Do you think punishment is an important part of disciplining children?

Nate Morgan Locke: I think punishment is important, not only in terms of us coming to understand what justice means, but for us, particularly children, to come to an understanding of ourselves as sinners. This sounds very hard, but I think without that, we absolutely miss the grace of the gospel.

Alice Smith: Learning about consequences is important, particularly for younger children. The recognition that actions produce consequences that impact those they are in community with. Punishment allows that to make sense to children in a tangible way. But punishment is essential for adults too, it helps to connect the dots and make us realise the consequences of what we’re doing, and realise that there is a grace in being forgiven for those things, and there is grace in the community; that we are accepted and loved, even if we do make those mistakes.

How did you come to your position on smacking?

AS: Before I was a parent I was a youth worker and there was a recognition of what worked and what didn’t. What is the end point that we are trying to reach? What is the resilience or character that we are trying to develop in a child? And therefore what do I want to do, say and be as I discipline and punish? Once you become a parent that becomes much more focused - suddenly this isn’t a ‘professional’ conversation and I haven’t the faintest idea what I’m doing!

NML: We learn a lot of our theology as children. We learn an awful lot about God from our parents, rightly or wrongly. We learn as they teach us and answer questions, but we also learn through experience. As I’ve thought about the unique nature of the relationship between a parent and a child, I see that God has set into that special ways of engaging. So I think smacking is a very specific thing for parents, particularly of very young children. There is an immediacy of a young child’s experience, they need to understand what’s going on in a very ‘now’ moment. One of the great benefits of smacking is that it is very clean in that it deals with an issue very quickly, and enables it to be moved on from.

I think children need two things: unconditional love and clear boundaries. With both of those things, physical contact is a huge aspect of that. Hugging is absolutely vital. In our house we talk about ‘five a day’ not referring to fruit and vegetables, but to hugs. Physical contact, particularly with young children is immediate and so profoundly affecting. Therefore, in extreme circumstances, once you have gone through every other ‘system’ of punishment, using very brief, controlled, non-emotional, not-done-in-anger physical pain can also serve a purpose in communicating the ‘nowness’ of right and wrong in discipline and punishment.

It doesn’t make any sense to say: “I’ve removed you from that situation because you’ve hit that child, and now I’m going to smack you, because then you will understand that that was the wrong thing to do

Proverbs 13:24 says: “He who spares the rod hates his son, he who loves his son is careful to discipline him.” It’s not saying: “Unless you hit children every day, they will grow up terribly.” It’s saying the rod is part of the careful disciplining of the child and that is going to take a huge amount of energy and conversation between mum and dad in order to do that properly. It’s clearly not about hitting someone because they’re blocking your view of the TV or they’re talking too loudly. This is a very specific and careful understanding of punishment.

AS: One of the scriptures I resonate with is Proverbs 22:6: “Train up a child in the way he should go...” There is something there for me about the time that it takes for children to understand what we’re asking them to do and how we’re asking them to behave.

If I’m completely honest, I have on two occasions, with both of my children, needed to smack them, but that has been in a situation where they have been in danger. I think on those occasions they recognise the potential of what could have happened to them and what you’re saying of the very quick, clean physical pain removes them from further potential danger and pain. I think one of the things that I’m nervous about is that I’ve encountered young people who have faced physical punishment as a regular part of discipline in the family and there was very little time put in to helping them understand why that pain is being inflicted.

As our children have grown they recognise what it is to be part of our family, how they function in community and what we expect of them in order for life to work; when they do something that’s not kind to another child and you remove them from that situation for a few minutes and explain it to them, gradually there becomes a recognition of: “That was not acceptable”. There are times when those few minutes of time out have been multiplied by five or six and we feel like we’ve been sitting there for hours waiting for this process to finish! I am very much focused on the time that needs to be put in; it’s a long-term goal rather than a quick fix. But I am convinced that the time that is put in to train a child, in order for them to understand consequences, is far more beneficial than it ending in some sort of physical smack.

I’ve just seen too many young people for whom physical pain means that they are fearful; I think: “Perfect love drives out fear,” and I don’t want children to be fearful of us as we seek to journey with them in the gospel, because we want them to be part of the community, rather than feeling excluded.

NML: You mention a time out that turns into a day out and what we found, with our children, was you were never going to be on the step three times. You were on the step once, if we went to you after the three minutes, and you weren’t ready to say sorry and to pray, then you would stay there again, but if we came back that second time and you were still not ready, then it would be escalated, we’re going into ‘smack mode’, if you like. We found it put an end on it; we weren’t spending hours and hours trying to deal with what was probably, at the beginning, a rather minor issue, which escalated by becoming defiant. We found that this simple ‘escalation’ meant things would be dealt with much more cleanly.

After a smack and after any form of punishment, we would always pray with our children. We would always try and tie in any form of discipline into discipling and a consciousness of God’s presence and God’s word. We’re saying: “I’m in charge of you, but I’m also a fellow sinner like you are, and I need God’s grace just as much as you do, and I need to apologise to you when I do wrong.”

AS: We’ve got a 10-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy and it has been much harder with our son because there is something within his personality that always wants justification. So I think the element of personality and character have been a great challenge for us. I don’t want to squash that. There are times when, rather than punishment or time out for defiance I want to actually have a conversation and say to him: “That’s an interesting question, let’s talk about that.”

In my own head, theologically and otherwise, it just doesn’t make any sense to say: “I’ve removed you from that situation because you’ve hit that child, and now I’m going to smack you, because then you will understand that that was the wrong thing to do.” But I agree that if the boundaries and process are clear from the very start, you very rarely have to get a point when you get to the end of your process. I think when you follow through on the consequences you threaten, that brings huge clarity and it teaches self-discipline, in a way that I just don’t think smacking does.

NML: This is where I would really stress the unique nature of the parent-child relationship. You’re using a very controlled, process-oriented form of discipline, which feels a million miles away from: “You just grabbed my fidget spinner and so I’m going to wallop you.”

Did your thoughts on smacking change when you had your own children?

AS: I don’t think I ever thought I would be a parent who smacked. But I recognise the pressures and frustrations and how hard it is far more than I did when I was in the early stages of youth ministry. There was maybe an idealism, which gets smashed as soon as your children start moving about! When we did think about smacking, it was: “What do we want to enable our children to learn?” A huge amount of it for us is around self-discipline and being able to regulate their own behaviour in time.

Children need two things: unconditional love and clear boundaries.

NML: I think I was always convinced that the Bible taught that it was appropriate in certain circumstances for parents to smack children. The experience of having a child is amazing. The greatest privilege of my life is to be a parent. Your hearts are just so overwhelmed with desperate love for their wellbeing and flourishing. You question: “Could I ever smack the little peachy bottom of this tiny baby?” But I’ve also realised the nature of the human heart - defiance never had to be taught. I see my son taking another child by the hair and pulling them out of the toy car at toddlers group - it’s basically car-jacking and he’s never seen us do that in a supermarket car park! That’s not learned behaviour. So, part of our love is to discipline them, so that they love God and they love other people.

What impact do you think corporal punishment has on youth and children’s work?

AC: My experience of smacking has usually been of one which creates fear, unease and a culture of children pushing boundaries rather than seeing them as being mutually beneficial. In ministry settings, having high expectations, codes of conduct and clear sanctions means that usually events and groups can bring together young people with very diverse experiences of punishment. For those with challenging and chaotic home lives, any form of discipline requires the development of trust. The voluntary nature of youth and children’s work means it’s difficult to impose sanctions on boundaries but being firm on those, early on, can be a freedom for those who haven’t been used to such a framework.

NML: I don’t think smacking in the way that I’ve described would cause any significant issues for a children’s or youth worker. Obviously however, there may be children who have suffered physical abuse and children’s and youth workers need to follow their safeguarding guidelines if they believe a young person is at risk.

Young people who have no clear boundaries because parents, for whatever reason, have not consistently disciplined them need the most time, energy and consistency from their youth and children’s workers. They require a huge amount of love, discipline and grace. If their parents have significantly failed to show God’s loving discipline to them, someone else will need to.