Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
The Spanking Debate
and Scientific Research
by Michael Wagner
On July 5, 2000, the right of Canadian parents to spank their children was upheld in an important judicial decision in Ontario; Section 43 of the Criminal Code was found to be constitutional. A "children's rights" organization, the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law, had challenged Section 43 in court, claiming that it violated the rights of Canadian children by allowing them to be "assaulted," i.e., spanked, by their parents or teachers. Thankfully, the judge in this case had enough sense to see the specious nature of that claim. It is likely, however, that this case will be appealed and continue to make its way through the courts.
The issue of corporal punishment of children is of considerable significance to conservative Christians. Parents are commanded by God in the Bible to spank their children when they seriously misbehave. The spanking will teach the children to obey legitimate authority (the fifth commandment), and will help to instill self-discipline. God does not simply give parents the option of spanking, He commands it. For example, Proverbs 13:24 says, "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him." (See also Proverbs 22:15 and 23:13-14.) Thus if spanking were to be outlawed, as so-called "children's rights" groups demand, conservative Christian parents would come into direct conflict with the government over this issue. The implications are very serious.
One of the main lines of argumentation used by anti-spanking activists is that there is scientific evidence that spanking is harmful to children and has long-term negative consequences in their lives. There is a brief look at the debate over this scientific evidence included in the book Debating Children's Lives: Current Controversies on Children and Adolescents (Sage Publications, 1994). The anti-spanking case is presented by Murray Straus, a professor at the University of New Hampshire, and a leading proponent of the view that science proves spanking to be harmful.
The evidence that Straus presents is based exclusively on a study of people who were "physically punished" in their teen years. Straus has charts which purport to show that the more frequently teenagers are "physically punished," the more likely they will be involved in spousal abuse as adults, the more likely they will have a problem with alcohol abuse, and the more likely they will consider suicide. The "physical punishment" he refers to includes "spanking, slapping, grabbing or shoving a child 'roughly' (i.e., with more force than is needed to move the child), and hitting with certain traditionally acceptable objects such as a hairbrush, belt, ruler, or paddle" (p. 197).
Spanking is not...
It is important to look at this carefully. Straus is using evidence gleaned from a study of teenagers who were, among other things, slapped and shoved roughly, to make claims that spanking is harmful for children. He includes some "punishments" that probably should not be lumped together with spanking. Conservative Christians certainly don't endorse every form of "physical punishment" used on children, just the loving spanking commanded in the Bible. It seems to me that Straus is making somewhat of a stretch from his evidence to his conclusion. The fact that teenagers who are treated violently by their parents are affected negatively should not be a surprise to anyone. But this is an entirely different issue than the spanking of young children. Nevertheless, his work still passes as "scientific" evidence against spanking.
Straus also presents another argument. He says the corporal punishment of children contains a "hidden curriculum" with two key elements. The first element is "the morality of hitting," i.e., that violence is an acceptable way of solving conflict. And the other element is that "those who love you are those who hit you." Straus claims that this element sets the stage for family violence between adults (pp. 198-199).
Straus concludes, then, that outlawing corporal punishment would lead to considerable benefits for society. He claims there would be less drug and alcohol abuse, less wife beating, less "street crime," less depression and suicide, etc. In sum, society would be "healthier, less violent, and wealthier" (p. 203). A big step towards Utopia, in other words.
The research stinks
The pro-spanking position (or better, the anti-anti-spanking position) is presented by John Rosemond, a family psychologist. Rosemond says he doesn't believe spanking is necessary, but he strongly opposes the arguments used by anti-spanking activists. He states his case against the "scientific" evidence very clearly: "The research stinks. All of it. There is not one study into the effects of spanking on children that's worth the paper it's written on. Every single one of them (I've reviewed them all, I think) is rife with design problems" (p. 213). The term "design problems" refers to the fact that a study is not properly capturing the information it claims to be, making the study's conclusions invalid. For example, studying teenagers who were frequently slapped in the face by their parents, and claiming that the negative effects that result, demonstrate that spanking is harmful. The information that is gathered in the study does not provide a basis for the conclusion.
Rosemond mentions other problems with the supposedly scientific evidence. "In the first place, there is no research that tracks children who were spanked properly as opposed to improperly. To my knowledge, that distinction has never been made by any researcher. That reveals something important about many, if not most, of these so-called researchers. They're not doing research at all. They're trying to promote their own personal agendas. And they cloak this promotion, this shameless propaganda effort, in the guise of 'science'" (p. 213). So much for the "scientific" evidence against spanking.
Aside from the empirical research, Straus also made the argument about the "hidden curriculum" of spanking, i.e., that it promotes violence. Referring to this line of argumentation, Rosemond responds, "Anti-spankers cannot, of course, prove any of this. The rhetoric of the argument is emotionally seductive (which is, after all, the point of rhetoric), but in the final analysis it is nothing more than undiluted psychobabble - a construction of language, not fact" (p. 215).
As should be clear, then, this is not really a debate about scientific evidence. The "scientific" agenda is not being driven by empirical data. Rosemond puts his finger on the real issue: "I've come to the conclusion that this debate is more about politics than it is about psychology. The hidden agenda is the desire on the part of a vocal minority within my profession and related fields to write social policy and thereby impose their vision of a perfect world upon the rest of us" (p. 215).
It's easy for Christians to be intimidated when our opponents claim that their position is founded upon "science." In our day and age, when the word "science" has such an aura that no one wants to challenge it, we can be made to feel defenseless in important public debates. But in some cases, such as the spanking debate, our opponents' appeal to science is not legitimate. We can pop their bubble by taking a close and critical look at their evidence, as Rosemond has done. God has commanded us to spank our children because doing so will help them, not harm them. We can be confident that so-called "scientific" evidence to the contrary will be flawed one way or another.
The Author Michael Wagner has a PhD in Political Science from the University of Alberta. He lives in Edmonton with his wife and ten children. His book on Christian political activism in Canada, Standing On Guard For Thee: The Past, Present and Future of Canada’s Christian Right is available at www.freedompress.ca. Simply bringing a Christian perspective to public life is often challenged. Michael Wagner has done a great service to Christians in Canada to help make sense of these conflicting beliefs and principles.