Where does the modern practice of spanking come from? Is it taught in the Bible?
I’m sure there were foolish children (young adults) throughout history who have been beat with their father’s rods (shebet) as a last step before someone by their own foolishness had a consequence of death. But applying this idea to young children is a more recent phenomenon.
In fact, the well-known saying “Spare the rod, Spoil the child” is not the wording found in any of the “rod verses” in the Bible. Instead it is a line from the Samuel Butler satirical poem “Hudibras” that ridicules the Victorian lifestyle. The very line today used to condone and even endorse the modern practice of spanking was originally penned to criticize and ridicule that same practice.
There is an interesting history of spanking. From its earliest practice, in Ancient Greece, spankings were administered to adults. It was a pagan practice for increasing fertility in barren women who were spanked by the pagan priests. Later, it was introduced into the Catholic Church as a means for adult women to have their sins removed by the priest spanking them after confession. In pre-WWII Britain the practice was expanded to wayward teenage girls in the tradition of the removal of sins.
The first time the idea was introduced that spankings are never to be given in anger, but rather in love, it was as the advertising pitch for the book “Spencer Spanking Plan”. That book put forth the instructions for spankings of husbands and wives within marriage in order to increase marital harmony. The key here, whether the spanking was administered for fertility, punishment, or fun, is that the person being spanked was willing.
The best I can find in my studies is that *spanking* as we know it started in Victorian Europe where appearances were everything, children were seen and not heard, etc. No doubt this was in line with the idea of spanking for the removal of sins that began in the Catholic Church.
This is also the same Victorian Europe where Freud first published what later became his *Oedipus/Electra Theories*. Initially, the theories expressed the belief that children were being sexually abused on a mass scale by their parents in the very strict punishing environment in every home.
When his theory was put forth, it resulted in a harsh outcry from the general public resulting in the loss of his funding*. Freud then changed everything to argue that the children were creating these fantasies. Still, this supports the idea that there continues to be a blurring of the lines between the erotica of spanking and the removal of sins through physical punishment.
There is one currently popular parenting program that relies heavily (almost primarily) on spankings as a means of removing guilt and sin from a child. This program also promises to help ensure your child’s purity with a way of presenting sexual instruction to children that relies solely on symbolic illustration. It leaves children knowing nothing about sex! It gives children the idea that they will learn all they need to know on their wedding night and in the context of their marriage.
I believe this is a very dangerous idea. When combining adult centered, punitive parenting (that requires children to blindly obey all adults) with a practice of keeping that child ignorant of sexual activity, it can make the child more susceptible to sexual abuse and less likely to question or report it.
One very interesting aspect of the argument for a Biblical practice of spanking is the handful of “rod” verses from the Old Testament. The OT was first the Jewish book of instruction and I find it very telling that the Jewish history of the teachings of spanking do not include the strong insistence on corporal punishment that is found in many Christian circles. In fact, Jewish Law forbids parents from causing injury to their children.
There is also very clear instruction in Leviticus 19:14 “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind” which is applied to avoiding spanking an older child who might be tempted to strike back and lack the self control not to do so, which would cause him to violate the commandment to honor his father and mother. Because the spanking might result in the child violating a commandment, the parent is forbidden from administering the spanking.
According to Eliezer C. Abrahamson, Talmud Torah Center for Basic Jewish Education, Lakewood, “The Talmud teaches us that a father who strikes an older son is to be excommunicated. Jewish legal authorities inform us that while this law only mentions an older child, it is actually true of any child who might possibly react improperly.” (Bergen Record, Hackensack, New Jersey, 7 December 2000; Should parents spare rod when punishing kids?; Lisa Haddock Staff Writer )
I am not suggesting there is no Jewish teaching that corporal punishment is intended by the Biblical verses, and clearly there is instruction to stone a rebellious (adult) child. In fact, reasoning together and the debate and discussion of the true meaning of Scripture is inherent in Jewish study of Scripture. No doubt there are rabbis who condone and teach in a pro-spanking fashion.
The history of spankings is old. There is evidence of spankings of adult women and even men throughout the ages, and any internet novice who does a search on “spankings” will quickly learn not to repeat that error in judgment – as the vast majority of sites brought up will attest to the erotica aspect of this practice. The history of using the Bible to support corporal punishment is not nearly so old. Among Jewish Rabbinical studies there is at best a total rejection of corporal punishments (present even in NT times when Paul instructs parents to not provoke their children to anger) and at worst debate.
Unfortunately many Christians have taken a handful of OT verses, misinterpreted them, and then used them as the foundation for an entire doctrine of child discipline.
The result is a style of harsh parenting that is keeping many from being open to the true teachings of the Bible and the main message that Christianity has been charged with, which is the presentation of Jesus to the world, as we are instructed to be His witnesses and share how He has impacted our lives. When we become advocates for corporal punishment, there are many who see that the way the God of Love and the Jesus who allows us access to Him has impacted our lives is to insist that we hit our children.
May it never be so! Not only does corporal punishment present a false picture of Jesus to the world but also to our children. Many adults who were parented with spankings as children report that they struggle with many misconceptions of God. They see Him as one who is waiting to catch them in sin and punish them. They have difficulty accepting Grace and fear losing their salvation due to some act (often one they aren’t even able to identify if asked).
Add to this the conflict of interest many Christians are faced with when their young children accept Jesus which makes them brothers and sisters in faith. The current Christian teachings about spankings create parents who are told to be one way to their children and another way to their fellow believers. When a child becomes a fellow believer what is the parent to do? Continue “beating the devil out of the child” who is already redeemed by the blood of the Lamb? Or abandon a practice they have been told is required by God for parenting in a Biblical way?
I would hope that there is enough question brought to the table from this brief exploration into the history of the teachings on spankings to cause even the most devout defender of the practice to be willing to reevaluate their understanding of the verses in question and the practice itself. If so, I encourage you to read more on this site and the sites to which I am linked. There is very strong argument presented here that even the rod verses do not instruct parents to spank, and that punishments are not necessary or helpful to the parent who wants to model Jesus and His love to their children while raising well behaved and properly trained children.
*While I originally encountered this work in a book written by a descendent of Freud after his notes were found in an attic, this original work of Freud is discussed in the preeminent book on trauma “The Body Keeps The Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, MD.