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.