Corporal punishment is defined as: ‘the infliction of physical pain as an official means of punishment’. Sounds lovely when you say it like that, doesn’t it? Yet corporal punishment, in its most common form of smacking, has been popular since human history began and there is definitely two sides to this argument. Are we a more caring, more progressive, more holy person if we shun it, or are we missing an important God-given principle for establishing heaven on Earth?
Physical punishment has been perceived as an important part of the system in the UK’s schools and prisons until relatively recently and often viewed as ‘character building’. Variations have typically used the slipper, the hand, the cane, a belt (usually to the arm for girls and to the backside for boys) or even wooden spoons. These methods of corporal punishment have been steadily outlawed throughout the 20th Century, but it was not until after the 1967 Plowden report, Children and their primary schools, that the abolition of corporal punishment in state schools was put on the agenda, and in 1986 it was outlawed altogether. In 1998, corporal punishment was outlawed for the few remaining independent schools still employing the practice.
Research by UNICEF suggests that 80 per cent of children around the world are routinely subjected to some form of hitting or beating as a form of discipline. According to Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) research, in the UK 77 per cent of parents smacked in the 1970s; that dropped to 67 per cent in the 80s but fell significantly in the 2000s to 36 per cent. Within Church families, it is likely to have remained much higher. This is not a forgotten practice.
In terms of legislation, a major benchmark for current attitudes to corporal punishment is the Human Rights Act 1998 and the European Convention of Human Rights, particularly article three, on protection against torture, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. Also there are the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989. Article 19 says: “Parties shall take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation.” Still with me?
It boils down to this: for teachers, nursery workers and child-care workers, it is illegal for them to smack another person’s child. For youth and children’s workers this may all seem obvious and fundamental; we hold a precious middle ground where we maintain professional standards yet still pursue our aim of education and relational growth… without hitting our young people! So, it may pass us by that this is still a huge practice for parents in our churches.
But what about at home? What’s the law on smacking there? Just about the most definitive answer is spelled out in section 58 of the Children Act 2004, which states that it is: “Unlawful for a parent or carer to smack their child, except where this amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’.” Clearly this is not an exact science and there is deliberately a grey area allowing for discernment and choice on the part of the parent, but also boundaries for the protection of the child. So, if there were a question mark over the treatment of a child, for example whether a ‘smack’ amounts to ‘reasonable punishment’, it will depend on individual and contextual circumstances, taking into consideration factors like the age of the child and the nature of the physical contact. The main aim of legislation is to protect children from abuse. Of course, that may inadvertently put restrictions on well-intentioned discipline too.
Every child is disciplined, but the scale and nature of that discipline varies wildly from household to household
Government guidance suggests that if smacking cause grazes, scratches, abrasions, minor bruising, swellings, reddening of the skin, superficial cuts or a ‘black eye’, you have entered beyond reasonable punishment into the realm of ‘common assault’. Yet the knock-on effect even of ‘reasonable’ smacking can be psychological damage. Psychological effects can be long-lasting and have a huge impact on an individual. National charity Child Law Advice suggests that rather than being a quick fix to bad behaviour, smacking actually gives a bad example of how to handle strong emotions. It may lead children to hit or bully others, encourage children to lie or hide feelings to avoid smacking, make defiant behaviour worse so discipline gets even harder or lead to a resentful and angry child and damaged family relationships.
THE QUESTION BEHIND THE QUESTION
Is the real question here this old chestnut: ‘do we progress our theology in the light of our surrounding culture, or seek to correct our culture with our own dogmatic theology? To follow biblical conviction over the attractions of our surrounding culture is something that church leaders, scripture and seminal works have espoused throughout the ages. For example, on this issue specifically, John Piper boldly once claimed on desiringgod.org his conviction that spanking his kids was more important to him than upholding current social conventions, even if that meant breaking
the law: “What worldview inclines a person to think that you shouldn’t spank a child? Where does that come from? Well, I will go to jail over that issue!” Clearly this is a contentious area full of endless argument, and a first disclaimer would be that that we must avoid trying to make scripture fit into what we would like it to say. So, what does the Bible say? Well it is generally agreed that parents are expected to exercise loving discipline over their children and it is their responsibility to bring up children in the knowledge of God. Most of the scriptures pertaining directly to doing this by physical means are found in Proverbs, which often speak of using the ‘rod’. For example, Proverbs 23:13 says: “Do not withhold discipline from a child, if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.” As does the oft quoted Proverbs 13:24: “He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.”
That discipline can be painful is clearly accepted in scripture. Hebrews 12:7-11 is a key example about the discipline of children, and yet it is not explicit that this means inflicting physical pain, instead it compares God’s discipline to a father’s discipline. Other passages used in this debate include Ephesians 6:4 (“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; instead, bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”) and Proverbs 29:15 (“The rod of correction imparts wisdom, but a child left to himself disgraces his mother”).
The spanner in the traditionalist works however, is that the word for ‘rod’ used here is the Hebrew word ‘shebet’, the walking stick held by the head of the family (or sceptre of the king). It represented their authority, including their authority to parent properly and in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Consider David in Psalm 23 when he says, “Your rod and your staff, they comfort me…” It is possible that this was a well-understood metaphor among contemporary listeners, and wasn’t primarily condoning physical punishment per se. Some biblical references to corporal punishment are literal (see Exodus 21:20, Deuteronomy 25:2, 2 Corinthians 11:25); others are usually read as metaphorical (see Psalms 23:4, Isaiah 11:4).
The second problem with these verses is that many of them don’t specify the punishment of children but rather include foolish or wayward adults too! Does that mean that the Bible condones physical punishment for adults too (Proverbs 10:13)? Do we believe that horses must be whipped (Proverbs 26:3)?
It should be stated that there are also plenty of verses about discipline that do not mention rods or any kind of physical contact, but rather focus on verbal correction such as Revelation 3:19: “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.” Also Proverbs 3:11: “My son, do not despise the Lord’s discipline, and do not resent his rebuke.”
The connotations for youth and children’s workers are two-fold: how do we discipline the precious young lives entrusted to our care? Does our church have a policy (or view) on physical discipline? How do we handle and support young people with varying degrees of physical discipline at home, including their expectations toward adults generally, their mental health, their own values around physical contact with others and their overall behaviour in the light of the discipline they have received? Is there a point at which it would be right for a children’s or youth worker to challenge a parent about their use of force in discipline at home? Of course, for those who disclose abuse, you must immediately refer to your organisation’s child protection policy. Don’t promise confidentiality but escalate this to your child protection officer as appropriate - that goes without question. For lesser cases where the physicality is within the bounds of ‘reasonable punishment’ there are other challenges for us. Every child is disciplined, harshly, fairly, proactively, reactively, verbally or otherwise, the scale and nature of that discipline varies wildly from household to household. Our charge is to join in that discipleship and discipline journey without judging their family values or undermining their parent’s approach if it differs from our own.
One would expect to come across smacking of teenagers much less frequently than toddlers, so an age-appropriate response is definitely needed, as is an understanding of their background. Do you know the home context of every one of your young people? Do you know their parents well enough to discuss their home discipline strategy? Not to pry or make judgements, but to offer to support what parents might be trying to achieve. How can you help them reinforce the boundaries and values they are trying to instill at home? This itself throws up many more questions: if the young people found out you had spoken to their parents about it would there be a betrayal of trust?
Do we progress our theology in the light of our surrounding culture, or seek to correct our culture with our own dogmatic theology?
As ever, the best place to start from is in talking about it with your young people and children. Ask them what goes on at home regarding their bad behaviour and punishment - and simply ask if they think smacking is right or wrong. You could also ask them what form of discipline they think would change their behaviour (if necessary) and what methods of discipline they would employ themselves as parents. If nothing else it will provide a great platform for an untapped area of discussion and learning - but could potentially take you to some exciting new places in your work!
Could you speak in a similar vein to parents, asking questions of their attitudes, practices and expectations? It could prove incredibly valuable. Perhaps youth and children’s workers would do well to think through these aspects of ministry from a parent’s point of view, too.
So while UK society gallops further towards the rights of the child and away from condoning physical punishment, the Church still lags way behind, perhaps paralysed by tradition - or at least dragging its heels on change. It faces a huge dilemma around how, and if, it should update its theology and recommended practice regarding corporal punishment. It’s a big issue - and one that is largely hidden away behind family doors and hereditary theology. Is corporal punishment still relevant for our young people and their parents as they learn how to become well-formed Christian adults? What about when they become parents themselves in the future? Maybe now is the time to get it out in the open and discuss it.