When is spanking of children abusive?
When I was a kid there was very little debate about whether spanking of children was abusive. From conversations I had with my friends I know their parents believed that spanking was an appropriate form of discipline. And mine did for sure. As kids we talked about it as if it was the normal, expected thing to get a spanking when we disobeyed. I don’t think my experience is anything unique. I’d venture a guess that most people reading this who are over the age of 40 had parents who believed in spanking too.
But we can all agree that just because people in the past did something doesn’t make it right. Just because a LOT of people in the past did it doesn’t make it right either. What makes a thing right or wrong is what God says about it… and the scriptures are pretty clear that spanking of children is not only allowed, but even prescribed (you can read about that in my last about the spanking of children).
But in any good thing, even things given to us by God, abuses can happen. Overeating, sexual promiscuity, workaholism, and a slew of other vices prove that point. Sad but true, the same is true of spanking. Please understand that I don’t want you to abuse your child, and I don’t want to abuse mine. We are to care for our children, not damage them. Because of that it can be very difficult to know what a “good” spanking is like and when it crosses the line into the realm of abuse. In order to help clarify the differences between the two, keep this in mind:
A spanking rightly done has a positive effect.
A spanking wrongly done has a harmful effect.
With that in mind, I’m going to give you some quick guidelines my wife and I have learned that help us stay aimed at the positive end of that continuum. Here we go…
Guidelines for the spanking of children
- Make sure genuine love and concern for your child are at the heart of your discipline.
Motivation is everything, so ask yourself, “Why am I spanking in the first place”? There are good/right reasons, and there are bad/wrong reasons. Ask yourself some questions…
- Is it because you are irritated with your child? (bad/wrong)
- Is it because you feel personally put-out or inconvenienced? (bad/wrong)
- Is it because they have deliberately disobeyed or disrespected you? (good/right)
- Is it because they are engaged in behavior that, if left unchecked, will be detrimental to them? (good/right)
If you answer “yes” to the first two (be honest) then hold off on the spanking until you get your attitude straight. Loving motives for a spanking have to do with your desire to help your child curb potentially harmful or outright sinful patterns of behavior. You want to help them, guide them, enable them to move into the realm of self-control so that their urges and spontaneous desires don’t control them. That’s behavior that honors God. And that’s a good motive for physical discipline.
- Take action sooner rather than later.
Don’t let too much time pass between the offense and the spanking, especially with smaller children. They need to be able to associate the spanking with the wrong that has occurred. the longer the clock ticks between the infraction and the discipline, the less they are going to make that connection. Another aspect of this is that the “shock value” of a swat or spanking that comes immediately after an offense will help to communicate the “no nonsense” attitude you have about what they’ve done. They know you mean business – and there’s nothing ambiguous about it. If you make sure to act sooner rather than later, you won’t become one of those parents who counts to 3, or makes empty threats.
- Make sure the offense is clearly understood.
Depending on the age of the child you may have to clarify the offense in differing ways. With very small children, a firm “NO” when pointing to the electric outlet will do most of the time. If not, say the firm “NO” as you swat their hand, and again pointing to the outlet as you hold and comfort them. With older children, you will need to talk about things with them to make sure they understand. Let’s make sure you understand why this is so important…
If you spank your child but they are unclear on why they are being spanked, you’ve pushed them toward embitterment, not wisdom (Ephesians 6:4). What I suggest is that you talk BRIEFLY about the offense to lay the groundwork, then have the spanking, then talk more extensively about it afterward as you comfort/hold the child. Speak to the reality of the issue. Things like, “You did a bad thing…” aren’t sufficient. You need to say, “YOU hit your brother… that means YOU were not being loving to Him, and God wants YOU to love YOUR brother” (see how it’s personal?). Kids don’t always put 2 and 2 together, so we have to make sure they see the REALITY of what they actually did.
- Spanking of children should always be controlled.
There is no excuse for a 200 pound man to be wailing away uncontrollably at a 65 pound kid! That’s abuse, not a spanking. You need to be in full control of yourself when you spank your child. And’ let’s not be naive and say that a parent should never be angry when they spank. The truth is, you can (and sometimes should) be hopping mad at your kid for a very legitimate reason when it comes time to spank. The question is, how do you avoid going overboard?
Do you decide “I just won’t spank when I’m angry”? I don’t think that’s healthy or right. Your children need to see your anger at their sin (not at them personally) in order to get a full-blown picture of the significance of the wrong they have done. God gets angry at sin (and He let people see it), so why shouldn’t we? Here’s what we do: We set a limit for ourselves. For us, a spanking consists of 3 firm swats. We hold each other accountable, we let our kids know it will be 3 swats, and we hold ourselves to it strictly. We understand that NONE of us is above beating our kid instead of spanking them… so we put a safeguard in place to help us not to do so.
- Make sure it hurts.
Hear me out on this one before you call CPS. I’m not saying you should beat your kids black and blue. I’m not suggesting that you be sadistic about it.
I am saying that the spanking needs to smart enough to make them think a second time before committing that sin again. As with any “learn the hard way” scenario, the consequence has to be painful enough to serve as a deterrent. If it isn’t we tend to repeat the same behavior in the future.
Sometimes a mom with a heart-the-size-of-Texas is so sad about having to spank her child that she’ll just give him a little “love tap” instead of a real spanking. I understand the sympathy – but what she probably doesn’t understand is that she’s taking it easy for HER SAKE, not his. It’s actually doing damage to her child (Proverbs 13:24) by teaching him that the consequences for his wrong actions aren’t so bad that he should avoid doing the wrong behavior next time.
- Always follow up with comfort and reassurance of your love.
Once the spanking of your child is over take her immediately into your lap or hug her (depending on size of the child). She needs to know that this offense has not permanently separated her from you. She needs to know your love in a tangible way she can easily recognize (even though the spanking is an act of love itself, she won’t immediately see it as such). Hold her close like this as you talk about the issue. Hold her as you reassure her of your love and your confidence that with God’s help, she can change this kind of behavior. Don’t downplay what she did – it is not “alright.” She sinned. But she is repenting and can move on with the help of God and you, her loving parent.
- Require effective apologies.
When the offense was committed against another person, have the guilty child apologize. Don’t allow them to say, “I’m sorry…” with their eyes turned down and a sullen or timid voice. Chances are that they really aren’t sorry if that’s the case. Have them look the other person in the eye and say SPECIFICALLY what they are sorry for. “I’m sorry that I hit you.”
In order to get to this point and have it be genuine, you’ll have to engage in a significant amount of conversation with the child during the discipline process (see the 3rd point). Some feel that a requirement like this is too humiliating for the child, but it’s actually an essential part of repentance. The formula looks like this:
sin + conviction + confession/apology = repentance.
It’s making things right with those who were hurt. Once this is done, you’ll have the equally challenging task of helping the offended child learn to forgive from the heart.
Please hear me again – there’s no sense in which I am advocating abuse. Children have a right to be treated justly. But a loving spanking administered the right way is not abuse. It is a motivator toward right attitudes and behavior that will serve the child for the rest of their life.