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What, spank the children?

Jacob Ninan

In this day and age anyone who advocates spanking children is likely to be met with disbelief. People wonder how anyone could be so out of touch with the times. Children have now been empowered to complain to the police, and any parent who spanks his child could be arrested for child abuse. But what is this enlightenment that has come up now that overrules the wisdom that has guided parents from times immemorial?

The basic philosophy seems to have come from some psychologists who have opined that since each child has potential for maturing into a unique personality, the parents would do better to leave him more or less to himself and not thrust on him their views and practices. But this alone may not have been sufficient to make such drastic changes to the age old practices. Another factor that has contributed to providing the scaffolding to support this philosophy is that parents nowadays have hardly the time available to spend on nurturing their children; it is more convenient to leave the children to themselves. The tight schedules that go with modern lifestyles also tend to make parents so worked up that any 'discipline' they give to the children usually comes out with anger or frustration, and that qualifies as abuse. As a result, discipline, especially through acts such as spanking, has come to be equated with child abuse.

The Book of Proverbs in the Bible comes not only with ancient wisdom but with the inspiration of God. "The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way (left to himself - KJV) brings shame to his mother" (Prov.29:15 NASB). We need only to look around to see how true this is! If the child needs to mature into a unique personality, shouldn't he also be trained to avoid possible pitfalls and to make the right choices early from childhood to develop to his maximum potential?

The problem is that there are very few examples of parents who discipline their children in love. In most cases what the children understand is only that something they did has upset their parents, and this is the same thing that other people also observe. The children don't even get a chance to understand what they have done wrong, why it is wrong, how such behaviour is only going to hurt them, and how else they could have behaved. These are things that a loving form of discipline would have taught them.

Discipline given out of love for the children would be seen as such by the children themselves. They would have learned from the way their parents treat them at other times, the time the parents spend with them, the frequent expressions of affection that parents show them, the good lessons they are taught, the stability of the love relationship between the parents themselves and the general atmosphere of the home that discipline is an exceptional sitution rather than the general practice. Suppose a child does something wrong, something that he has been taught earlier not to do, and the parents take time to remind them about what was expected from him and explain what he did wrong and why discipline is needed to help him to learn to be more careful the next time, would the child misunderstand the discipline to be a form of abuse? On the contrary, if there is no whiteboard of love between the parents and the child, the child cannot read the love being written by the parents through the rod of discipline. It would not be difficult to see what went wrong.

Many parents make the mistake of thinking that they would wait till the child grows up before they would discipline him. But the early years are the most impressionable, and if the children grow up in an indisciplined manner in that period, wouldn't it become much tougher to correct them then?

Many parents try to explain to their small children how they need to be good, how they need to be kind and forgiving towards their siblings, etc. But the fact is that when they are small they are not able to understand such concepts. These explanations are good, but is not right to depend on them alone to change the children's behaviour. At this time they behave more from instinct than from their thoughts, and instructions should focus more on what is right or wrong for them to do. Parents also need to remember that the children's knowledge of good and wrong translates usually to what they are allowed or not allowed to do. It is here that discipline plays an important part, showing the children what they should do, and showing them appreciation when they follow the instruction and punishing them when they disobey. If this discipline is consistent, they will usually fall in line with the parents after some time. (What happens commonly is that discipline is random, or that the parents don't carry through with what they have warned the children about. In that case the children learn very quickly what they can get away with.)

When we read this we may wonder how this can be connected with 'grace' which is an undeserved favour that God offers us. We may mistakenly think that reward and punishment which are based on performance are inconsistent with grace. But think of what God has done with people.

When the people of Israel were 'fresh' in their knowledge of God just after coming out of Egypt and had practically no concept of what was right or wrong in God's eyes, what God gave them was the Law, which was very clear in what He wanted them to do or not to do, and then a promise of blessings or curses depending on their performance. When they learned after hundreds of years how none of them was able to keep all the laws and had the experience of suffering much because of their disobedience, then God gave them grace. This shows us a principle that when parents bring up their children, they too need to take this two-step approach. When the children are very small and not able to understand spiritual concepts, they ought to be taught to simply obey whatever the parents tell them. Every instance of disobedience to what the children clearly knew the parents had told them to do has to be addressed with punishment. Of course, punishment has to be consistent with the degree of the offence. Children should not be punished for doing anything in their ignorance, even if the parents are very upset about what happened (e.g., a beautiful and expensive vase got broken by accident). But deliberate disobedience (when the child knew clearly he was not supposed to do that) should be treated severely, and deliberate lying (as opposed to talking out of ignorance or due to a lack of ability to express things correctly) should also be considered serious and punished accordingly. Of course, as we have seen before, this punishment should not be done in anger, but only calmly and with an expression of affection, explaining to the child why exacly he is being punished and how the parents love him and want him to become good.

Many people think that beating a child is cruel, and a big man or woman who does that to a child is misusing their size and strength. The Bible tells us, "Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die" (Prov.23:13). Of course, it is to be understood that this is talking about discipline coming from a loving parent rather than abuse coming from anger and frustration. Physical pain that comes from this type of punishment is easier for the child to understand and will form a better deterrent than mere words. "Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him" (Prov.22:15). It goes without saying that the size of the rod and the force with which it is applied all matter--they can also make a difference between disciline and abuse. Somebody has said that using a stick is different from spanking because spanking can be done instantly and in anger, whereas one needs to go looking for a stick during which time he can calm down and be in a better position to hand out loving discipline.

We know children vary in their temperament. For some a firm look is enough to give them punishment whereas some need more than one application of the rod! We are also not saying that every offence calls for the use of a stick. The point to note is that every offence needs to be punished with something that causes that child to feel 'pain', whether it is physical, or something that comes from a privilege being taken away from him, or the pain that comes from having to apologise (remember, some children can 'apologise' easily without feeling any pain!).

Finally, if we desire the best for our children, we agree that it is not sufficient to provide them with good food, clothes, toys,education, etc., but we also need to train them up to walk in the right way (Prov.22:6). The most important thing is to teach them to walk in the ways of God, even as we also try to understand each child and help him or her to fulfil their best potential in this life. Let's not hold back discipline from them which can help them to overcome the sinful nature we are all born with, and let's not allow them to follow their own instincts, and as they grow up, the currents of this world.

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