We have spanked our four children in the very young years, from age two to about six, when it is an effective means to get them to behave. After that we try to use deprivation (for the older kids, of their youth group meetings) or "penances" of doing the dishes and so forth. There are ways to set up these things in terms of positive reinforcement (see a helpful article on that).
Sometimes, there is nothing like a swat, as an immediate punishment for serious offenses. If, e.g., one of my children, when at this early age, talked back to my wife in a nasty, rebellious way, on many occasions, I have swatted them immediately, with my hand.
Almost always, after such a spanking, I will take the child on my lap in a loving, nurturing manner and tell them I love them, and that this was the reason they were spanked. I'll ask them to repeat why they think they were spanked, and if they don't know (or pretend to not know; parents know this routine!), then I carefully explain it to them and teach them that such discipline is to make them a better person, by preventing them from doing bad and sinful things that will make their life difficult in the future. So the act is grounded in love and expanation and, in the end, positive reinforcement.
I can only remember one occasion that I regretted spanking one of my children, because I was a little too angry and overreacted to a relatively minor offense (loss of temper being quite a rare thing for me). I believe I apologized to my son for that one. The older they get, the more a "positive reinforcement" works. Honey rather than vinegar, etc.
I would counsel parents who were physically abused when they were young, to avoid spanking, because of the statistical probability for abuse being repeated. Also, those who are prone to a quick temper and out-of-proportion angry reactions should avoid it and find other means to discipline. That is because the deficiency is in them, not in the very notion of spanking. On this issue as with many others, people often throw the baby out with the bathwater and get legalistic: because there are abuses they throw away the thing itself.
Lastly, it is, I think, beyond argument that the Bible itself condones spanking. If it does (being divine revelation), we cannot condemn it simply because we may not like the idea. Parents may choose not to use it, but they'll need to have some very serious disciplinary substitutes if so.
Some biblical passages on this (RSV):
Proverbs 13:24 He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
Proverbs 22:15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
Proverbs 23:13-14 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod, he will not die. If you beat him with the rod you will save his life from Sheol.
Proverbs 29:15,17 The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. . . . Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart.
Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 30:1,12-13 He who loves his son will whip him often, in order that he may rejoice at the way he turns out . . . Bow down his neck in his youth, and beat his sides while he is young, lest he become stubborn and disobey you, and you have sorrow of soul from him. Discipline your son and take pains with him, that you may not be offended by his shamelessness.
Many Christian family and parenting groups favor spanking in the right circumstances. For example, Dr. James Dobson and Focus on the Family:
Spanking can be a valuable disciplinary tool — if it is administered appropriately. It is essential to always balance firmness with loving sensitivity. Indeed, spanking is not appropriate for every child or at every age, and is unnecessary in many situations. For example, willful disobedience or defiance of authority might warrant corporal punishment, while mere childish irresponsibility does not. When spankings are properly managed, there is no reason to fear they will produce harmful emotional or psychological effects in children.
On another FOTF page, it is stated:
Spanking typically works best with ages 2 to 6. It should be used only for specific, purposeful misbehavior and should never be done in anger. As with other techniques, spanking should be used as one of many discipline tools.
On what part of the body would you administer a spanking?
It should be confined to the buttocks area, where permanent damage is very unlikely. I don't believe in slapping a child on the face or in jerking him around by the arms. A common form of injury seen in the emergency room at Children's Hospital when I was on the attending staff involved children with shoulder separations. Parents had pulled tiny arms angrily and dislocated the shoulder or elbow. If you spank a child only on the behind, you will be less likely to inflict any physical injury on him.
Christian Parents' Network takes the same position:
In this case, since your kids are older, you can come up with a list of punishable offenses which merit spanking and review the list together with your children. The list should include defiance, sassing, and disobedience. Children should not be spanked for simple forgetfulness, clumsy actions such as spilt milk, ect. Spanking should be used primarily as a remedy for defiance, direct disobedience, and bad attitude towards parental authority. . . .
It is really sad and unfortunate in this day of undisciplined children that the positive act of spanking is subject to be be misinterpreted, by the ignorant and misinformed, to be child abuse. It's a sad society that can't tell the difference between a legitimate act of discipline and real child abuse. This is the growing effect of Biblical illiteracy and of television and media coverage of the ideas of the small but outspoken spanking opponents. The media frequently interviews self-appointed social experts who have the hidden agenda of criminalizing spanking.
Catholic family advocate Steve Wood also does not deny spanking a place in discipline. Note that he casually assumes it is part of discipline in the following remark:
Most people immediately picture the rod when they think of the tool for discipline. They also regard the rear-end as the part of the human anatomy on which to focus discipline efforts. If the only discipline you engage in is spanking then you are neglecting 75% of what the Bible calls discipline.
Your word is the primary tool for training and discipline and the ear is the part of your child's anatomy that you want to focus efforts towards.
Dr. Ray Guarendi is another superb Catholic family advocate and counselor (who has adopted ten children). He takes the same position. In a review of his audio series Raising Kids Right, it is stated:
Episode 9: Spanking. My girls are all too old to spank now, but had I listened to this episode earlier some difficult situations today may have been avoided. We have to be careful not to let anger control or motivate spanking. Done in a loving environment, and used sparingly, spanking sounds like a good alternative for younger children.
Listen to an audio tape of Dr. Ray explaining his position.
Catholic Leon Suprenant writes:
I think the crucial issue is that the spanking not be merely an expression of anger or frustration. Sounds obvious, but in the heat of misbehavior this is easier said than done.
If it's purposeful and done as a means of correction it's a time-tested, biblically approved means of discipline. It should be reserved only for significant issues, such as direct disobedience. It's about children's misbehavior having consequences, so for spanking to work it must be unmistakably clear to the child why he or she is being spanked, so that the right lessons are communicated.
The Catechism (#2223) approvingly cites Sirach 30:1-2, in the following translation:
He who loves his sons will not spare the rod . . . He who disciplines his son will profit by him.
Social science is catching up with what the Bible always knew to be true. A 2007 scientific study by the American College of Pediatricians concluded:
It is clear that parents should not solely rely upon disciplinary spanking to accomplish control of their child’s behavior. Evidence suggests that it can be a useful and necessary part of a successful disciplinary plan. Like any corrective measure, its application requires a proactive rather than reactive approach to produce an optimal outcome. Disciplinary spanking is most beneficial and necessary during the ages 2 to 6 years when reasoning alone is often ineffective and even counterproductive in managing behavior. With cognitive development, a child will more likely respond to reasoning and less assertive corrective methods, such as privilege removal and logical consequences, thereby diminishing any need for spanking.
When advising parents on child discipline, pediatricians should emphasize the importance of balancing correction with encouragement. The parent-child relationship is pivotal in determining the success of any disciplinary measure. The selective use of disciplinary spanking with young children can be useful component of the disciplinary process.
See also the Scientific Review of use of corporal punishment, that includes 81 footnotes to many further scientific studies.
For another extremely in-depth article on this matter, see: The Problem of Spanking and Childhood Discipline, by Richard W. Cross (a Catholic psychologist who has five children), reprinted at Catholic Educator's Resource Center.
See Part Two of this discussion