A Canadian friend of mine, who is a husband and father, called me the other day to talk about Canadian regulations concerning corporal punishment in the home–what is and isn’t allowed (they are, generally, more strict than federal or state laws Stateside). As caring, well-educated parents (both have graduate degrees), he and his wife have given the matter much thought and concluded that, while they could (of course) very much uphold the spirit of the regulations, they could not in good conscience keep them to the letter. The regulations, undoubtedly well intended, placed them in a very difficult place.
At the same time here in the U.S. the professional football player Adrian Peterson is facing allegations of child abuse, sparking discussions concerning appropriate parental discipline.
How is one to begin to think about the issue of corporal punishment in the home? Here are some questions to consider:
1. How much external (i.e., regulatory) oversight should parents receive in choosing how to discipline their children?
2. What is the spirit of the various regulations concerning child abuse? Can the letter of those regulations undermine their spirit?
3. Is the presence or absence of corporal punishment the only (or even primary) factor in deciding if a parent is abusive?
4. Is all physical pain only destructive? Can it ever be constructive and life-giving? That is, do any and all ways of applying physical pain to a child belong in the same category (i.e., abuse)?
As a minister I’ve seen that there are few things more sensitive than matters of parenting. When I start talking about parenting, the issue is (literally) close to home. It is a deeply personal, even intimate topic. How we parent defines us insofar as it reflects our most fundamental desires, dreams, fears, values, etc. So when we start talking publicly about it, the matter is going to be more than a little sensitive. And when we pass legislation or create statutes, one can bet they are going to be controversial.
Parental discipline (regardless of its form) happens because parents have a vision (whether conscious or unconscious) of what they want for their child’s future (even the absence of parental discipline communicates–perhaps unwittingly–such a vision). E.g., a parent who deeply values freedom from any/all physical pain will (of course) never discipline via corporal punishment. Or a parent who wants his/her child to feel affirmed will love by…affirming them all the time–etc., etc. A parent who wants their child to be free of the need to feel affirmed will love…differently. And that’s the point: for each parent, this is how they are expressing their love for their child. Whoever is writing statutes or making allegations has the very difficult job of understanding that parental love is deeply personal and deeply enculturated. For a fascinating articulation of this challenge, check out NPR’s interview with Ian McEwan, discussing his novel Children Act, in which a London judge must decide whether or not the 17-year-old son of loving parents, who are Jehovah’s Witnesses, should receive a life-giving blood transfusion, despite the parents’ religious convictions. The host, Scott Simon (who does a great job) tells a fascinating story from his own experience that itself makes the interview worth hearing (http://www.npr.org/2014/09/06/346299231).
In the ancient Roman world–and, indeed, in the majority world today–laws and customs concerning parental authority were overwhelmingly hands off. For the Romans the concept of patria potestas (“paternal authority”) was a controlling principle. As one author of the first century BCE states:
“Roman legislators gave virtually full power to the father over his son, whether he thought it proper to imprison him, to scourge him, to put him in chains, and to keep them at work in the fields, or to put him to death.” – Dionysus of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities, 2.26.4
Whether one would agree with this or not, this is a (if not the) dominant perspective throughout history and throughout the majority world today. This is hardly a commentary on the quality of parental love in the ancient and majority worlds; it is rather a commentary on the extent of external oversight of parenting: it was extremely limited. Of course, one can readily find statesmen and philosophers exhorting parents to love, encourage and reason with their children (e.g., Seneca, De Ira [“Concerning Anger”], 2.21.1-3). While these exhortations certainly warn against the excessive/inappropriate use of corporal punishment, they do not forbid it as such. In short, they can easily distinguish between destructive and constructive forms of corporal punishment.
If one were a non-Christian parent converting to Christianity in the 1st century AD, s/he would probably have found their parental authority chastened. Parents would have found within the wisdom literature of their sacred texts incredibly rich and well-rounded discussions of parental nurture: parents are to exercise their authority by means of a diverse toolkit that included encouragement, exhortation, admonition, inspiration, parental imitation and, yes, corporal punishment. One even finds the question of destructive vs. constructive physical pain addressed:
“Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death.” (Proverbs 23.13-14)
One can completely disagree with this, and yet it must be admitted that this perspective is (1) aware of parental hesitation concerning corporal punishment (and, thus, of the accusation that it is “unloving”), (2) desires the good of the child, and (3) values the child for more–far more–than the child’s immediate physical comfort, persuaded that the judicious, self-controlled application of a little physical pain now will rescue the child from far greater physical and emotional pain later in life. If anything, this parental counsel confronts parents who are afraid to confront their children (a malady that has arguably reached epidemic proportions in American families today).
Importantly, the Apostle Paul’s exhortations to Christian parents (Eph. 6.4; Col. 3.21) are hardly unique in terms of the kind of behavior they commend. They are unique, however, insofar as these Christian parents are themselves accountable not only to church leaders (like Paul) but, ultimately, to their Lord Jesus, who epitomizes selfless authority and yet who himself was not afraid to threaten his own followers with physical suffering, lest they repent (see Rev. 2.20-23).