, the recipient received thirteen strokes on the bare chest with this whip, another thirteen on one shoulder, and the last thirteen on the other shoulder. This came to a total of 39 strokes, to fulfill the requirements of the law in Deuteronomy.
“Forty stripes he may give him, and not exceed: lest, if he should exceed, and beat him above these with many stripes, then thy brother should seem vile unto thee.”
Deuteronomy 25:3 (KJV)
The Jews would administer 39 strokes instead of 40 in order to avoid inadvertently violating this law through miscounting. The apostle Paul got this treatment five times (2 Cor. 11:24). Count the thongs, count the strokes, and count the occasions. The apostle Paul received 585 welts in his pursuit of church planting.
Now God does this. He scourges his sons. He speaks of how He receives and loves His children in a metaphor that is taken from this practice of flogging. He disciplines His children spiritually, and the image is taken (in part) from how fathers disciplined their children. The argument is that when fathers don’t do this, they are in effect disowning their sons. They are rejecting their sons. But God would never reject His sons in this way.
At the very least, you can see that the world from which this imagery is taken is a world that was not squeamish about physical discipline.
With that in mind, let’s look at the book of Proverbs.
“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: But he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”
Proverbs 13:24 (KJV)
“He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly.”
Proverbs 13:24 (NKJV)
Hatred can be sentimental, and within tangled family situations, it frequently is. To love someone is to treat them lawfully, from the heart. To hate someone is to treat them unlawfully, whether or not you have certain soppy emotions going on inside while you do it.
Scripture says that sons require corporal punishment, as the occasion requires. The word here is the word for son (ben), and is not age-specific. The rod is for sons, period, not just grown sons. Some Christians have reacted against this teaching (or, more likely, have reacted against an ungodly misapplication of this) and are arguing for childhood training that does not involve spanking. The emotions that seem to require this may seem to be soft, tender, and kind, but Scripture says that at the end of the day it all reduces to hatred. If someone grew up under cruel or inept corporal punishment, that is certainly sad, but it doesn’t change what Scripture says here. How could it? It just means that there is more than one way to hate a kid.
So the Bible teaches that if a father refuses to discipline his child, this is equivalent to disowning that child—treating him as an illegitimate bastard. “But if ye be without chastisement, whereof all are partakers, then are ye bastards, and not sons” (Heb. 12:8). God corrects us, and He is a true Father to us. So we also should correct our children, and thus imitate the true Father as we do. God does not disown us through lack of discipline, and this means that we should not disown our own children through lack of discipline.
Now some in the anti-spanking contingent might want to say that this verse is talking about a rod for the back, not a spanking spoon for the bum, and so it is not talking about spanking at all. But this is an objection that proves far too much. If it is legitimate to beat a recalcitrant teenage son with a rod (according to their reading), how much more would it be appropriate to spank a two-year-old with a spoon, thus averting the more drastic punishment over a decade later?
There will be more on this principle in the next section.
Not Exactly Capital Punishment
“Withhold not correction from the child: For if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.”
Prov. 23:13 (KJV)
When it comes to spanking our little ones, conscientious parents should of course look to Scripture for their guidance and protection. Done right, not only is it guidance and protection for them as parents, but it is also protection for the child.
It should go without saying that godly discipline should be judicious and calm, and not the result of mom or dad flying off the handle. We are told to correct fellow Christians (which would certainly include our children) in a spirit of gentleness, considering ourselves lest we also be tempted (Gal. 6:1). The one who corrects any fellow believer must be “spiritual,” Paul says. That means when a parent is irritated and annoyed, he is not qualified to discipline his child—although he is (through the irritation) motivated to do so. And when he is qualified to do so (not being annoyed), he is not motivated. So it is quite true that the discipline of children should not be the result of parental exasperation. It should be a matter of principled obedience.
But with that said, parents are still required by Scripture to maintain their qualifications for correction. They are told to “withhold not correction,” and the correction being spoken of is a beating with a rod. This is plainly a pretty serious situation because the child spoken of here (na’ar) is not a toddler, but rather rather “a lad.” This word is age-specific, and refers to an older child. [Correction: It has been brought to my attention that this word is not necessarily age-specific. I stand corrected.] He is of an age where it might be thought by his indulgent mother that a beating might kill him, although Solomon assures us that it will not. From the way he is carrying on, it might sound like he going to die, but he is not going to die.
And so when it comes to parental discipline, we have the foundation for an a fortiori argument, a “how much more” argument, the argument I touched on earlier. This is crucial. This is really important. If it is legitimate to beat your 16-year-old son with a rod (because he went joy-riding in the neighbor’s new Maserati without permission), then how much more would it be legitimate to switch that same kid 14 years earlier in order to head off that unfortunate incident with the car entirely?
If you carefully read the article I linked to earlier, it was in effect urging parents to reject flicking, switching, and swatting, and to wait until they were sullen, rebellious and taller than you, at which point you bring in the cat o’ nine tails.
This gentle parenting approach wants to draw attention to the fact that many of the passages in Proverbs are not talking about discipling preschoolers. This is quite true, but if Proverbs commends bending the trunk of the tree, as necessary, when it fifty feet high, then wouldn’t the Lord also commend bending the sapling?
And besides, does anybody honestly think that gentle parent advocates are really urging us to withhold corporal punishment until the teen years? Do we actually think that fifteen years from now these same people will be writing articles that say “let the beatings begin?” Not likely.
The Seat of Wisdom
“Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; But the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.”
Proverbs 22:15 (KJV)
Scripture teaches us that corporal discipline imparts wisdom. But it does this against a certain doctrinal backdrop. That backdrop is the doctrine of original sin.
So there is a hidden Pelagian assumption that lurks in much indulgent parenting. It can take the secular form, which assumes that mankind is basically good, or it can take the Pelagian form which assumes that the child is basically unfallen.
But Scripture starts with the assumption that we are sinful, fallen. Folly is bound up in the heart of a child. What do we need to do in order to have a fool born into our midst? The answer is pretty simple. Make love to your wife, and wait nine months. Folly is resident in the heart of a child.
Now if you leave that folly there, it will remain there. If you refuse to touch it, it will remain untouched. It will grow and develop and mature, and it will become full grown folly. And what awaits the full-grown fool? “A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back” (Proverbs 26:3). We can see there was a time when Eli missed his opportunity of reaching his sons.
Wise parents are therefore proactive. They know that they don’t need to do anything to introduce folly. The child does not need folly lessons. The child here, the lad (na’ar) does need wisdom lessons. What will bring this wisdom? The rod of discipline, the rod of correction.
“The rod and reproof give wisdom: But a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”
Proverbs 29:15 (KJV)
In our experience, and as we have watched our grandchildren growing up, a judicious and loving and wise application of spankings early on (in the pre-school years) meant that corporal discipline when the kids were older was extremely rare. It was rare later on because the kids were well-behaved, and were not foolish. They had internalized the standard. As I never tire of saying, the job of parents is not to get kids to conform to the standard. The job of parents is to get kids to love the standard.
This is quite different from discipline being rare later on, and yet being still most needed. An indulgent generation of parents will almost never introduce discipline later on, even though the folly of their earlier approach to discipline has made it most evident that an intervention is necessary. In all the proverbs listed above, the word thwacking comes to mind, and such interventions will be most necessary with those kids for whom such physical discipline would be a complete novelty. Those who got plenty of swats around the age of three are not in that category at all. They are wise teens, and when they see some unruly kids at WalMart, or two tables over at the restaurant, they do their best imitation of Clint Eastwood from the meme above.
One Last Point
Someone might object that when the beatings of Proverbs are administered to older fools (na’ar), the recipients of the discipline are at least old enough to understand. They worry that a little kid is not smart enough to understand the process of discipline. It seems to a worried parent that they are not wise enough to understand how discipline works.
But a moment’s reflection should dispel this idea. Little kids are canny. If you are wondering if they are smart enough to understand the connection between the discipline and the behavior that you want them to stop, let me ask you this. Are they smart enough to understand the connection between their whining and whatever it is they want? If the answer to this second question is yes, then the answer to the first one is yes.
Put another way, if your child is smart enough to train you to go fetch whatever it is he wants, then he is smart enough to be trained.
The title of this piece was Pride and Paddywonking. So where does the pride come in? What it boils down to is this. God has given us clear direction in His Word when it comes to this topic. We ignore it at our peril, and the only thing that could make us want to ignore such clear direction is our own prideful insistence on doing what seems right in our own eyes (Ps. 119:21). But that ends in disaster.
So when administered in wisdom, when under the direction of the Holy Spirit, what do spankings do? They give wisdom (Prov. 29:15). They prevent maternal shame (Prov. 29:15). They drive folly far away from a child’s heart (Prov. 22:15). They communicate love (Prov. 13:24).
And you love your kids, don’t you?