A recent study sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics claims that “children who are spanked by their parents are at greater risk for later problems.” The study asserts that children who are spanked score lower on vocabulary tests and are more likely to be aggressive and break rules at school. The glaring weakness in the research – and in its reporting in the popular media – is that its definition of “spanking” is wide enough to drive a truck through.
Those who hold to spanking as a form of biblical discipline are well acquainted with this problem. The word has a semantic range as large as the national debt. It’s commonly used to refer to any form of physical discipline – whether the one administering it is a loving and godly parent or an alcoholic rage-monster, and whether the tool used is a hand, a wooden spoon, or a fraternity paddle. So as we assess the merits of a study like this one, we must be careful to define terms. And because the study’s authors failed to do that, their conclusions are spurious.
The biblical form of discipline advocated by many Christian parents is categorically different from what many people envision when they hear the word “spanking.” To many, the term connotes an angry parent who’s “had it up to here” with some unruly kids. She’s exhausted her regimen of I’m-counting-to-three and go-to-your-room and if-you-don’t-obey-right-now-you’ll-regret-it. In exasperation or maybe even violent aggression, she grabs her child, throws him over her knee, and administers a lashing to his backside, resulting in loud wails and a momentary reprieve from rebellion before the cycle begins again. And this is the more serene version. In extreme cases, the word “spanking” is co-opted by parents who are downright physically abusive and want a culturally acceptable term under which to hide their wicked behavior.
Will children who are spanked in this way grow up to be a) more aggressive and b) less verbal? You bet they will. Does the Christian version of spanking – biblical discipline – bear any resemblance to this picture? Hardly. To be sure, it does involve a parent using physical means to discipline and train a child. But in motive, in method, in means, and in outcome, it is something else entirely.
Therefore, any research study that asks a general question about “spanking” – without further clarification or explanation – is likely to generate disparate results that muddy the picture rather than making it clear. And that’s exactly what happened in this study. The researchers asked parents one simple question: “In the past month, have you spanked (child) because (he/she) was misbehaving or acting up?” This query fails to discern the respondents’ actual practice of spanking. The only thing we know is that all 1933 families studied used some form of physical discipline. We have no idea whether they beat their children in anger or lovingly disciplined them in obedience to Scripture. And it’s the HOW of spanking, not the WHAT, that makes the difference.
At the very least, this study is guilty of poor method. At the most, it may reflect an attempt to manipulate the data to sway public opinion against spanking. The report’s authors reveal their bias in the first paragraph: “Corporal punishment remains a widely endorsed parenting tool in US families, and the United States stands out as one of the few high-income countries that have not followed Sweden’s lead in banning spanking. This is despite the warnings of the American Academy of Pediatrics about the potentially deleterious effects of spanking…” Welcome to the “objectivity” of modern social science.
In the face of such prejudiced research, Christian parents need to remain resolute in their commitment to biblical discipline. The academic elite will continue to publish dubious studies that reinforce their foregone conclusions. The media will continue to seize upon sensational stories of abusers who defend their actions under the rubric of “spanking.” And activists will continue to rack up miles on their Volvos as they lobby for the US to be more like Sweden. Meanwhile, Christian children will continue to grow up respectful, submissive, and self-controlled due to the proper and biblical use of spanking. And that’s what will win the day in the end.
In the meantime, expect to have lots of terse conversations with friends, in-laws, and babysitters who can’t believe that you – [gasp] – spank your children. And who can’t understand how they could still be smart and well-behaved.
[If this post raises questions you’d like to explore further, consider joining us for the Raising Godly Kids conference, where we’ll talk about this and much more.]