Sorry, James Dobson. We Can’t Spank Our Kids to Heaven

For my parents, James Dobson and his ilk were the salesmen of spanking, this must-have for moral formation, this ShamWow! of child rearing. Wash the disobedience away. Dry a lie. Polish those manners. Obviously they didn’t invent spanking. They just repackaged it and sold it to a new generation of anxious parents, who were being told that AIDS and crack were going to steal their babies if they tried any of this psychobabble the atheist “child development experts” were peddling.

In some ways, spanking is traditional and thus feels reliable. Corporal punishment transcends cultures and religions and generations. However, the same could be said at one time of putting leeches on swelling, asbestos in walls, and lead in pipes. Parents have always spanked, kids have always bullied, men have always said sexually inappropriate things to women. You can’t justify human behavior solely on its persistence.

But Dobson’s new spankings were less rustic and crude than the whuppins doled out in the 1950s and 1960s, the ones our parents had endured. Spankings could be administered in love, in part because pain was seen in nature. Pain was the natural consequence of transgression, Dobson said. Parents were, I suppose, forces of nature. “Corporal punishment, when used lovingly and properly, is beneficial to a child because it is in harmony with nature itself,” Dobson wrote in a 2014 article on his website.

I know a lot of parents who would part with Dobson on just about everything but still believe that a controlled, lovingly dispensed swat on the bum is a clear and healthy way to set a boundary, especially with pre-rational children. I’ve also seen scholarship saying corporal punishment of any kind, no matter how judiciously applied, is not helpful. I’ve moderated panels of experts who urge parents, schools, and local governments to address generational cycles of domestic abuse, and most experts on those panels come out hard against any form of spanking.

Societally we focus a lot on spanking, I think, because it seems to draw such a line between barbarism and civility, or, seen from the other perspective, between parents who are serious about discipline and those who are wishy-washy. But spanking isn’t the issue behind the issue. The issue behind the issue is authority — the right to exercise power. What kind of power do those in authority have? How do they exercise it? What are the consequences?

One of the regular features of Dobsonesque parenting is the idea of parents and children as opposing forces. It frames parenting as a series of battles that a parent must win to maintain authority from would-be usurpers. This way of seeing the world and our children did not come out of nowhere.

The abuses wrought by authoritarianism were disturbingly underscored in the summer of 2021 when news broke that mass graves had been discovered near former Indian Residential Schools in Saskatchewan and British Columbia, Canada, each holding between 200 and 600 bodies of First Nations adults and children. Many likely died of the diseases common in the schools, the reports said, not from direct beatings, but the disregard for human life at the nexus of racism, violence, and obedience was broadcast to the world.

When the Canadian government commissioned a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 to address the harm done by the residential schools, one of the calls to action was the repeal of Section 43 of Canada’s Criminal Code, the government’s authority to inflict corporal punishment. A collection of theologians, educators, and scholars came together to create a philosophical framework for repeal, a series of essays published together under the title Decolonizing Discipline: Children, Corporal Punishment, Christian Theologies, and Reconciliation. The Indian Residential Schools were rooted first and foremost in colonialist racism, which the various scholars acknowledge from the get-go. However, they point out the ways theological beliefs about discipline shaped the particular ways racism played out for those children.

Within the hierarchies of church and family, professor Valerie Michaelson writes that obedience is the primary tool of spiritual development for children. “Without learning to submit to parents or others in authority, the argument goes, children will not learn to submit to God.”

While modern eyes look back on the residential schools, which also operated in the United States, as particularly barbaric, we have not fully abandoned their ethos. The racially disproportionate use of suspension and expulsion in schools, and solitary confinement in prisons — and prisons in general — prove that we still operate at that nexus, even when the violence is psychological.

But even separate from racism or colonial contexts, the emphasis on submission at any cost stays with us. I think we lose the ability to discern when we want submission because we’re tired of the crap (and kids, let’s be real, can dole out some crap), and when we want submission because we’re trying to save their souls. With the authority chain going straight from us to God, you don’t really have to discern. The benefit to them isn’t the particular behavior or privilege in question. Submission itself, the act of losing the battle, is supposedly the spiritual benefit.

The teaching that bad behavior is the sign of a rebellious soul is so deep in my bones that even as I pledge to never spank or shame my kids, even as I seriously doubt concepts like eternal damnation, I still panic when they get in trouble at school. I still fear not only earthly consequences, like jail, but also a corruption of their spirits. The flames of alarm may only be a stubborn ember in my motherly heart, but throw some kindling on them — a parent-teacher conference, a public meltdown, a fed-up babysitter — and the flames of alarm become a forest fire of anxiety and moral panic.

I signed up for a Mental Health First Aid course in a moment of such panic, after reading about the wave of youth mental health crises sweeping the globe as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Mental Health First Aid course, which I eventually wrote about for The 74 Million and The Texas Tribune, was helpful in the face of the immediate crisis, but it was also helpful in another way. The course spelled out the difference between mental health challenges and ordinary childhood development. It never once mentioned “unacceptable behaviors” or “spiritual dangers.” It removed the morally loaded interpretations, and suddenly raising kids seemed so much less fiery.

Pulling away from family happens on a biological timer. It’s not rebellion.

Talking back or brooding is part of a hormonal surge that allows teens to make decisions independent of their parents, to own their opinions, beliefs, and faith. It’s not rebellion.

Risky behaviors happen as the prefrontal cortex, where good decisions are made, lags behind curiosity, confidence, and passion. It’s not rebellion.

Put in this context, raising kids seems more predictable, less dire. Adolescents push back on our authority because they have to learn to live without us. Independence doesn’t just happen without practice. Boundaries around these developmentally appropriate behaviors are good and helpful, mental health professionals say. One of the great benefits of boundary-testing (kids’ forte from day one) is the reassurance that boundaries exist.

Apparently maintaining a boundary can be done without punishment, or so I’m told. I’m horrible at this, but I cannot tell you how badly I want to be good at it. I default to consequences and quick control so often. As a Christian and an American, I’ve only ever seen a punitive approach to deterrence — make the consequences so scary they won’t risk it. This is the failed strategy on immigration, the war on drugs, and numerous other “law-and-order” policies the American government has adopted. It’s the essence of purity culture, which makes impurity sound like a death wish. It’s the heart of corporal punishment, and the heart of the numerous toys I’ve taken away as various “consequences.”

And it doesn’t work. We have never been able to scare people into abiding by the law. That’s why the jails are full, the immigration courts are backed up, and my kids are still throwing things.

Youth-oriented Mental Health First Aid helped me create some categories. It also raised another important point lost in the spank-them-to-heaven discourse: If the behavior isn’t part of typical development — if they suddenly withdraw from both friends and family, cry or brood nonstop with little provocation, harm themselves or others, use drugs habitually — then it is a sign something is wrong. The child is in distress.

We were raised believing that sin is the bad things you do because you are sinful. You act bad because you have badness in your heart. You brood because you are ungrateful. You steal because you feel entitled. You bark orders at your mom because you believe you are the center of the universe. Actually, mental health professionals tell us, most of the time trouble outside signals hurt inside, not corruption. So the shame and pain of harsh punishment can actually backfire. Punishing someone who is acting out of pain or alienation doesn’t fix the problem. Even if it fixes the behavior, the underlying issue will create other problems. Addiction, disordered eating, and self-harm can all happen while minding your manners.

If we aren’t willing to talk to our kids about how they feel, what they are worried about, where they feel unseen, unheard, and misunderstood, and what they wish was different about their life, then we are not going to be able to effectively address their hurtful words and destructive behaviors. We have to be willing to take their feedback on our behavior before they’ll listen to our feedback on theirs.

Reprinted with permission from Bringing Up Kids When Church Lets You Down: A Guide for Parents Questioning Their Faith by Bekah McNeel copyright © 2022 Eerdmans.

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