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The Competent Parent: To Spank or Not to Spank Kids?


Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Spanking for Love?

Dear Dr. Debbie,

I’m confused on the spanking issue.  My husband and I have always been in agreement about how to discipline our now-three-year-old twins.  Never has hitting them been something we would have done on purpose or even considered.  But I have a group of mom friends from church who are telling me that “sparing the rod” will “spoil” our children.  Further, one said I have to hit them in order to break their spirits.  And that it is in “love” that a parent spanks a child.

What do you think?

If it’s working why break it?



I’m so glad you wrote.  The controversy over physical punishment can get heated when religious beliefs are brought into the argument.

Let’s address that part first.  The Book of Proverbs has been translated many, many times from one language to another and interpreted and re-interpreted in English over hundreds of years of cultural change.  The King James version, translated from Latin to English in 1611, says, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes”  (Proverbs 13:24.)   Whether the rod referred to an actual stick or metaphorically to the scepter of authority, or the means to protect an innocent lamb or child from an enemy, cannot be answered.   There are many examples of proverbs that use images to make a point – and may not have been meant to be taken literally.  For example, “Be patient and you will finally win, for a soft tongue can break hard bone” (Proverbs 28:13).  Does this mean you can actually break a bone with your tongue?  I think it means that thoughtful, gentle speech can have a powerful impact.

And even if “(don’t) spare the rod” was intended to direct parents to strike their children, we have to consider that the Bible also said that a thief who could not return 500% of the value of the stolen property should be enslaved  (Exodus 22: 1-3) and that a non-virgin bride should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 13:21).

There will be those who will cling to the belief that God wants them to strike their beloved children.  My belief, and perhaps yours, is otherwise.

Now as to the benefit versus harm of using your physical power to address misbehavior, there is much evidence to support the stance you and your husband have taken.  Hitting children teaches them: to distrust and fear you, to hide their mistakes from you, to hit other people, to devalue themselves, and to behave badly in the future.  Positive guidance, on the other hand, proves to children that parents will keep them safe, gives them choices to consider,  helps them to learn from rationality rather than emotionality, teaches them how to make amends and be responsible, shows them how to treat other people respectfully, and promotes feeling and acting like a good person.

If you decide to continue your discussion with these moms, you may find more good reasons not to spank from Michael J. Marshall, Ph.D.  author of Why Spanking Doesn’t Work.   The book and its purpose, as well as many short articles on the subject, are discussed online at: http://www.stopspanking.com/ Maybe some “soft tongue” will change their minds.

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis.  She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum.  Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at www.drdebbiewood.com

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at editor@chesapeakefamily.com

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