Is Spanking Violence?

A regular humorous topic of conversation among certain friends of mine is the frequency and/or circumstances of getting spanked as a kid.  The questions range from what did they use? (paddle, spoon, switch) to what did you put into your pants for protection? (extra clothes, pots and pans) to what was worse: the spanking itself or the anticipation on the way home in the van (“when we get home, you all are going straight to your rooms to get spanked”).  Of course, for other people, this is not funny at all.  I have to be careful around some of my co-workers and fellow religious who consider spanking an act of violence rather than a healthy parenting tool of child training.

I would like to begin by immediately nipping in the bud any appeal to the “Jesus would never spank a child” argument.  Actually, I can quite easily imagine Jesus spanking his little cousins for misbehaving, since Jesus was a man of his times and good Jews probably used the paddle in accordance with Scripture.  I think it is far more likely that Jesus spanked than not.  Nor is it at all useful in this regard to say something like “Jesus wouldn’t do this.”  We have no idea about that, so why say it?  Would Jesus tell someone to take a “time out”?  We have no idea and that is not the point.  The question is:  Is this action good for the child in preparing him or her for a life of virtue?

So that weak argument aside, I have always firmly held that spanking is not violence.   I think spanking is extremely useful as a training tool for young children, and because I think this, I do not think that it qualifies as a violent act.

Violence attempts to inflict damage on the other person, psychologically, physically, emotionally, etc.  I think it is not merely semantic to distinguish hitting from spanking, beating from paddling.  They are not the same.  One who spanks correctly never spanks in anger, is always calm, is using spanking primarily as a training tool, always follows up with words of love, praise and explanation, and never leaves a bruise.  A person who hits usually strikes in rage intending to inflict pain and rarely follows up unless he feels the need to apologize after feeling remorse.  One should apologize for hitting.  One need not apologize for spanking.

Because spanking involves inflicting some pain, people easily jump to condemning it as an act of violence.  I think that this greatly over-simplifies violence.  The physical nature of violence is one of its least weighty components, nor is pain always connected to violence.  Parents need to be trained how to spank.  That is what my own parents do now in their child training classes.  Notice that they give “training” classes.  Training comes before discipline, and good training means less punishing. Because children are animals as well as persons, good training begins within a few months of birth, and little spanks help the training of the will to take place at a young age. Of course, if one is still spanking when the child is ten years old, then training has probably failed and another method of punishment should be used.

The primary purpose of spanking is to train rather than to punish.  While it is not the primary training tool, it can be an important training tool.  I think most people, when they think of spanking, think of an 8 to 10 year old child being bent over a bench or a table to get a good swat.  However, spanking is most effective even before the age of 1, when it is just small taps combined with a command.  Thanks to original sin, children are not born in innocence, and the earlier the training of the will takes the place, the more service one is doing to a child.  By the age of 3, the will of a child has already been significantly formed.

What kinds of things does spanking teach?  The first three thinks my parents teach other parents to train their kids to do are to “don’t touch,” “sit still,” and “come here.”  In all three cases, the primary purpose of spanking is not to discipline a child for doing something wrong, but to train the will of a child to do things that could save his or her life and begin to affect his or her soul.

The problem then is not spanking itself, but a misuse of it.  This simply means that parents need better training.  The problem is not with spanking being an act of violence, but with spanking being used as an act of violence by angry and untrained, undisciplined parents.

19 Responses to Is Spanking Violence?

  1. willbearak says:

    I’m surprised at you Nathan, all kinds of violent act, even the lowest and simplist leads to abuse and eventually deplorable acts against humanity. Its true in simple drugs, smoking, sex, language. In our world today we have learned that forced discipline by any means is degrading to the human human person as well as the human spirit. What ever tactics are used to break the human spirit are mementoes of past slavery and a major block to real freedom of the spirit, even with a child or a young adult. Shades of whipping of seamen with cat-O-nine-tail. Jesuits should all be aware of the tactics used to show adhearance to obediance by using belittling acts. All these items, especially in small children lead to never forgotton terrors which surface in later years. Also its a rareity that spankings, beatings, whippings, take place out of the realm hurt and angry adults. If you use your justification for spanking children, then yu can use same for acts against all peoples. You need get involved in much more counseling and behavior learning inorder to see reality of true love vs seperation and adverse behavioral acts. In all social structures any and all actions will lead to future acts much more and deeper than the original behavior.

  2. “In our world today we have learned that forced discipline by any means is degrading to the human human person as well as the human spirit.”

    Forced discipline by any means is degrading? I can’t agree with you there. I can’t tell you how wild Jesuit High School where I taught would have been if all forced discipline is degrading. Hebrews 12 seems to think otherwise.

    “All these items, especially in small children lead to never forgotton terrors which surface in later years.”

    I disagree. Beatings lead to the surfacing of terrors, not spankings.

    “Also its a rareity that spankings, beatings, whippings, take place out of the realm hurt and angry adults.”

    Well that may be true. Hence the need for training for adults on how to train their kids.

    “If you use your justification for spanking children, then yu can use same for acts against all peoples.”

    There is absolutely no intention to break the will in spanking. Breaking a child’s will is incredibly harmful and violent. Training the will is very different than breaking the will. I know there is a fine line there, but we see it everywhere in society, especially these days with adults, as you note. What is the difference between educating and brain-washing? I think the same difference lies between beating and spanking.

  3. Bravo, Nathan. I am continually thankful to my parents for having lovingly spanked me (especially as I see the ridiculous reign of terror that so many children have in the new and “enlightened” era of no corporal punishment). Discipline must follow the progression of cognitive development.

  4. Jeff Dunbar says:

    Nathan, very sound answers. This comment is as much for you as it is for willbearak.

    Spanking, in the right context, is very useful and the furthest thing from violence; it is love.

    As a parent of 3, soon to be 4 young children, I can vouch for the will formation at young ages also.

    The problem in discipline as I see it is not spanking or not spanking, but consistency of expectations and the regular implementation of consequences whether they be corporal or otherwise. It’s probably the hardest part of parenting because your emotions (read: indifference, frustrations) can either dampen your diligence whereby you let misbehavior go unchecked or over react to behavior that requires a more precise response.

    One thing is certain in my mind, the children of parents who attempt (and necessarily fail) to find that balance versus the children of popular modern parents whom refuse to voice corrections for fears of offending their children will have a much healthier understanding of themselves and relationships with others for it.

  5. shane says:

    I am likewise grateful for my parents having used corporal punishment (though I hated it at the time). I remember being at school and wishing it was still in place, so as to deal with idiots in class. Nobody wants to go back to the old days when teachers could do pretty much what they liked, but I fear we have thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

  6. Sam Rocha says:

    Re-posted from Vox-Nova:


    I’ve made these jokes too, but underneath them all I was also hiding some of the ugly sides of being spanked as a child (and adolescent). In the community I grew up in, they taught this line of logic and even had a “formula” for spanking, a ritual of sorts to along with it. My parent always followed it, although many times it was laden with anger. Nonetheless, while there is something nostalgic about thinking about it today, there was and is a lot of pain and suffering attached to it, even now. It has even led me to see the worst in myself as a father and person.

    I just got back from a 7′s rugby tournament and, as you know, I deeply value and understand the difference between violence and intense, non-violent forms of physical behavior (the difference between wrestling with my boys and spanking them, even when they both cause pain and use physical force). But in this case I think you have it wrong. At the very least, you have it wrong in trying to make a general claim that you lack phenomenological closeness to as a father—or mother—of children.

    From a child-side, I think it is easy to interpret spanking in a altruistic, pedagogical way. As a parent, it is much, much harder.

    Now, having said that, I DO think that spanking could be justifiable all things considered, but the punishment in that case would be directed at the parents for having to resort to physical contact of this sort. If I fail in teaching my sons how to behave and act and need to resort to spanking (rather than taking away their most loved possessions or being sent to their room to lay in bed, which amounts to torture for my boys), then I have failed principally.

    I hope my sons fear me in a real, serious, disciplinary sense, but I also hope they know that I will not hurt them—God knows, I will hurt them in so many others ways, not excepting the occasional wrestling match that goes a bit too far! I also hope that this fear matures and becomes a source of respect, to the extent where I can punish them severely through showing my disappointment and disapproval. These forms of punishment are themselves wrought with potential abusiveness and the rest too, but I’ll take them over the physical.

    I don’t mean to sound too abrasive, as you know that I respect you deeply, but I think you are out of bounds in trying to make a normative and prescriptive generality. It may be the case that certain events of spanking are not violent and are even good. But without a lived experience as the spanker, I think you have no business whatsoever trying to speak from where you are not.

    From a philosophical perspective, I think the question “Is spanking violence?” borders on a meaningless question. To answer these sorts of “is”-questions is, ultimately to appeal to grand oversimplifications that, in the end, distort the very thing we are after—if we are after anything at all. You may have an answer to the question “Was being spanked a form of violence for my life?” That question, I think, will be more fruitful and may indeed conceal more than you think you know at present. Assuming, of course, that you actually know what the term ‘violence’ is referring to.



    • Sam, you’re somewhat right about my phenomenological closeness. I’ve heard my parents lecture at length about the topic at classes and to us, and so I make this argument from a close proximity to their experience and from long conversations with both of them about how they feel when they spank and why they do it. I’ve worked hard to understand their motivations and feelings, so that is why I feel I can comment as I do.

      Why is “resorting to physical contact” having “failed principally”? Physical contact is a wonderful way to train. I’m not sure what physical contact or lack thereof has to do with anything.

  7. Carol says:

    Half the time, I had no idea why I was being spanked. Once when I stupidly asked the reason, it only drew down more. I learned how to lie and be incredily secretive because of it all, and never inflicted it on my own children. I am not even 1% grateful for it — it took decades to forgive my mother, and I couldn’t send her off with my “I love you” as she died in my arms. If you can’t see Mary spanking anyone, then don’t see Jesus as spank-friendly, either. Never. Not in a million years.

    • Carol,

      I’m sorry that you were not given an explanation. Clearly, at least in my designation, which I know you reject, I would say that you were hit, not spanked.

      I can absolutely see Mary spanking, that was my whole point. If I can see Jesus spanking, then I could obviously see Mary spanking. Not beating or hitting, but spanking.

      • Sam Rocha says:


        Surely you see that the term ‘spanking’ cannot mean ONE thing, and the way you are insistently using it is beginning to wear thin. You may want to write a follow-up where you are very clear about what is and is not what you refer to as ‘spanking’ and ‘violence.’ Until then, I fear the whole discussion is a semantic nightmare of miscommunications…



  8. I see that. But as you know, that is why we try to use words carefully in philosophy. I’m trying to give the word “spanking” a particular meaning which I do think I’m entitled to do in order to distinguish it. Would you prefer I made up a new word? I thought I was pretty clear about what I intend “spanking” to mean.

    • Sam Rocha says:

      I can try and infuse a term with the meaning I want, but until I can not only say but SHOW that clearly, I will surely fail. I think you ought to be more careful about saying what the term refers ‘spanking’ refers to. Then, I think you should go beyond the semantic issue by showing through examples, stories, and descriptions exactly what you are driving at. Until, then, the term is just too slippery to gain any traction and any serious discussion, I think. A new word might be of some help… at least it would force you to not taking its meaning for granted…


      • Jeff Dunbar says:

        Sam, we just had a sevens tournament here. Cool stuff.

        Regarding the last comment, it sounds like you’re just being difficult when you ask Nate to explain “spanking” and provide examples and stories related to his definition.

        Nate hasn’t discussed this with me but my understanding of his use of the word refers to the physical contact (usually a parents hand) on the bum of a child. Nate further restricted approval for the the effective use of the method to certain conditions of the parents’ intentionality, etc, but this has all been covered.

        Here’s what I’m picking up: those whom have negative experiences of this disciplinary method as children maintain such an opinion as adults. What we learn from our families of origin is a powerful influence in how we see and judge the world.

        The shame we felt in not understanding our punishments then contributes to the guilt and confusion we feel now as parents struggling to find balance, justice and forgiveness as we communicate discipline to our unwieldy little ones.

        Lastly, regarding Mary spanking while purely speculative I doubt she had to ask Jesus to go pull a switch very often. Whether she spanked in history has very little bearing on whether it’s the right thing to do in my home that is thoroughly infected with concupiscence and in great need of teaching.

  9. Dan Orr says:

    I don’t think I could come up with a better method to prevent corporal punishment than a nice big public campaign to educate parents on how to “train” their children by hitting them. I’m not being sarcastic either. I’m an opponent of corporal punishment, and, tactically, it would be a gift. The very idea strokes at a parent’s dissonance ever so sweetly.

    • I advocate spanking, not hitting.

      • Dan Orr says:

        People can reasonably disagree about whether spankings are necessarily violent, but not about whether spanking is a kind of hitting. Contemplate spanking without hitting – It’s a koan.

        As the kids say, LOL.

        • Sure we can. That is what I wrote my post about. The kind of action is different, insofar as the intention, purpose, and circumstance are entirely different.

          • Dan Orr says:

            I understood your point to be that spanking need not be violent punishment. I disagree, of course, but I am not arguing in favor of my position. I was making the very limited point that there is no spanking without hitting. If you mean to prove there is, please draw a picture, or something. Because I simply can’t comprehend how that could work. I’ve tried, and I have a good imagination – a result of time spent as a Modal Research Fellow at the Institute for the Exploration of Possibilia ™.

            Spanking typically involves hitting a toochis with an open hand. Right?

            In the context of philosophy, one is entitled to define technical terms. One, however, is not entitled to tell anecdotes utilizing a common term like ‘spanking’, and then claim relevance to some technical term to which it has no proven contact, like your term for spanking without hitting, which I henceforth refer to, for clarity, as ‘shpanking’.

            So, if you’ve defined ‘shpanking’, please provide the argument that it is in any way relevant to spanking. I don’t know how that argument could go, because I don’t understand shpanking (i.e. somehow spanking without hitting). And this is not a precious objection. Ask anyone, “Please demonstrate for me spanking without hitting.” They will be puzzled, and not merely by the fact of the request.

            If, on the other hand ‘shpanking’ means hitting the toochis with an open hand without the intention to cause pain, I understand it. But it is silly to distinguish spanking from shpanking using intensional contexts that are collapsed in any normal adult. Here’s what I mean:

            1. Causing pain is a necessary consequence of spanking.
            2. If q is a necessary consequence of p, and on both intends that p and knows that q is a necessary consequence of p, then – all other things equal (i.e. one is not self-deceived or cognitively incapacitated) – one intends that q. One may regret it, but intend it all the same.
            3. Pain is a highly salient necessary consequence of spanking.
            Therefore, only really ignorant or psychologically disintegrated people could shpank others. Considering that you seem to deplore both ignorance and, for example, the cognitive disintegration caused by states like rage, this isn’t very promising.

            In a way, my objection is complimentary to the one provided by Sam Rocha. I understand, pretty well enough, what spanking is. And I understand, pretty well enough, what hitting is. I also have a reasonable expectation that ‘spanking’ means spanking and ‘hitting’ means hitting. But I have no clue what you’re talking about. Is there also another word, a technical substitute for ‘hit’ I should be aware of? [It’d be crass to use the ‘sh’ prefix to distinguish that possible special use of ‘hit’. But it may describe what I’d think of it.]

            In any case, unlike Same Rocha, I don’t believe any of this misunderstand is caused by bad philosophy, but by good cognitive dissonance. It’s a psychological problem masquerading as a semantic problem.

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