Abandon the Rod and Save the Child

By Block, Nadine | The Humanist, March 2000 | Go to article overview

Abandon the Rod and Save the Child


Block, Nadine, The Humanist


Corporal punishment is the intentional infliction of physical pain for a perceived misbehavior.

It includes spanking, slapping, pinching, choking, and hitting with objects. The practice is not permitted against prison or jail inmates, military personnel, or mental patients; nor is it allowed against a spouse, a neighbor, or even a neighbor's dog. Instead, in the United States, corporal punishment is legally preserved only for children.

Children have been the victims since early colonial times and today remain so with the support of the courts and a significant percentage of the citizenry. Each year at least a million children are beaten in the name of "discipline," billions of dollars are spent on child abuse prevention, and the system devised to protect children fails. Yet, the subject is a divisive one that often pits generation against generation and family member against family member.

One reason for this divisiveness is corporal punishment's roots in theology. The strongest and most enduring support for the practice comes from the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Many fundamentalist, evangelical, and charismatic Protestants use scripture to justify their use of corporal punishment to develop obedience and character in children. Their position is that God wills and requires it in order to obtain his blessing and approval; to not physically punish children for misbehavior will incur God's wrath.

For example, in "The Correction and Salvation of Children" on the Way of Life website (way oflife.org/~dcloud/), the Reverend Ronald E. Williams of the Believers Baptist Church in Winona Lake, Indiana, contends that the biblical "rod of correction" is a physical object, in most cases a wooden paddle for use in spanking a child's buttocks; any unwillingness to use physical correction is "child abuse." While he recognizes that using an object to hit a child increases the chance of injury, and while he cautions that bruising is not the goal of "correction," Williams counsels parents not to be overly concerned if bruising happens:

   But these opponents of God's methods may object, "What you are suggesting
   will hurt the child and may even bruise him!" My response would be, "That
   is correct." A child may in fact be bruised by a session of difficult
   correction. In fact, the Lord has already anticipated this objection and
   has discussed it briefly in the Scriptures. "The blueness of a wound
   cleanseth away evil: so do stripes the inward parts of the belly" (Proverbs
   20:30). One may say, "That is talking about a child who has bruised himself
   in an accident at play." No, the latter part of the verse explains that God
   is giving this passage in the context of physical chastening for
   correction. God makes the point that if a child is bruised during one of
   these sessions of correction that a parent should not despair but realize
   that the blueness of the wound cleanses away the evil heart of rebellion
   and willful stubbornness that reside in that depraved little body.

Williams also believes that corporal punishment should begin early in life:

   My wife and I have a general goal of making sure that each of our children
   has his will broken by the time he reaches the age of one year. To do this,
   a child must receive correction when he is a small infant.

However, the Reverend Thomas E. Sagendorf, a Methodist pastor and member of the advisory board of the Center for Effective Discipline's program, End Physical Punishment of Children (EPOCH)--USA, points out that Old Testament scripture can also be used to justify slavery, suppression of women, polygamy, incest, and infanticide. So, like many believers in the Bible, Sagendorf prefers to look for guidance on disciplining children in the New Testament. There, he says, children are shown great love and compassion, and violence is not tolerated.

Rutgers University historian Philip Greven, in his 1992 book Spare the Child: The Religous Roots of Punishment and the Psychological Impact of Physical Abuse, paints a deeply disburbing picture of religion's influence on discipline and the consequences of that influence. …

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