What Does the Research Say about Spanking?

by | Aug 14, 2020 | Uncategorized | 55 comments

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Does research really say that spanking is bad for kids?

We’ve had an interesting week on the blog, where we’ve talked about periods, sex, homeschooling, and so much more!

But I want to revisit Rebecca’s post on Wednesday about how we shouldn’t be spanking babies, despite what many Christian books (like To Train Up a Child or Shepherding a Child’s Heart) may say.

Some of you may not know this, but Rebecca has written a book called Why I Didn’t Rebel: A 22-year-old explains why she stayed on the straight and narrow (and why your kids can, too). She looked at the research about what made it more or less likely that kids will rebel, and then she interviewed dozens of millennials, some of whom had rebelled and some who hadn’t, and looked at commonalities. She was specifically looking at how sometimes the advice that we’re taught in many Christian parenting books actually doesn’t work, because it’s focused on trying to change outward behaviour rather than trying to build relationship so you can impact godly character.

It’s honestly a great book!

In researching Why I Didn’t Rebel, Rebecca looked a lot at the big studies on spanking, and talked to professors who had spent their careers looking at the research, and doing research themselves.

After our conversation on Wednesday, a few people on Facebook raised what’s a common question whenever we bring up spanking. I’ll paraphrase, because a number of people said this. But it tends to go like this:

I was spanked when I was younger, and I have a great relationship with my parents. And none of my siblings rebelled, either! In fact, I can’t think of another discipline technique that would have worked on me. Sometimes spanking is the best option.

Rebecca left a great reply, and I’d like to post it here so that we can all see it, and comment on it:

What research says is that spanking leads to either negative outcomes or neutral outcomes–many kids are spanked and are totally fine! The same way that if you never wore a seat belt, it is very possible that you would never get hurt.

BUT, we know that wearing a seat belt is wise because we can prevent serious damage. So we wear a seat belt, even if we’ve personally never been in a car crash. Because the stats say that you have a higher likelihood of dying if you don’t, similarly, the research says your kids have a higher likelihood of aggression, mood disorders, poor relationship with parents, and other externalizing behaviors if you spank. Not everyone will, but the chances are higher.

Additionally, among families who did spank who had kids who had good relationships with their parents, research suggests that it’s not the spanking that helped–rather, they have good relationships with their parents DESPITE the spanking. So likely the homes overall were warm, loving, nurturing, and the introduction of spanking wasn’t enough to overcome those protective factors. But if a little bit of poison doesn’t make you ill because the rest of your diet is really really good, you still don’t need to ingest the poison. Also, there are usually other disciplining forms at use in these families that mean that even if spanking wasn’t used, they likely would have turned out fine and been well-behaved children.

The fact that there are families who spanked who turned out great does not negate the research with hundreds of thousands of participants that found that overall, spanking is an unnecessary risk that, at best, leads to neutral outcomes and has not been found–even when done “correctly” (not in anger, only when the child is of certain ages, only with an open palm, etc.)–to help strengthen parent-child bonds or lead to lower rates of unwanted behaviours in children and adolescents.

It is worth noting that other parenting practices have been found to not only avoid negative outcomes but actually promote positive ones, so there are research-based alternatives.

And I’ve got 10 ideas on how to discipline without spanking here!

But swatting babies can teach them things, right?

Another thought came up repeatedly over the last few days, and one commenter summed it up well:

When my baby started crawling she wanted to put her fingers in the plug sockets. I sat next to her and said no and took her hands away. She looked at me and slowly reached for the socket again. I flicked her fingers with my hand and said no again. She pulled away from the socket in shock. After that she never tried it again. And she understood what no meant. Pain given in love is not evil. Don’t be led by the world’s wisdom. God inflicts pain on those He loves. “He who spares his rod [of discipline] hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines diligently and punishes him early.” [Prov. 19:18; 22:15; 23:13; 29:15, 17.]

Here was my reply, which I’m elaborating on a little bit for this post:

What you’re explaining is called operant conditioning. You’re not teaching obedience (babies can’t understand at that age); what you’re teaching is compliance.

Operant conditioning makes a behaviour more or less likely based on what the kid will get out of it. It’s not a moral choice, and when it’s with a punishment involved (like pain) it’s a fear-based avoidance behaviour to prevent the pain from happening.

Flicking a baby’s hands or swatting a baby teaches that baby that reaching for the socket brings pain. But because the baby is too young to do any kind of moral reasoning or even obedience, what this does is teach babies that mommy gives pain at certain times, without understanding why. That can be difficult for a baby to process, especially if there isn’t a lot of acceptance and joy in the rest of the relationship. If the relationship is otherwise a loving and healthy one, it likely won’t do much harm, and may end up neutral.

But remember that babies can’t make a moral choice to obey before two. When a baby “obeys” before that, it’s not that they’re doing something right; they’ve simply been conditioned to expect pain. They “obey” out of fear. They’ve learned that people in the world are not safe.

That’s not what God means by obedience. Godly obedience is understanding that there are two choices, and deciding to do the right thing intentionally. This is something else altogether. So we have to ask ourselves: What is it that we want our babies to learn about the world?

And in the light socket example, I’d just simply buy those light socket protectors and baby-proof it!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

What we often miss in this conversation about discipline is the other side: how to engage with your kids.

The other problem with focusing so much of our parenting life on how to curb behaviour and how to discipline or punish kids is that we ignore the other half: how to actually engage with your kids, talk to your kids, interact with your kids. When we spend time with our kids and talk to them and help get them engaged in what’s going on around them, they learn so much. And they also form relationships with you so that they feel safe and they want to do what’s right. Really, this side of it is just as important, if not more important, than discipline (let alone punishment) and yet we so rarely talk about it.

That’s what Rebecca found in Why I Didn’t Rebel, too. We focus so much on rules for our teens, when what they really need is to be able to talk to us.

If you’re struggling with this idea of engaging rather than just punishing, can I suggest two resources?

I absolutely love the book Discipline that Connects with Your Child’s Heart by Jim and Lynne Jackson.

And then, if your kids are older, say 9 and up, take a look at Why I Didn’t Rebel (although it’s a great read even if your kids are younger, too, to start thinking about the relationship you want with them when they’re teens!)

You can teach your baby “no” without abusing them.

(Hitting a baby is abuse in Canada, and I refuse to call it anything else). Alex had a BAD biting problem when he was eating where he would grind his gums together and it was absolutely excruciating. So anytime he did it I said “no” firmly and we stopped feeding. We went and played for 10 minutes and then I offered him milk again. It took a few days, but within a week he had stopped biting me because biting didn’t lead to the desired outcome: milk. He did not suddenly think, “Huh, I must be doing something mom doesn’t want me to do when I bite her, so maybe I’ll try not biting her instead.” He was not capable of that complex of a thought at the time. Instead, it was very simple. He tried X and wanted to see what it would give him. X failed to give him good outcomes and instead led to the loss of good things. X no longer became something his little brain wanted to do.

Spanking is not the only way to discipline difficult children.

I talked extensively with a doctor of psychology who works with incredibly severe behavioural disorders in children on a daily basis. She also teaches parenting psychology at the PhD level at one of the best psychology schools in Canada and runs a part of the practicum program for students training to do what she does. She deals with incredibly difficult children–“strong willed” wouldn’t begin to describe it. She has a multitude of evidence-based parenting and behavioural management strategies she uses that WORK as long as the parent is invested and involved. You know what isn’t on her list of tools? Spanking. If she can get kids with diagnosed behavioural issues to behave–even ones who have been expelled from multiple schools–without spanking them, I find it hard to believe that there is literally no other option but spanking for children who are strong-willed or stubborn. Rather, I encourage parents to humbly talk to a parenting psychologist. This is what they do, and odds are your kid will seem like a piece of cake compared to some of their clients. Read books on parenting from evidence-based approaches. Ask for help for non-abusive and non-spanking parenting techniques. Look into cognitive development research so that you understand how your child’s brain works and you get ahead of the problem. If your 10-month-old is poking her fingers into electrical sockets, the answer is not to hit her–the answer is to cover the sockets.

Non-spanking parenting techniques are, frankly, harder and take more time and effort.

Spanking gets results. You hit your child, the child stops what they are doing. But as a parent, it is not your job to find the easiest path to compliance. It is our job as parents to do what is best for our child, even if it means it takes more from us. It is not right to expose your child to something that has been shown to lead to a much greater risk of mental health issues, lower quality familial bonds, and externalizing behaviours if it is unnecessary. And it is unnecessary. So please, do the research, look at other options, and don’t be willing to go with the easy option that’s potentially going to harm your kid. Because is that a risk you really want to take, if there are other options that work that don’t carry the risk?

Rebecca Lindenbach

What if I told you that not all teenagers rebel?

And what if I told you that a lot of typical parenting advice makes rebellion more likely?

I interviewed 25 young adults, trying to figure out what made them rebel or not.

I hope that helps clarify how to think about spanking.

It’s really about the aim–do we want to connect with our kids and shape character and teach them about God, or do we want to simply change behavior? Because when we do things based on physical force, it’s really about control and fear, not about molding character. If you’re a good parent and you have a good relationship, you can usually withstand it. But it’s DESPITE the spanking, not BECAUSE of it. And there are alternatives!

So now let me know: has your thinking about spanking changed in the last few years? What do you think about it? Let’s talk in the comments!

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Sheila Wray Gregoire

Founder of Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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  1. Truman Miller

    I appreciate so much of what you guys teach, it’s a breath of fresh air.
    And I really like your heart in how to relate to your children.
    So here is my question.
    A lot of us are more committed to the word of God then we are to the latest psychology. So if all those verses in the bible, especially in proverbs, are NOT saying that we should spank our children, then what do they mean.
    We can’t say, well God didn’t understand what the research would show.
    So what do those verses mean?
    Maybe if we related to our children the way you are saying we should AND spank them as well the results might be even better.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Truman, thanks for that thoughtful comment.
      I would say, however, that we are relying on the word of God. What spanking advocates do is look at one verse. What I prefer to do is to look at the whole of Scripture and at the heart of God, specifically Jesus, when He said, “Let the little children come to me.” When you look at how Jesus treated people, and particularly children, and how He took time to listen to people rather than to punish people, you can see that His way of relating to people was very different from what we would expect. We also know that while the Old Testament was focused on both punishments and blessings, the New Testament shows us that heart change comes from regeneration through the Spirit, rather than punishment.
      We also know that God looks to the heart, not to outward appearance.
      Those are all in the word of God. Those are all Scripture. And if what God cares about is the heart, not outward appearance, then we must make sure that our discipline focuses on the heart of a child, not just on impacting outward behaviour. And what we know is that spanking does change outward behaviour, but it does not change the heart in the same way as other discipline methods that rely on relationship. In addition, we know that spanking a child before age 2 is simply conditioning a fear response and has nothing to do with deliberate obedience. Again–outward appearance, rather than heart.
      When I follow the Word of God, I follow Jesus first, because He is the actual Word of God. Scripture points us to Jesus, but Jesus is the one who helps us understand Scripture. And when you look at Jesus, and see Scripture in light of Him, you’ll see what we’re saying.
      I would also say that the verse in Proverbs about the rod was not talking about a small child, but about a teenager (in Hebrew there are several words for child). And yet we use that verse to justify spanking very small children. That’s too bad.

    • Kay

      Are these verses about the literal action, “Thou shalt use physical violence to beat thy child into submission?” Or are they a principle: “Culturally appropriate discipline is important?” I believe these versus are NOT about hitting a child (of ANY) age but rather are about the importance of discipline.
      We now know that using violence against children is harmful. A child cannot feel safe and secure with an adult who deliberately inflicts pain. But that doesn’t mean we don’t discipline. I just keep in mind that discipline means TO TEACH, not “to punish.” So I ask, what will BEST teach the lesson I want my child to learn here? Spanking teaches children that the more powerful have the right to use violence against the weak (the opposite of Jesus’ teachings) and that there IS an appropriate time to use violence. Back when my husband still spanked, my big kids then thought they could spank their younger siblings too. Nope.
      We have found that connection-based parenting is FAR more effective at teaching my kids the skills they need to succeed. So many Christian parents *punish* their children for simply not having the same skills in emotional regulation as a full grown adult. Spanking actually causes ADDITIONAL emotional regulation and distress. So what if we remembered the goal is to teach them the skills to succeed, not punish them for not having the skills to succeed yet—BECAUSE THEY ARE CHILDREN.
      Also, “I’m hitting you because I love you” is a **terrible** life lesson. It just is. Especially for girls. Spanking is violence against children. Period. When we know better, we do better.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Thank you, Kay. That’s wonderful. And let me highlight this in particular:
        “So many Christian parents *punish* their children for simply not having the same skills in emotional regulation as a full grown adult. Spanking actually causes ADDITIONAL emotional regulation and distress.”. Yep.

  2. Truman Miller

    Thank you for responding.
    I love your focus on relationships with our children, without that,spanking is simply abuse .
    And I agree with your comment on following Jesus because he is the embodiment of the word.
    I appreciate how Jesus relates to me as his son. And I focus on relating to my kids with love and respect and out of a relationship.
    There are many verses in proverbs that allude to spanking, not just one.
    Let’s not throw out a method God has given us to discipline our children just because a lot of people abuse it.
    Thanks for the teaching you do I find a lot of it refreshing.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Again, Truman, thank you for your kind words.
      I’d just encourage you to do more research into what the Hebrew for “child” was in those verses. And I’d also point out that a LOT of what the Old Testament directs about parenting children we no longer follow. We do not stone children for disobeying parents. We do not try to get our daughters to marry their rapists. We do not marry multiple wives and have complicated families.
      There are cultural reasons for those things, but we do not do them anymore for several reasons. We are no longer under the Old Testament law; but also we know that culture has changed and we are now able to do things that are more emotionally healthy.
      Take the woman marrying her rapist, for instance. The reason Scripture encouraged this is that men would rape women, “ruin” them for any other marriage partner, and then leave them destitute, with no way to care for themselves. And sometimes they’d even be pregnant. Even though marrying your rapist is abhorrent, it was the only way for a woman to be protected and to have social standing in that society.
      Today women no longer face that choice. Rape does not mean your life is over or that you are unmarriageable. And you can support yourself without marrying. So we would never, ever tell a woman she should marry her rapist (at least I hope we wouldn’t) because we know that’s not healthy.
      But in the culture of the time, that was God being gracious. That was better than women were treated in other cultures.
      I’d just encourage all to take a bigger look at Scripture, that’s all. I hope that makes sense!

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Additionally, one more thing: if you are saying that we should spank because of what Proverbs says, and that Proverbs tells us to spank young children, then I’d have to say that it doesn’t. What Proverbs tells us is that we should beat older children with a shepherd’s stick–similar to a walking stick. So unless you are beating your child with a walking stick, you aren’t actually following what Proverbs says about it, either. Proverbs is not talking about spanking a child’s bare bottom with your open hand. Spanking is not in the Bible. Beating your child with a rod is in the Bible.
        Also, Proverbs were not prescriptive; they were descriptive. They are not commands, but principles. So I think there’s a lot of nuance there that we need to remember.

        • Anne

          Sheila’s analysis here is spot-on, but I wanted to reference one more source that has helped me greatly in my understanding of these passages and their cultural context: “Heartfelt Discipline” by Clay Clarkson. It devotes a lot of time to exegesis of the passages most commonly cited to justify (or indeed require) spanking.

      • Truman Miller

        Thanks for your comments. I enjoy different perspectives. I’ll need to process this for awhile.

      • Rogue

        Also the verse about sparing the rod and spoiling the child shouldn’t be taken in modern English interpretation. The rod was used to guide them, not beat them. Most of the time when the term rod is used, it’s in the context of shepherding IE Psalm 23. And shepherds didn’t abuse their livestock if they were smart. And on a totally random note, has anyone ever encountered that atrociously horrible maligning of the lost sheep parable where the shepherd breaks its legs when he finds it? Somehow I think this all falls into the same circle of teaching..

  3. Kay

    I wish I could find the post now, but I recently saw a parenting page that said “If you believe it is okay to use violence against children because you were spanked as a kid and “turned out fine,” then you did NOT in fact turn out fine.”
    And frankly, telling a child “God wants me to hit you” is **spiritual** abuse too. I refuse to mince words here.

    • Meghan

      Ooooh, I’m going to use those lines the next time someone tells me I’m not obeying God because we don’t spank our daughter!

      • Jane Eyre

        Please do not use that line to persuade, ever.
        It’s a verbal smack down and just shows that you think you’re better because you use nasty words disguised in a clever saying to belittle people.
        Bluntly, users of that line *insults how someone turned out as an adult* and then expect that the object of their insults will turn to them for child rearing advice.

    • Jane

      From experience, I don’t spank my kids because I was spanked as a child and it was very unhelpful. It addressed my outward behaviour but made me feel more angry and unrepentant. Sometimes I even got angry for myself for getting punished.
      It made us compliant and fearful but not mature. So trying a different sort of parenting with my own kids where there is a lot more conversation and training.

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Exactly! that’s very common. I have a family member who was spanked until he cried. His siblings would cry IMMEDIATELY as soon as the spanking started. He would never, ever cry because he was so mad and so stubborn. So his spankings would go on forever, and his siblings would be hissing, “Just cry!” But he was mad. It really doesn’t address the heart.

  4. K

    I think the bigger problem is our view of God. As someone who grew up with some spanking and read several of the bad marriage books talked about in this blog, I’ve come to realize that the ultimate problem with those “Christian” parenting and marriage approaches is that they distort the nature of God. Someone overflowing with the real joy of the Lord is not likely to spank.
    Connected families website (authors of book Sheila recommends above) also has a good discussion on spanking

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      YES! K, it really does all come down to this, and I’m glad you mentioned that. It’s all about what you believe God to be like? People who think they must break their child’s spirits in order for that child to be obedient must think that God does that to us–that He is cruel. And that’s so, so sad.

  5. Eliza

    My older two children were 4 and 5 when we realized that spanking was counter-productive for each of them, for different reasons. It was completely out of our experience to try to raise children without spanking. But we could see it was only hurting our relationship with our children, so we stopped. Their baby twin siblings were never spanked.
    In the chaos of young children we did sometimes wonder how to get through without spanking, but what we found was that conflict always signaled a need to increase our relationship. By changing the question from, “How can I make this hurt enough to stop the behavior?” to “What do they need to learn here and what’s the best way to teach it?” there was always another approach.
    And it’s maybe too soon to tell (my mom always said don’t give parenting advice until your kids are fully grown) but it’s been over a decade and with a houseful of teens I am amazed every day at how little conflict we have. Some between the kids, of course, but very rare between the kids and us, and when it happens we work it through like adults, listening to their concerns, talking about why things need to be a certain way and why it matters.
    I don’t jump down the throats of people who spank because I was there and I know good parents who spank and still have good relationships with their kids. But for people who are getting uncomfortable, I’d say–give it a try, there are other ways.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Eliza, this is perfect! And that was our experience, too. There was conflict between the kids, but rarely with us. We did a LOT of work with the kids when they were young, but as they grew, life just got more and more fun.

  6. Danite

    We very rarely spanked our boys. It was easier to say no explain why it was wrong and show them the correct way. Or always encourage the correct behavior. We also, trained our puppies this way.lol I’ve caught myself many times thinking, people should have puppies first and find a trainer who uses positive reinforcement methods over harsh ones. How much better and calmer the household would be. Lol

    • Hannah

      I so agree with this! I loved this article and learning about this, even though I don’t have kids yet.
      But I do have a Miniature Schnauzer – spunky, sweet, affectionate , AND stubborn as molasses in sub-zero temperatures 😂 I found VERY quickly after bringing her home at 8 weeks old, that like many children, swatting her for things made her resentful and more mouthy and angry.
      But Zach George is a FANTASTIC dog trainer with loads of free YouTube videos and a couple awesome books. He uses an evidence-based approach with no violence and doesn’t buy into the whole ‘dominance’ based approach. He teaches you how to communicate and have a good relationship with your dog.
      It may sound stupid, but this experience alone started to make me think in different ways about spanking. Now I know that if I do have kids, spanking will not be something I do.
      Learning communication over inflicting a fear-based response is better every time – with dogs too, it turns out! 😄🥰

  7. Doug

    I get concerned that we only look at physical discipline from either extreme…on one hand, no physical discipline at all, and the children are terrors, and on the other, children are abused because of hateful, vengeful physical discipline. There is no question that scripture refers to parents physically disciplining their children…Prov 23:13-14, and numerous other scriptures. Let us not decide that psychologists know more than God knows, and cut that out of our Bibles. That is a slippery slope. But we must parent first out of love and understanding, since that is how God treats us. But He does discipline us. And yes, there are many ways OTHER than physical discipline that often work better, depending on the situation and the child. There aren’t many occasions that a child needs to be spanked. But there may be some. In that case, we follow scripture…using diligence…to train, and not to punish. Just because people decide that something plainly conveyed (in context) in God’s word isn’t appealing, doesn’t negate its truth. Once again, love is the overarching motivation. It must be ever present. Sometimes it’s gentle, and sometimes it’s tough.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Doug, you’re using a fallacy here. You’re assuming that no physical discipline means the children are terrors. We never spanked either of my girls, and they are lovely, were always lovely, and both love the Lord. And other forms of discipline have been found to be far more effective than spanking.
      The Bible also does not speak of spanking. Depending on your interpretation of the word “rod” (some say it means a shepherd’s crook and that it was about guiding, not hitting sheep), either the Bible is speaking about beating your child with a stick, or about guiding them without hitting them. In neither case is it talking about using an open hand smack on a small child’s bottom, which is what we normally mean by spanking. The Hebrew word for “child” in those verses in Proverbs usually refers to a child older than 10 as well, so the Bible does not speak of doing what we consider “spanking” to a young child.
      Discipline does not have to involve spanking, and it’s actually more effective if it doesn’t. Spanking inspires compliance, but does not address the heart. Other forms of discipline do, and God cares for the heart, not outward appearance.

  8. Boone

    I know that this is a bit hard to believe but I was a bit of a rascal growing up. I got my rear lit up fairly frequently. The thing was it just didn’t do any good. I’d just bow up and dare mom or dad to break me. Most of the time I didn’t break.
    I got into karate at age eight and after learning about the Bushido Code, which I thought was cool, I did my best to follow it. That settled my behavior down a bit.
    Fast forward a few years and I’m the father of three. My middle son, that now practices law with me, had a thing for his Dr. Seuss books. After he was put to bed he’d get all thirty or so of them and drag them into bed with him. One night he just wouldn’t go to sleep. My exhausted and very frustrated wife told me to go spank him. Well, I went in. There were books all over the bed and all over the floor and he was sitting there with a big grin on his face. I said, “Johnny, you have made a mess!” He smiled up at me with pride in his eyes and replied, “I did!” I looked down at him and said, “And a fine one it is, too,Son.” I just couldn’t do it. I read to him a while and dropped off to sleep. I never spanked one of the three again after that day. You know what? They all turned out just fine.

    • Rebecca Lindenbach

      Oh, Boone, that’s a beautiful picture of what it means to treasure our children and not hinder them in their joy.

  9. Doug

    I think you’re missing my point, and maybe misinterpreting my intentions. I agree with you…just because someone doesn’t spank their children doesn’t mean they will turn out to be terrors. But we’ve all seen children that were left to their own wills that DO run amok. That’s due to a general lack of boundaries by the parents than anything else. When I refer to “spanking”, I mean corporal discipline in general. And I agree 100% that other forms may be more effective, and if so they should be used. My two wonderful adult children also love the Lord, and are actively serving Him. They were occasionally “spanked” when they were openly defiant. They were not disciplined with a hand. It’s too easy to overdo that kind of discipline. And no, they weren’t “beaten with a rod” either. That would have been too harsh. And I do agree with you that it is not appropriate with very young children. They need to be able to cognitively understand the issue. And yes, we do need to understand the specifics of “child”, “rod”, “beat”, etc. We do need to be loving and appropriate. But saying that it’s patently wrong to use physical discipline in any form and at any time goes against what is in scripture. This mindset has only been around for what, maybe 50-60 years or so…out of thousands of years of successful child-rearing. And society managed to survive quite well. Regarding the 10 yrs old reference, irrespective of physical discipline, if a parent waits until their child is 10 to set boundaries, they’ve waited far too long…it may be too late by then. My main point is that man comes up with all kinds of “latest opinions”, but the theme and teaching in God’s word has never changed, and it never will. We can’t pretend it doesn’t apply, just because we don’t agree with it. What other things will we ignore in scripture just because we don’t agree with it? We DO need to correctly understand scripture, and apply it. As I said before, if we don’t rear our children out of deep love (not authority), we have failed as a parent. Thank you for taking the time to respond. I have a lot of respect for what you’re doing in your ministry. Keep up the great work.

    • Minta

      Thank you, Doug, my husband and I totally agree that what you’re saying is the Bible’s position on this issue.

    • Hannah

      I’d like to humbly suggest that there are physical punishment methods that don’t involve beating or hitting.
      If you ground your child or physically create an experience where they miss something, or lose something, that is still a physical consequence.
      I’ll be honest, my parents grounding me from my piano (which was the thing I loved best in the world) for a week was WAY more effective than spanking me ever was. 😄
      Just a thought to ponder. I’m not going to cherry pick the Bible. Just something to consider✌🏽

  10. Misty S

    1. I’d like to say that Shepherding a Child’s Heart does emphasize the relationship aspect. Although he allows, and encourages spanking, the heart of the book is relationship, not just parent-child, but also parent-God and child-God. I had to stop spanking just because I didn’t have the physical strength, and out of frustration, I re-read the book and can say, it has been very helpful without spanking.
    2. I think for babies/toddlers, there’s a sad-but-necessary-in-a-fallen-world part of the pain and fear question, and that’s because Mom can’t be everywhere at all times, and the “fence” (the outlet cover in the example discussed) might get left out for many reasons, not to mention times when you’re a guest. It’s really frustrating to be visiting someone, even if it’s your own mom, in a non-childproof house if you haven’t at least done some of this pain-fear connection.

    • Wild Honey

      Respectfully, I think this is one of the things that makes “Shepherding a Child’s Heart” particularly dangerous. That the problems, the very big problems, are woven in amongst very helpful truths, and very trusting and/or desperate parents who listen to a respected spiritual authority figure say they “loved” the book aren’t always going to trust their guts if something sounds wonky.
      Problem – “Immaturity is no excuse for misbehavior.” (Without drawing a distinction between misbehavior from an infant for wriggling during an uncomfortable diaper change compared to a teenager openly rebelling against their parent’s sound advice. Both these lumped under “no excuse.”)
      Truth – Talk to your child to find out why they misbehaved, so you can better understand and address the heart behind it. (Yay!)
      Problem – “If your child doesn’t obey you, they are in open rebellion against God.” (The parent is not always right. The other day, I mixed up my kids’ toothbrushes. Were they in rebellion for refusing to brush with the wrong toothbrush? Nope. Instead, it was an opportunity to teach how to respectfully disagree with an authority figure.)
      Truth – “You need to understand the motivations of a child’s heart to better train them.” (Yay!)
      Problem – “When your children are fighting because one took a toy from the other, they are both sinning. One is greedy, the other is selfish.” (Instead of using this as an opportunity to teach the “greedy” one that it’s ok to have wants and desires, but that we must use our words to respectfully communicate, and then learn to live with the disappointment if the answer is no… We teach him that it’s a sin to have wants and desires. Instead of teaching the “selfish” child that it’s ok to have boundaries and personal possessions, while also encouraging how we can bless others by sharing what God has blessed us with, and teach about the Golden Rule… We teach him that it’s a sin to have boundaries and he must give give give of himself even if it hurts or is destructive. PS – Jesus didnt give in every time someone wanted something of him, either. Why must we expect this of our children?)

      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        What you’re saying about boundaries is so important, Wild Honey. thank you.
        Too often the way we parent runs roughshod over children’s boundaries, and we teach them that it’s wrong to have any. And then they grow up and have no idea how to have boundaries or how to honor other people’s boundaries, and it leads to a lot of relationship problems and emotional turmoil.
        Boundaries are really important for emotional health, and we need to teach kids that it’s okay to have emotions; that it’s okay to not want to do something; that it’s okay to not want someone to touch you. There may be times they have to do something anyway, but we can explain why, and at least verbally honor how they are feeling.

  11. Joy

    All the “but it’s in the Bible!” stuff is ridiculous. Slavery is in the Bible, as well as stoning people. May I point out Jesus stopped a stoning, even though that practice was very much in the Old Testament.
    Also if literal interpretation of the Bible is your arguement for spanking your children (or rather, as Sheila pointed out earlier in the comments, for hitting them with a stick), I hope you don’t eat any shrimp, don’t own any poly-blend sweaters and have never, ever worked on a Saturday. It’s interesting how many people believe in a very literal interpretation of ALL of the Bible when it suits them but always seem to forget about this parts.

    • Hannah

      Haha, this is the best comment – thank you for this gem👏🏽👏🏽😄💙 It’s so true that people’s ‘literal interpretation’ of the Bible is soooooooooo hypocritical sometimes. We’ve all done it, but the key is to learn from it and, maybe instead of assuming we DEFINITELY have the answers, listen curiously to learn.
      Jesus is still teaching all of us every day. Jesus is also a very metaphorical teacher – He used so many parables of metaphorical/allegorical examples of lessons He taught. I think when we read the Bible we must always remember that. And we must always remember that each and every one of us did not get the ‘literal’ punishment and eternity that we de severed because Jesus came to fulfill the Law once and for all so we could be freed by His grace, mercy, and sacrifice.
      We should do our best to extend that kind of love to everyone in our lives, especially kids!
      Thanks for your comment💕

  12. Grace

    I would like you to please consider and possibly clarify something, especially since you usually are very Biblically based in your posts (although this one doesn’t seem to be). Are you saying that those who truly believe that spanking (NOT abusive beating or hitting infants) is commanded by Scripture are in sin? If so, I respectfully disagree. I’m not arguing the merits of spanking versus not spanking, but I think that it is legalistic and twisting Scripture to fit your own means if you say that this is a sin.
    I’m citing one of your own posts here, as I think that it is relevant here, since you underlined the importance of remaining respectful of others’ beliefs and opinions, even when differing from personal views.
    I am also curious to know what you think of when you think of spanking. I ask because many of your examples tend to be about abusive beating or harsh hitting. I can think of many people who use spanking as a form of discipline who could not be accused of being even slightly abusive.
    Please note: I say this as the child of parents who were borderline abusive spankers. I agree that there can be many other and possibly better alternatives, but I also respect that parents have the right to their own beliefs and opinions on the best discipline methods, as long as they do not abuse their children.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Grace, I don’t think a light spanking is a matter of sin. However, in most European countries it is actually against the law. In Canada, it’s against the law to spank children under 2 and older than 12, and it’s against the law to use any implement other than an open hand.
      Also, I think once people have read the research and realize the effects of spanking, I do think most people would change their mind. And I do think that once we are aware of things, God holds us responsible for them in a way that He wouldn’t otherwise. But I wouldn’t say that this is a sin issue–though I do really want to educate people on the fact that there are other techniques that do NOT harm attachment and result in negative consequences. I don’t understand, really, why people wouldn’t rather use techniques that have been shown not to harm, rather than ones that have been shown to be quite harmful.
      As for whether or not I’ve used Scripture, I think if you read the comments here you’ll see lots of Scripture. And, again, I point you to “People look to outward appearance, but God looks to the heart.” It is the heart that matters, not outward behaviour. So we must ask ourselves, what actually impacts the heart? The aim is not compliance or blind obedience; the aim is a changed heart. And for that, spanking works against it.
      Spanking is a fear-based technique. It teaches kids to act a certain way out of fear, rather than out of conscience or a desire to be like Christ. And it also is a control technique, whereby parents have control over their children. God doesn’t want us to treat our children in a way that they fear us; God doesn’t want to control us. I fear that many of us are sending messages to our children about God’s character that are wrong, and kids are getting a picture of God through the way that we teach them, and that picture is very painful.

      • Hannah

        I agree. And I think this may be a case that falls in line with the verse in 1 Corinthians 6:12: “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful.”
        Sure we CAN, but when we have a better, more beneficial way….why would we?🤔

      • Hannah

        Also, I will further comment in response to the people who are trying to say ‘well psychology isn’t as important as the Bible’….consider. God invented the brain. He gave certain people and doctors the gift to learn to understand the brain and human nature and learn why certain things are or aren’t helpful.
        I would like to point out that:
        1) God is the ultimate Psychologist.
        2) Psychology, like most things in life, can be good or not good DEPENDING ON HOW IT’S USED.
        We can use it to control, manipulate, and psychologically abuse….yes most people don’t do this, but it’s a possibility. I have a relative that isn’t far off from this sort of behavior sadly.
        OR – we can use it to be more emotionally healthy, be more kind and compassionate to ourselves and others, and be more effective and loving hands and feet of Jesus. We can use it to learn to heal, and to comfort others. We can learn to do better and not cause harm…Jesus is always teaching us, through whatever is around us. We just have to open our eyes to see it.
        Like many many things….psychology is neutral. It’s how we use it that counts.
        I know many christians that won’t even take psychology seriously bevause ‘well many psychologists aren’t christians’ – and I would like to counter that by saying: Didn’t God use even Pharaoh?
        Many doctors, mathematicians, physicists, chemists, etc. aren’t christians, but we don’t have a problem with believing what they say and believing the root of Pi, for example. We don’t question that.
        So….maybe try to get curious about psychology.
        God invented it. We follow God. Let’s use psychology to honor Him as we learn more about the amazing ways God made our minds and bodies!

      • Grace

        Thank you for clarifying. I did see that in the comments you had used Scripture, but you had not in your post, and I was not clear whether or not you were arguing that spanking is a sin issue.
        I would agree that it would be a sin issue if it was not legal in your country or state, and you did it anyway, as we are called to obey our authorities.
        I am not arguing with your research or your opinion, I just think that it is important to remember that just because someone has a different opinion or a different cultural background DOES NOT mean that they are WRONG or in sin. I think that your research is supported and I agree with you that there are better ways. We should all be willing to learn from others and be willing to consider other points of view on subjects which are not clearly outlined as sin in Scripture.

  13. Boone

    One has to be careful to remember that spanking from emotions can get a situation out of hand right quick. All of this debate brought to mind an incident from my childhood.
    I grew up, and still live on, a farm that backs up to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Bears were a common sight in the neighborhood. As long as you kept your garbage and animal feed secured they really weren’t any trouble. Now, our bears don’t sleep all winter. They fatten up in Nov and Dec and then den up around the first week in Jan. It can get up into the 50’s in Jan and Feb here so the bears will get out and starch a bit on sunny days.
    A couple of weeks before Christmas the year I was ten I headed out to feed the horses on Saturday morning. I remember it was cold. Now, just about wherever I went around the farm I carried a slingshot that I had made from a hickory fork and some surgical tubing. I also carried a coat pocket full of rocks for ammunition. While I was in the barn I heard the worst racket coming from the direction of the smokehouse. I ran out to see the dogs attacking a bear that was trying to pry the smokehouse door open. I had a mountain cur named Ranger. Dad kept a border collie named Jack to work the cattle. Both dogs were after the bear. One would get his attention on one side while the other would charge in and bite him on the other.
    We had killed hogs the Saturday after Thanksgiving as we always did. Eight prime hogs had been dressed and cut up. The meat was in salting tubs in the smokehouse. That meat represented a lot of money and a lot of man hours of work and the bear was after it.
    About then the bear caught Ranger a good lick in the ribs and sent him sprawling. He yelped when hit and lay still. That bear had had the audacity to come on our place, try to steal our meat and hurt my dog. I grabbed my slingshot and advanced firing as I walked. I got to about about 20 or so feet from that bear and was bouncing rocks off his head as fast as I could shoot. Old Ranger regained his footing and charged back into the fight.
    My Dad, hearing the noise grabbed the old Winchester that he kept above the black door and came running. When he saw what was going on he started yelling a fired a couple of shots into the air. The poor bear then decided that all of this was just too much trouble and lit out up the hill with the dogs in hot pursuit. Dad leaned the rifle against the fence, grabbed me and began wearing me out and yelling at me for being stupid enough to mix it up with a bear. I was trying to get away and yelling that the bear was after the meat and had hurt Ranger. My Grandpa walked up about that time and started yelling at both of us. Then he started laughing. Then Dad started laughing. I tried to stay indignant but I started laughing. Dad grabbed me up, hugged me and told me he was sorry for whipping me but if I ever did anything like that again I wouldn’t be able to sit down until I was old enough to vote.
    Grandpa went down to the hardware store to get some big lag screws and sawmill oak to shore up the smokehouse door. While he was there he told his buddies about his crazy grandson taking on a bear that had suddenly increased in size with a sling shot.
    The next day at church the bear was even bigger. Monday at school it was a full blown grizzly. The kid that sat behind me handed me a note from the cute little red haired girl that sat behind him. She wanted to know if she could sit with me at lunch and hear all about it. Of course, when I told her the story the bear was as big as Godzilla and probably rabid.
    I made peace with that old bear after that. I’d see him from time to time up in the fields with the cattle. He never made a move to bother them and never came back down into the barnyard.
    I’ve told this story to say it’s best not to get in the habit of spanking a kid. You never know when your emotions are going to control you and that could get bad in a hurry.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Boone, you should write a book of your stories! I love how you tell them. 🙂

      • Boone

        I’m thinking of doing just that when I retire. I want to write about growing up in the mountains and being witness to the sunset of a way of life that has existed for over 300 years all the way back to Scotland.
        I must apologize. I’m seriously off topic here. Just a bit nostalgic today.

  14. L.

    Hi. I first discovered you when you were a guest with Mike Huckabee, on TBN.
    I appreciate your work!
    I must say that I’m reading an undertone of superiority when you or your daughter write that Canada has a no spank policy, or “we don’t do xxx in Canada”. I agree that “hitting a baby is abuse.”
    That is illegal in the USA, too. ANYONE here who writes that corporal punishment to a baby is okay, should be horsewhipped. (See how they like that!)
    My parents were very harsh. Didn’t have a lot of time for development. Just militancy. I think that example of parenting should be: just don’t have any.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I’m glad you discovered me there! I did have a good time on the show.
      L, the laws in Canada and the U.S. are actually quite different. Canada does have stricter laws, and most European countries have even stricter laws than Canada.
      We just feel that it’s important when people in the comments say that parents should do something that is actually illegal in Canada that we speak up and say that it’s illegal, because if we don’t, people may assume that it’s okay since we’re Canadian. So we have to speak up, in the same way that you would speak up if you were running a blog and people were advocating for things that are actually illegal in the U.S.
      For instance, in the most states, I believe, it is legal to spank with an implement other then your hand. In Canada it is not. I don’t know if any states have any laws making spanking babies illegal; Canada does. And it’s just important that we’re not seen as advocating for something against the law, because some bloggers have gotten into legal trouble for that. That’s why, if, in the comments, someone says something that would be illegal where we live, we have to speak up.

  15. Julia

    Hi I love your blog. But I just wanted to point something out about spanking . It’s very different depending what culture you have. I’m not saying spanking is wrong or right. But as an immigrant I noticed that very few people spank their children in USA. In the country im from it is a normal part of growing up. As it is in many many other cultures as well. Is that so wrong? Its kind of hard to tell immigrant parents/ children to change their way of rearing children when culture is such a big part of who we are.

  16. Dawn

    I love your blog. However, I feel so many people are telling you what you should think about something recently, as if we are not educated enough to formulate our own opinions. (“I hope this helps you how to think about spanking”). We did do extensive research, talked to our pediatrician before we decided to spank our boys. We decided to spank between the ages of 2 & 12 (which I think is interesting you mentioned that number for Canada). Under 2, kids just don’t understand. It is better to redirect, remove the temptation, etc. Over 12, there are better techniques as children mature. We discussed this with our pediatrician, and he agreed that while it isn’t “popular” with the younger pediatrician’s, he thought it was effective with many (not all children). He also felt the trend would switch back in the future to spank a child in an appropriate manner. We spanked specifically if the child did something unsafe (ran in front of a car or tried swinging from a ceiling fan off of a bunk bed–having a talk with a 3 year old why it isn’t safe to do these things wasn’t going to stick with my boys, a firm spanking (on the bottom only with our hand is what we decided) instills a healthy fear not to do that again.) The second reason we spanked was for repeated willful disobedience. We also decided we wouldn’t spank when we were mad or angry at the child (and if you think this is the easier way, we obviously don’t see eye to eye–what mom wants to cause her child pain?). My boys are 9 & 11. We will stop spanking the older child (with his nature, I think spanking was a better tool for him). We may stop spanking my younger child as he has some behavior issues–and I don’t think spanking is the best method for him). We love our children very much, we have a good relationship with our children. I can’t remember the last time I spanked either child. It isn’t something we do that often. But I think every parent needs to do the research themselves. You will find psychologist that endorse spanking, you will find pediatricians that do too. And you will find ones that think it is awful. I work in the public schools, and I see so many entitled spoiled children. Children need loving discipline to become healthy adults. God wants us to do what is best to raise our children, and I believe spanking is one of those tools (and not for all kids). We did that research, and the new trend of not spanking has not changed my mind. But please when people say they spank their child, don’t assume it’s a baby. Don’t assume they are smacking them left and right. Don’t assume they are doing it every day. (I acknowledge there are likely people that do) Find out their reasons behind why they believe what they do. They might just have an informed opinion as well.

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Dawn,
      Thanks for your comment and clarification, and it really does sound like you’re a very loving parent!
      I just need to point out (my husband, a pediatrician, would be upset if I didn’t) that both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Pediatric Society have position papers saying that parents should not spank their children. I’m not saying that there aren’t pediatricians who advocate spanking; it’s just that my husband is quite adamant that whenever pediatrics comes up on the blog that I do share what the American Academy and the Canadian Pediatric Society says, because it isn’t widely known.
      I also was very, very surprised with all the outcry about these posts. I think perhaps because I’m in Canada I don’t realize that these things are as controversial as they are (and many of my European readers and New Zealand readers have written to me quite confused over it as well). I do think that in different parts of the world, the debate is very different. I guess the body of Christ is very diverse the world over!

  17. Delie

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post. My husband and I have been married for 7 months, and we are expecting our first. Needless to say, we have LOTS of things to research right now. I guess this is an important issue to add to the list.
    One thing I noticed in reading your post and comments was your emphasis on changing children’s hearts, not outward behaviors. That sounds appealing, but I’m not sure I understand what you mean. Would you mind elaborating? As a Christian, I don’t believe that I can change my child’s heart from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh (which probably isn’t what you’re arguing). Are you referring to training virtues and good character? How much would you say that it is in a parent’s power to change their child’s heart?
    Thanks in advance!

    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Delie! Yes, what we’re aiming for is to help children understand good decisions and want to do those things because they are the right thing to do. that’s why we focus on character, not behaviour.

  18. Liz

    Thank you for this well-written and clear piece. I agree wholeheartedly. I believe that spanking has become more cultural in the church and is done out of fear on the part of parents. I do not believe it is Biblical… how can a rod provide “comfort” in one verse and then be used to inflict physical pain in another?
    What’s most difficult to me is the misuse and out of context reference that is always thrown at parents who choose not to spank. I cannot bring myself to believe that physical discipline is in his heart for his precious children.
    Both my brother and I were spanked and it caused me deep, deep shame. About myself and my family. When we became parents we chose to discipline in other ways- time out, natural consequences, retribution to siblings etc. We have 6 kids and it isn’t easy. There are days I wish for the easier route, but we are committed to honoring their hearts and bodies in our parenting.
    Thank you for the encouragement.

  19. Kyle Boone

    I’m a fan of what much of this website has to say. Thank you, thank you, thank you for all your hard work that very much pleases our Lord!
    However, I feel like this entry opens a door to remove Biblical authority. The premise of this entry is that social science trumps biblical authority. To be fair, how can one even begin to quantify research that “proves” spanking is harmful in children? There are so many factors that go into parenting and child rearing. Social science is not “hard” science, and there are too many control variables to make any sort of definitive statement (personality of the child, manner in which spanking was administered, family dynamics, etc…).
    With regards to comments that bash the Old Testament, don’t forget that Jesus upheld the Law and said that “every jot and tittle” will be established. Jesus believed in the full inspiration of the Old Testament. The God of the New Testament is the same as the God of the Old Testament. Some of the methods of interpretation displayed here are dreadful. We may laugh and joke about dietary laws, we do not understand; but they were instructive to the Israelites about holiness (creatures that mixed habitats) and they kept the Israelites separate from the surrounding nations to discourage intermingling and marriage. Other laws functioned as the lesser of two evils in an ancient, agrarian society. Far too many Christians discount the “Old Testament”, but fail to realize that Jesus upheld it as God’s word. Even while some of the laws no longer apply, the principle behind the law reflects the righteousness of God.
    With regards to physical discipline to children, it is clearly taught in the Old Testament. Sorry, the research conflicts with the Bible. Does this mean every child needs physical discipline? Of course not. We should all use wisdom in not only interpreting the Bible, but applying it. For some children, physical discipline is ineffective, and there are clearly more effective means. However, according to the Bible, physical discipline may be appropriate in some circumstances.
    We recoil in our day at the idea of physical punishment, most likely due to the prevalence of physical abuse. However, I would argue that sometimes verbal punishments cut far deeper and last way longer (“I’m so disappointed in you! I can’t believe you would do that! What’s wrong with you?!”). Physical discipline that is calm and under control can be an effective deterrent.
    Also, I would challenge the notion that God never wants us to fear Him. Jesus didn’t describe hell as a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth” to make us feel calm. Jesus told abusers that he would hang a millstone around their neck and cast them into the sea. These are deterrent based on fear. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God. The purpose of physical discipline is to deter a person from greater destruction down the road.
    Yes, I think we ought to give a fair warning that “spanking” is not the key to having your child turn out correctly. In fact, spanking can become abuse. Yet, the Bible does teach that physical discipline can be an effective deterrent, and a parent will wisely discipline their child so that they avoid future destruction (“You will save their soul from Sheol”).
    Thanks again for all your hard work. I’ve really benefited from some of the other posts!


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