Biblical But Not Magical: Joel Beeke on Spanking

I am enjoying Joel Beeke’s book on raising children, Parenting by God’s Promises. It is a great blend of paedo-baptist confidence with warm, evangelical piety. Here are some quotes from his chapter on spanking. All formatting and Scripture references in the following quotes are Beeke’s.

We must  be careful not to fall into the following errors. The first is the error of love without correction. A parent says, “I love my children so much I can’t spank them.” The Bible says we do not love our children if we do not spank them or correct them (Prov. 13:24). Children need correction, and without it they are not likely to put any great value on our love. 

The second problem is a rod of correction without love. We then spank out of anger (whether piping hot or icy cold), and our children feel nothing but physical pain and the equally bitter sting of our wrath. They see that we are not really grieved when we spank them, and they do not feel we are doing it in God’s name. They know we are punishing them because we are angry. Proverbs 15:18 says, “A wrathful man stirreth up strife: but he that is slow to anger appeaseth strife.” Angry discipline is counterproductive as a means of training our children in godliness. 

I like how he notes that anger can be both hot, which is what we usually think of, or cold. Sometimes parents can be angry and mean without ever blowing their tops.

He goes on to say that we should have faith in the means God has given us for raising godly children.

Faith in God’s Word gives us confidence to use the means God has appointed for parenting. Teaching the Scriptures, praying for our children, and disciplining them in the context of participation in a local church might seem insufficient measures to shape children. But God has given these means in His wisdom. We must trust Him and not try to second-guess the Creator. We dare not lean on our own understanding or the pop psychology of the latest parenting book. Instead, we must trust in the Lord and keep using the means He has ordained.

In the quote below, he makes an excellent point about the purpose of spanking. Often we do not evaluate whether our discipline actually worked. Do we even know what is the goal of spanking our children?

The aim of corrective discipline is to lead children to repentance; it is educational and reformative…Administering punishment to encourage repentance makes us sensitive to how children are responding. When disciplined, children must show signs of recognizing that what they did was wrong. A broken and contrite heart draws forth our mercy and affection. Stubbornness and hardness of heart may call for further punishment. Beware of false responses, for many children try to say the right things to get out of trouble. Look for sincere hearts of penitence over sinning against God (Pss. 32; 51). 

In a great section on appropriate punishment he says:

The more serious the offense, the greater care we should take in punishing it. Discipline that is in inappropriate to the situation-either too severe to be warranted or too lax to be effective-will undercut all we are hoping to accomplish with our children. 

We must administer discipline with firmness if it is to accomplish its goal. A few love taps will not work; it must hurt. God actually made some of his children “sick and weakly” even to the point of death in order to discipline them (I Cor. 11:30). Psalm 89:31-33 says: “If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. Nevertheless my lovingkindness will I not utterly take from him, nor suffer my faithfulness to fail.” God disciplines us as much as is appropriate and effective. As parents, we are to apply the same principle to our children. 

Note Beeke’s emphasis on what is appropriate and what is effective. Our discipline needs to fit to the sin, but also needs to produce a certain type of fruit in the child.

Finally, this quote is full of wisdom:

How often should we spank our children? Some children need very few spankings to bring on a sincere flood of tears and repentance. With others, more spankings are required. If we find ourselves spanking the same child several times a day, we should pause to reflect on the total situation and what other factors may be at work to undercut the effectiveness of corporal punishment. The law of diminishing returns applies to corporal punishment as it does to many other aspects of life. If other important parts of nurture and training are lacking, frequent corporal punishment may prove to be only a tragic way to produce a very hardened young sinner. 

Beeke’s point in this quote is that spanking is but one part of training a child. If your spankings are ineffective the answer is not to drop the spankings, but to instead look at everything else that is going on. Spanking is biblical and should be done. However, it is not a magic bullet that will make your child more holy. If the overall situation with your child is one of sacrificial love, nurture, walking with them before God and pointing them to Jesus, then spankings will generally be effective. But if you think that spankings can substitute for other types of love, affection, exhortations, rebuke, attention, etc., you are mistaken.

As a parent, I read these quotes and find myself encouraged and rebuked. What Paul said of preaching I say of parenting, “Who is sufficient for these things” (II Cor. 2:16)?  And with Paul I say, “Our sufficiency is from God” (II Cor. 3:5).