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To spank or not to spank?

Recent abuse cases have shone a new spotlight on an old controversy. For some believers, hitting your children is a God-given right. To others, it’s an inexcusable sin.

By Sarah Boesveld

Last year, the skeletal body of 13-year-old Hana Williams was found wrapped in a sheet in her parents’ backyard. Her legs were scarred with lash marks from being beaten with a 15-inch plastic pipe earlier that day and many days prior.

The year before, seven-year-old Lydia Schatz was beaten for hours by her parents on the day of her death. The floggings would stop only briefly when they took short breaks for prayer.

During criminal proceedings against both sets of American parents on charges such as homicide by abuse, second-degree murder and torture, prosecutors say the accused were acting on the parenting advice of Michael and Debi Pearl, an evangelical couple from Tennessee whose discipline book To Train Up a Child has sold thousands of copies. Its take-home message is this: hit your children because God wants you to.

The criminal cases and their ties to the Pearls made headlines across North America last fall and spurred countless Christians to speak out against this brand of beating. They saw the Pearls’ literalist sect, which follows every “thee, thy and thou” of the King James Bible, as giving all people of faith — including the pro-spankers — a bad name.

Optics aside, the cases have reinvigorated discussion about a practice petering out across Canadian society but quietly continuing in many households — often religious ones. What does the Bible actually say about corporal punishment, and why do interpretations vary so widely among Christian communities today?

The United Church of Canada is the only major denomination in our country to have made a public stand against spanking. In 2007, the church endorsed the Joint Statement on Physical Punishment of Children and Youth, a document drawn up by a national coalition of organizations led by the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario. The statement asserts there is no clear evidence that spanking is of any benefit to children’s development and recommends that kids get the same level of legal protection as adults under the Criminal Code of Canada. As it stands, section 43 of the Criminal Code says parents can use physical punishment if the child is between ages two and 12, but they can’t use objects like a wooden spoon or the Pearl-prescribed plastic pipe.

“The United Church has a long history of supporting the rights of the marginalized, the weak, and certainly in many cases children fit that category,” says Amy Crawford, the General Council program co-ordinator for children and youth. “The United Church felt it was important to speak out on their behalf.”

That said, there are still many Canadians who continue to spank or at least support the right of others to spank their children. A 2002 national survey commissioned by the evangelical Focus on the Family organization reported that 46 percent of parents said they spanked their children. Thirty two percent of those respondents said they did so seldomly. But 72 percent of parents surveyed said they believed spanking should remain a legal option for parents, including 57 percent of parents who said they never spank their kids.

“There are many parents who will tell you they have chosen not to use corporal punishment with their own children, but they would not want that ‘right’ to be denied to other parents who feel they need to use it as a disciplinary tool,” says Ron Ensom, an Ottawa-based social worker with the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario who was involved in developing the joint statement.

Back in February, he and his colleague Joan Durrant, a professor from the University of Manitoba, published an analysis in the Canadian Medical Association Journal of 20 years of research on the physical punishment of children. The research, they concluded, clearly indicates that children who have experienced physical punishment tend to be more aggressive toward parents, siblings, peers and eventually spouses, and are much more likely to develop anti-social behaviour. They recommended the repeal of section 43 and for physicians to teach alternative forms of discipline to parents desperate for any method that works.

Spanking persists in Canadian homes where parents had themselves been spanked and feel they’ve turned out fine, Ensom says. It’s also happening in homes where parents have been taught to believe, like the Pearls and their adherents, that they are merely following God’s way. “For those folks, where it’s an item of faith . . . they would be much less likely to reflect on the evidence, maybe even much less likely to believe the evidence that [spanking] just doesn’t work,” Ensom says.

These Christian parents are more likely to listen only to their pastors and faith leaders and to tune out academic voices they consider secular and mainstream, says Samuel Martin, a Jerusalem-based theologian and author of Thy Rod and Thy Staff They Comfort Me: Christians and the Smacking Controversy. “People are in general very superstitious about the Bible. They are very, very in awe of it. And if you get people who have been brought up in very hidebound, controlling religious denominations — I was raised in one — people who are very fundamentalist oriented, [they] wouldn’t even think about changing one word or looking at anything differently.”

“Spare the rod, spoil the child” is the most-quoted justification for spanking in the name of God, though the phrase is actually from a 17th-century poem by Samuel Butler that spoofs puritanism. But the Old Testament of the Bible does indeed heavily advocate corporal punishment if its words are taken literally, Martin points out.

Proverbs 13:24 of the King James Bible says, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” — a heavily cited passage in the Pearls’ book. Proverbs 22:15 also stresses the message: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.”

The more modern interpretations of the Bible have taken passages that talk about “the rod” and reworded them to refer to non-physical discipline — a loving hand to guide the way and steer the child away from wrong.

In his recent book, Corporal Punishment in the Bible: A Redemptive-Movement Hermeneutic for Troubling Texts, Tyndale Seminary professor William Webb picks apart each passage in the Bible that promotes corporal punishment and asks whether Christians are obligated to replicate them today. Of course, he concludes, they’re not. He sees a “redemptive trend” throughout scripture, a movement away from the more brutal forms of corporal punishment, such as the use of a heavy knife to dismember the limbs of a thief. The Bible, he argues, reflects the ethic of the day, and subsequent societies gradually reduced the severity of corporal punishment. Slavery is now completely unacceptable by today’s standards, he points out, so why has corporal punishment lingered in practice for biblical reasons?

Webb’s book makes the provocative argument that the “two smacks max” advice of James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, actually captures that redemptive movement. After all, delivering a pair of spankings to the bottom is a far cry from 40 lashings or applying a rod to the back of a fool, which is what the Bible actually advocates in Proverbs 14:3. Plus, it remains within modern legal limits.

At the same time, those who are employing the two-smacks-max method can go further in their redemptive interpretation of the Bible, Webb says, coming to a place that is more ethical and effective than a couple of wallops. He is a recovering spanker himself. Webb was spanked as a child and so continued this practice with his own children. He and his wife phased out spanking with their second child, but his movement away from the practice was really confirmed when his oldest son, Jonathon, developed a degenerative brain disease as an adolescent. Jonathon’s cognitive ability was reduced to that of a preschooler, meaning he would often act out and disobey his parents.

“For the longest time, I held that it was legitimate to spank preschoolers and early elementary kids because they do not have the ability to reason,” Webb writes in his book. “There is something extremely degrading about the thought of handing out beatings to my adult son Jon for his misbehavior simply because he can no longer reason. . . . This realization challenged the premise for why I was inclined toward using the two-smacks-max for young children but not for older children, teens and adults.”

Webb has taken flak for his move toward a more redemptive interpretation of the Bible’s corporal punishment texts. Still, there are signs that views are changing, even among more conservative Christians. In January, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today ran an editorial in response to the Pearl controversy, deploring the extreme use of corporal punishment and encouraging parents to “explore more creative and effective ways to train up our children in the way they should go.” Martin says he’s hearing from more women, who have gained far more influence in the past number of decades, saying they are troubled by the biblical passages that appear to promote corporal punishment — torn between their instincts and the pro-spanking scriptural teachings with which they’ve been raised.

“It will take many generations to change, but the tide is turning, in my view — very slowly,” Martin says. “And if you compare where we are today to where we were in 1970 when I was a kid, it’s dramatically different now.”

Just as scientific research has shifted social views on public health issues like smoking, spanking too has become taboo. Many hope Canadian law will continue its slow move toward the abolishment of all corporal punishment. But the Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling that maintained a parent or guardian’s right to use limited force on a child has hampered efforts to make spanking full-out illegal, Ensom says. And it may be even harder to get that section of the law, which has already been the subject of 14 private members’ bills, changed under the rule of a Conservative majority government, he adds.

However, he believes that Christians who continue to spank will stop if it becomes illegal. To get there, public pressure will have to ramp up considerably and prove that the law is out of sync with the social norms of the day. And this message needs to start in the sanctuary. “There are many, many more faith leaders who are not supportive of hitting children . . . but they’re not saying that from public podia,” he says.

At least one more major Canadian church has recently expressed interest in supporting the joint statement, a sign Ensom considers very hopeful. “There are more and more faith organizations saying, ‘Wait a minute — this isn’t how we think children should be raised,’” he says. The United Church has been the loudest.

Cherie Dale, a mother of two young boys who was raised Catholic and now attends St. Paul’s United in Scarborough, Ont., applauds the United Church’s move to support the “bold but much needed” statement. Dale has made a conscious decision not to spank and uses the Bible’s positive teachings, such as “do unto others as you would do unto yourself,” to help raise and discipline her boys. That’s not to say she doesn’t sometimes succumb to the strains all parents feel. “I apologize to my son when I lose my temper and yell. I remind him that it is okay to make mistakes as long as we try to learn from it,” she says. “My children teach me every day how important it is to forgive and love freely. My faith also reminds me of this.” 

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