Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Discipline in the Book of Proverbs: "To Spank or Not to Spank?"

Academic journal article Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society

Discipline in the Book of Proverbs: "To Spank or Not to Spank?"

Article excerpt


It does not take much reading in the area of childrearing to realize that the current debate on disciplining children is a hotbed of contention.1 In fact, on a current website the debate is largely divided between fundamentalists and evangelicals (those who believe in "inerrancy") on the one side and the rest of the scholarly world on the other.2 There has always been a wide variety of childrearing advice given to American parents, much of which has been contradictory.3 In his bestselling book on childrearing from the 1920s, John B. Watson, the founder of behaviorism, warned parents against displaying love toward their children.4 By 1948, a more balanced approach between loving and disciplining a child was promoted by Benjamin Spock in his classic book, Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, though very little is said about spanking.5 Even today several popular childrearing books take significantly different approaches: Thomas Gordon, a clinical psychologist and president of Gordon Training Institute, has written a very popular book entitled Parent Effectiveness Training which emphasizes good communication, but strongly discourages disciplinary measures. Gordon states, "If parents could learn only one thing from this book, I wish it were this: each and every time they force a child to do something by using their power or authority, they deny that child a chance to learn self-discipline."6 On the other hand, James Dobson, a clinical psychologist, author, and chairman of the board of Focus on the Family, incorporates both good communication and nurturing of children with a more disciplinary response to misbehavior.7 He states, "Developing respect for parents is the critical factor in child management."8 In the realm of child management Dobson reserves room for corporal discipline: "In my opinion, spankings . . . should be reserved for the moment a child (between the ages of eighteen months to ten years old) expresses to parents a defiant 'I will not!' or 'You shut up!' When youngsters convey this kind of stiff-necked rebellion, you must be willing to respond to the challenge immediately."9 A third popular child psychologist and writer, Fitzhugh Dodson, appears to fall somewhere in-between with an emphasis on both nurturing and discipline. He states his position as follows:

It is certainly clear from what I have said in this book that I believe mutual agreement is far superior to the stark imposition of power by either parents or children. And it is abundantly clear that I believe it is far better to solve a conflict by negotiation and agreement rather than through power. However, in certain extreme cases, where all other resources have been tried and have failed, I believe we have to fall back to sheer power to bring order out of chaos in the lives of some children.10

To be fair, there may be far more agreement between Dobson and Dodson than these quotes suggest.

A similar disagreement can also be found in the social sciences between cognitive developmental psychologists and behavioral psychologists concerning optimal disciplinary responses. In general terms, the former emphasize reasoning and gentle disciplinary tactics,11 while the latter tend towards some form of punishment as a response to disobedient children.12

It is interesting that the book of Proverbs is often brought into this modern debate, generally because the book contains several strong statements concerning discipline. In fact, commentators sometimes face a dilemma of integrating the biblical text with modern conceptions of child discipline.13 Adah Maurer and James S. Wallerstein take an extreme position and claim that Proverbs is not the Word of God, but merely the "word of mortal man"14 and that "[t]he Biblical authority for whipping of youths in school and home rests solely on King Solomon's Proverbs and has no other Biblical support."15 Sometimes anti-spanking proponents even point out how corrupt Solomon's son, Rehoboam, was (1 Kgs 14:21-24), how he had to flee from those who were ready to stone him (1 Kgs 12:18), and how he split the kingdom shortly after his father's death (1 Kgs 12:1-24). …

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