Long before Adrian Peterson’s story hit the news, my hubby and I have been wrestling with the whole to spank or not to spank argument. Both of us grew up with parents who believed whole-heartedly in the doctrine of “spare the rod, spoil the child.” (Although the use of Proverbs 13:24 as a support for corporal punishment is a gross misinterpretation of scripture).
I’m fairly certain that if, years ago, you asked either of us whether or not we would use spanking to discipline our child, our answers would have been an unequivocal yes.
Now, we are not so sure.
Check it: We have a feisty, sassy mouthed three-year-old who, of course, hasn’t quite mastered the art of listening. Obedience is very much a challenge for us.
In fact, we’ve thankfully just exited a phase of Ms. K’s that I credit as the catalyst for us re-thinking where we stand on this issue. In short, our baby girl loved to hit. When she was frustrated, it was nothing for her to swing her tiny hand at us or anyone else. Our own childhood experience, and dare I say instinct, told us that the best way to respond to our child’s refusal to obey our “Stop” and “No” was to give her a little pop on the bottom to redirect her behavior.
But early on, this occurred to me: How does hitting her teach her not to hit? The simple answer is, it doesn’t. You can’t teach a child not to hit by hitting them, the same way you can’t teach a shoplifter not to steal by stealing from them. The whole “show them how it feels” argument is flimsy. Most people don’t learn that way and, bottom line, it doesn’t make sense.
But I find the issue to be more complicated than that. See, I understand the stressed out, overwhelmed, one-minute-from-a-breakdown mom who finds herself echoing her own mother: “You got one more time to…” In that moment, nothing makes sense. Not the heat rising on the inside, not the pretty little girl who has just thrown her doll at you, and not the very rational truth that spanking is not a good idea.
So I get it. Some may not. Some may be quick to judge. Some may be ready to throw you under the bus and run you over. But I don’t want to do that.
(Sidebar: I am not talking to YOU, Mom and Dad, who are whipping your children with extension cords and switches because they spilled some milk on your precious hardwood floors or because they look like their father/mother or because YOU had a bad day or because you are intoxicated. YOU, I judge. Severely.)
But there’s another group of parents out there. A group that is wrestling with all this. A group that knows there is a better way but doesn’t know how to find their way to that path. A group that grew up being spanked and is struggling with detaching from what they’ve always known because…and here’s the rub…the spankings, in our mind, worked.
But I guess the real question is, WHAT exactly worked?
See the spankings and whoopins we got as children did exactly what they were designed to do: redirect our behavior. I suppose that’s why so many people use the “look how I turned out” argument to support spanking. There were clear results: I did something wrong, I was spanked, and I didn’t do that thing again.
But I think we should look deeper. Let’s really look at how we turned out.
From a behavioral standpoint, spankings made it clear to us what not to do. At least what not to do when no one who mattered was looking. So, in a sense, the behavior modification was temporary and maintained only by the fear we had of “getting in trouble.”
So when the fear was gone…either because we’d built up immunity to the pain from spankings or because we grew up… so went the modified behavior for the most part.
Yes, spanking offers simple behavioral modification. But behavior modification does not build character and wholeness—which is what I would say most parents want for their children. It is character and wholeness that truly prevents us from “doing wrong.” It seems to me that, the question of the violence of it aside, spanking just begets obedience for obedience sake. A child who does something wrong and is spanked for it has nothing of substance holding the changed behavior in place. Even if a parent tries to talk to the child about their behavior afterward, I suspect their words will be drowned out about the sadness, anger, frustration, and pain that came from the spanking. I mean, I can’t tell you a word my parents said before, while, or after they spanked me. At all. Can you?
Yeah, I didn’t think so.
So, in a sense, spanking doesn’t address the most important and sustaining factor in a child’s understanding of what’s right and wrong: the state of the little one’s heart.
The good people I know who believe in spanking as one of many forms of discipline do so because they believe it’s a remedy for disobedience. They believe that punishment (and even the threat of it) somehow makes people obedient. And I will concede that it does. For a moment. Maybe even for a long season. Yet, what it doesn’t do is make them care. It doesn’t turn their hearts toward what is right. It doesn’t develop what I call remorse muscles. It doesn’t build integrity. It corrects the behavior but it doesn’t correct what motivated the behavior.
Here’s what I’m learning: the true remedy for disobedience is repentance. As parents, we have to foster character-building—developing children with repentant hearts. Nurturing children who learn boundaries and how to obey, not because they are threatened with physical harm, but because they clearly understand the great spiritual devastation that comes with doing the wrong thing.
And that is a story that’s as old as the Bible itself: The Old Testament reveals how God spent millennias allowing punishment to befall the children of Israel because of their disobedience. And yet, they continued to turn away from Him—from what was right. They’d serve for a while, then forget the lessons of the Father. It was Jesus’ love and grace and sacrifice that changed the game. It was His lessons of love and our continued opportunity for repentance that made things right between man and God.
Given the recent news, I’ve observed so many people reminiscing about the “good ole days” when parents spanked their children. I don’t know if those were the real good ole days. How about we return to the days when simply disappointing your parents was devastating? Remember when that was a thing? I want my child to have the internal character to recognize her wrongs. I want the lessons I teach her to change her person and not just her behavior. When she is wrong, I will discipline her, whether that’s by removing her privileges or isolating her for a short amount of time. But I want to do these things because I want her heart to be pricked and her spirit agitated so that her character muscles will be stronger—not because I want her to fear me.
And I’m sorry, I don’t know if spankings accomplish this.
So as Hubby and I navigate this new world and continue to have the conversations around what is appropriate discipline in our home, there is one thing I know for sure: I’m so grateful that God is shifting our own hearts in this area. Yes, mom, I think we’ve become those “new-fangled” parents you joke about.
Wait…this girl done wrote on my wall?! Y’all pray that a sister can hold true to all this new revelation. 🙂
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This post is the latest in Tracey Michae’l Lewis-Giggetts’ “Faith & Motherhood” series.
Tracey Michae'l is a writer and educator based out of the Philadelphia area. She is a wife to William and a mother to a beautiful two-year old little girl. You can find her on the web at www.traceymlewis.com.