Monday, August 15, 2011

Children are not evil

Here I am again, still agonizing over spanking. My general opinion remains that it may be right in some instances and for some kids, but wrong for others. I also believe that it is completely possible to raise good children without spanking -- because some of my awesome friends were spanked, and some weren't. I was. I think I'm an okay person. I don't resent my parents. I have a good relationship with them.

And yet I can't abide the opinion that spanking is required to raise a "moral" child. They cite Bible verses about sparing the rod and spoiling the child, and insist that you start hitting your children with a switch by the time they can walk. The whole thing strikes me as rather brutal, as well as encouraging parents to ignore everything they know about their child and all of their instincts, just so they can follow a plan which is touted as "biblical."

I got an answer back from Kimberly at Raising Olives on our discussion about disciplining toddlers. I had asked if she could provide more details about her system of discipline, by which she claimed she could teach one-year-olds to obey. Here's what she said:

Hi Sheila,

The most basic duty of a child is found in Ex.20:12, Deut. 5:16, Eph. 6:1-3, Col.3:20, jn.14:13-24 and more. Scripture is clear about the blessing and curse attached [to] children obeying their parents. This is about life and death.

The people responsible to teach them their duty: Deut.6:6-7, Eph. 6:4, Prov. 1:8;3:1, 4:1-2;6:20, Deut. 4:9-10, etc.

Tedd Tripp, in his book Shepherding a Child’s Heart, says this,

When your child is old enough to resist your directives, he is old enough to be disciplined. When he is resisting you, he is disobeying. If you fail to respond, those rebellious responses become entrenched. The longer you put off disciplining, the more intractable the disobedience will become.

The time and manner for teaching them: Deut. 6:7-9, Prov.29:15-17, 13:24, 23:13, 19:18.

Simply because our children are young we do not allow them to regularly participate in what God says will bring a curse and judgement to them. If our child is knowingly resisting our authority, he is sinning against God.

I actually looked up every single Bible verse she mentioned. All quotes are from the King James Version, which seemed the most likely one that she might be using. My source is, which is a really handy tool for searching the Bible.

The basic duty of a child:

Ex.20:12 - Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Deut. 5:16 - Honour thy father and thy mother, as the LORD thy God hath commanded thee; that thy days may be prolonged, and that it may go well with thee, in the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.

Eph. 6:1-3 - Children, obey your parents in the Lord: for this is right. Honour thy father and mother; which is the first commandment with promise; That it may be well with thee, and thou mayest live long on the earth.

Col.3:20 - Children, obey your parents in all things: for this is well pleasing unto the Lord.

Jn.14:13-24 - And whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, that will I do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. (continues for 11 more verses, but I still don't see the connection ... perhaps she meant a different verse)

The people responsible to teach them their duty:

Deut.6:6-7 - And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

Eph. 6:4 - And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.

Prov. 1:8 - My son, hear the instruction of thy father, and forsake not the law of thy mother.

Prov. 3:1 - My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments.

Prov. 4:1-2 - Hear, ye children, the instruction of a father, and attend to know understanding. For I give you good doctrine, forsake ye not my law.

Prov. 6:20 - My son, keep thy father's commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother.

Deut. 4:9-10 - Only take heed to thyself, and keep thy soul diligently, lest thou forget the things which thine eyes have seen, and lest they depart from thy heart all the days of thy life: but teach them thy sons, and thy sons' sons; Specially the day that thou stoodest before the LORD thy God in Horeb, when the LORD said unto me, Gather me the people together, and I will make them hear my words, that they may learn to fear me all the days that they shall live upon the earth, and that they may teach their children.

The time and manner for teaching them:

Deut. 6:7-9 - And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up. And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thine eyes. And thou shalt write them upon the posts of thy house, and on thy gates.

Prov.29:15-17 - The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. When the wicked are multiplied, transgression increaseth: but the righteous shall see their fall. Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.

Prov. 13:24 - He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

Prov. 23:13 - Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.

Prov. 19:18 - Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying.

Okay, so I understand her argument: One of the commandments is to obey your parents. Parents are supposed to teach their children the commandments, including the one to obey their parents. And the way to do that is to start young, and to hit them with a rod.

However, it seems to me that there are some problems with this argument. First off, it's exclusively from the Old Testament, except for two verses. All the ones in Deuteronomy and Exodus are addressed specifically to the Jews. They take them quite literally and actually do bind the commandments on their foreheads and doorways. But my guess is that Kimberly does not. Why not? Two reasons: First, the Old Covenant is for the Jews, and we are not bound by the strictures of the Law (as you can easily find in the Epistles). Second, it was probably a poetic way of saying, "Keep the law always on your mind." Modern day Christians do this.

Can't we also say that the phrase "with a rod" might also not have been literal? My grandma might have said, "Smack 'em with a hairbrush," but I don't go around saying, "Only hairbrushes are appropriate to hit children with." She just meant smack the kids, but not hard, and in a way that means discipline. If she just said "hit 'em," I might have thought she meant to punch them in the nose. I don't see an actual difference between hitting with a rod and with the hand. You can tap lightly with a rod; you can kill someone with your bare hands; but it doesn't really make a difference what your tool is.

And as far as age, the only thing we hear is "betimes." I've also heard, "while he is young." Nothing states, "by the age of one" or "while he's a toddler." The word "toddler" wasn't even used in Biblical times. Children were called babies or infants or nurslings until they were weaned, which was about three years old. I'm not sure what form of discipline was common at the time, but I'm pretty sure kids were pretty much left to their mothers at that age. Often, in more primitive cultures, nursing toddlers are considered equivalent to babies and mainly left alone -- actual teaching would begin later. I'm no expert, but there's nothing in the Bible that suggests any differently.

In short, I don't think the Bible has anything that specific to say about the discipline of very young children. I think a bigger source of this point of view is people like this Tedd Tripp fellow and others, who write books about discipline and sell them by passing them off as "the Biblical way to raise children."

It was the rest of the comment that really bothered me: "If our child is knowingly resisting our authority, he is sinning against God."

First off, how old does a child have to be to commit a sin -- when does he "know" he is resisting? Is it when he tries to roll over at four months old because doesn't want a new diaper on? Is it when he puts his hands in front of his mouth at six months old because he doesn't want any more pudding? Is it when he crawls away laughing at nine months old, because he sees you chasing him and would like you to keep chasing him -- because it's fun? How can he really understand the concept of "authority" at that age? How can he know the difference between being chased for fun and being chased because we really want to catch him? These are subtle differences!

The Catholic Church generally considers the "age of reason" to be seven years old. Before that age, a child is incapable of sin because he's incapable of understanding what sin is. He is certainly capable of getting on our nerves, destroying property, and endangering his life, but he can't sin. We stop him from doing harmful things because we don't want him to do them, and because we want him to have good habits, but not because he is sinning.

There is, in my mind, no point in disciplining a child before he is capable of understanding the thing he is supposed to do. Once he can do it, we use age-appropriate strategies to get the child to do it.

For instance, Kimberly gives the example that a child of one year old can understand the command, "sit on your bottom." Perhaps what she means is that, when she tells her one-year-old, "sit on your bottom," the one-year-old sits down. Okay, fine. I'm all for that.

But someone could interpret what she said like this: A one-year-old is quite capable of understanding "sit on your bottom." When I tell my one-year-old to sit on his bottom, he doesn't do it. He must know what I meant and be willfully disobeying me. I will spank him every time he disobeys that command. By the time he's eighteen months, he will be sitting on his bottom when I ask him to.

What I ask is, how do you know a one-year-old understands? I am pretty darn sure my son didn't, at 12 months. At 15 months, he learned the word "sit," and would sit down and stand up saying "sit" and "stand," making a game of it. So I knew he knew what the word meant. But still, when I said "sit," he wouldn't necessarily sit. Sometimes he would sit and then stand, because that's the way his game goes. So when he is standing on a chair and I need him to sit, I gently sit him down. That way he understands that when I say sit, I mean sit down now and stay sitting.

At 16 months, he's beginning to get it. He doesn't know what "quiet" means, but perhaps in a few months he will. It's a process, and I'm finally beginning to feel confident about my ability to foster and respond to that process. At his age, if he insists on standing on a chair, I put him on the floor and take the chair somewhere he can't get to it. In another year, he will probably understand that chairs are never for standing, only sitting, and I won't have to remind him every time. Eventually, it won't be an issue, and I will be able to trust him not to stand on chairs at all.

So, are children evil? I don't believe so. I do believe that children have concupiscence, the effect of original sin. Concupiscence is interpreted so many different ways, but this is how I understand it: Concupiscence is why man is the only animal that doesn't want to do what is good for him. Every other animal has instincts that incline them to do what they are supposed to do. Wolves want to hunt, mosquitoes want to bite, bees want to obey the queen bee; but people become anorexic, suicidal, and self-hating. We are social animals, so it is good for us as a species to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others, but what is easy to an ant is difficult for us. Our instincts tell us a lot of useful things, but they don't teach us what we're supposed to do with these non-animal faculties we have -- reason and free will. Concupiscence means it's difficult to be human. Most importantly, we are not punished for having concupiscence, because it's not our fault.

So, when raising a child, you're raising a being with concupiscence -- a small person who naturally thinks of himself first and doesn't realize that other people have wants and needs too. It is hard for him to do the very things that are most necessary, like share his toys, eat only one cookie, and stay inside the front-yard fence. That doesn't mean he's evil -- just that he doesn't get it. He's going to spend his whole life struggling with this reality -- his inclination to sit in front of the TV eating cookies when he knows he has to go to work, his inclination to sleep with every girl he sees when he knows he can't operate that way, his inclination to lie or cheat or steal to get to the top. His reason will help him out in that struggle, and so will his good habits that he learns from his parents. But those negative inclinations aren't evil -- they are only a problem if he follows them. And they can't be trained out of him with enough spankings. He's always going to be tempted to do the wrong thing. But if he knows what the right thing is, when he sees it done by people he respects, and when he's stopped from doing the wrong thing so that it's never a habit, that will help him choose right.

No matter how hard we try, though, our children's choices are their own. We could do everything exactly right, and they could still grow up to choose all the wrong things, living a life that is harmful to themselves and others. Or we could do everything wrong, and live to see them turn their lives around and do exactly what they should. That's the mystery of free will.

The child-training types try to scare you with the fear that, if you don't train your child to be obedient by the time they are two or three, you will never raise a Godly child. In reality, kids are pretty flexible. Kids raised on no discipline can learn it once they're introduced to it. They know where the speed limit is 25 and where it's 50. As they get older, it gets harder, sure -- but there's no cut-off date for teaching children. Even after they leave home, children still care what their parents think of them, and we may influence them that way.

In short, I just don't believe that spanking is this magical, divinely-mandated discipline tool, and that we're bound to raise up little sinners without it. I think it's one way of disciplining -- one that doesn't really make much sense with a very young child who might or might not understand what is expected of him -- but that there are many more, and there's no need to feel obligated to use this one or that one. Instead, we should watch our children to figure out what they're capable of, and encourage them to do it however works best.

I don't think I could ever convince Kimberly, because my argument rests on the doctrine of the Catholic Church -- original sin, the age of reason, and a non-literal interpretation of Scripture -- which I don't think she would accept. But I have sufficiently convinced myself that I don't need to do things her way.

I am beginning to have a bit more confidence that I'm not going to ruin my child, that I know (at least a little bit) what I'm doing. After all, right now, he is a happy, fun, affectionate little boy who loves hugs, games, and pleasing his parents. I think we're doing okay.

What about you? Were you spanked? Do you spank? Do you think it is necessary?


Sarah Faith said...

You thought it out quite well and thoroughly! And it's sooo different talking about the Catholic vs. non catholic understanding of children and sin. It really informs this issue.

Your terms are slightly off theology wise. I think you're referring to "concupiscence" when you say original sin. A baptized child has been washed clean and free of original sin, so be careful there. Agreed he can still commit actual sin after the age of reason, but the teaching of the Church is that original sin is remitted at baptism.

I have a couple posts on this topic on my blog under the parenting tag, but if you want to read the original comments that went with them you can check out my original blog,

That said, I'm not against spanking. I believe it is not necessary in order to raise a moral child; it certainly isn't sacramental as my protestant friends and family seem to believe; and I don't believe it is a good idea to have only one tactic in one's parenting arsenal as many of the pro-spankers do.
I think it can damage the relationship, which is what love and obedience SHOULD be based on (the relationship); it is the easy way out (not forcing the parent to think over the command, the example of his own behavior, nor to ponder what legitimate needs the child might be displaying through the behavior); and it is easy to blur the distinction between what is training toward virtue and what is training toward the parent's preferences and whims without consideration of the child as a separate person.
However, it IS the most efficient way out of many immediate and urgent situations, and as such can be a helpful tool to bridge the gap between the more intensive relationship work that must be done. I would not have survived some days with many many young children had I not had this tool, but I do not believe it is ideal. Rather it is a crutch that I prefer not to use except when lame for one reason or another. :) I definitely think once reason is achieved, spanking should be phased out completely, as the sacrament of penance and the will governed by reason should be emphasized and SELF control taught. Spanking is merely fear-based control and as such it has no lasting value on the heart of the spanked. I could go on but I will spare you. :)

Fidelio said...

Don't agonize, darlin'. Your first paragraph has all the good sense in it that anyone should ever need.

Meredith said...

I notice that most of those verses begin, "Children, [do this]." If the child isn't old enough to read or even to form sentences, how can these verses be said to apply to him?

(word verif.: "undoom")

Sheila said...

Sarah, you're right about original sin vs. concupiscence. Concupiscence is an *effect* of original sin which remains after the sin itself has been washed away. I should go back and edit that.

I think I'm with you on that view. I definitely think children under one or over about six should not be spanked. I can kind of see using spanking for a quick training away from dangerous things -- because it works fast and hurts less than hot stoves or getting run over. But I don't think it teaches "authority" the way it's supposed to.

Let me tell you, it's a relief to see a mom of many who survives without a lot of spanking. It seems like all the big families are really strict (because it's hard to get everyone in line when you've got a lot), which has made me afraid that when/if I have more kids, I will be dealing with utter chaos that I created by not being stricter.

Thanks, Fidelio. I guess I'm just one of those people who has to keep chewing on things pretty much forever.

That's what I thought, Meredith. I can see the implied answer in the citations given (parents are supposed to teach their children the commandments), but I think in the context given, older children are being addressed. In other words, God is saying, "Don't be one of those pagans who ditch their parents once they leave home and don't respect/support them when they're old." Not, "Toddlers, obey 'quickly, cheerfully, completely,' or you'll be cursed."

Of course, the literalist/Protestant view is that it's perfectly valid to take a sentence from Genesis, one from Proverbs, and one from Revelation, and make a paragraph. Context isn't really as important to them.

Anonymous said...

Okay, I am not Catholic, so our theology might not jive completely, but I am with you on children.

And well...doesn't "the rod" equate with a shepherd's rod? I didn't grow up around a lot of sheep but I am pretty sure that the rod is for guiding, not hitting...

Your thoughts?

Sheila said...

Yes, I've heard that interpretation, and it makes sense to me. I also recently found out that the word used there for "child" almost *always* means an older child -- like a preteen -- not a toddler.

Heather said...

Hi Sheila, I read your earlier interactions with the Raising Olives woman, and I think your analysis here is spot-on. I was raised protestant evangelical, and my parents spanked us a whole lot, even into our teen years, and it did serious damage to our relationship (along with other parenting practices). I now have a little boy about your son's age, and I'm now Catholic. It has been a relief and a joy to learn what the Church really teaches about children, sin, free will, and discipline! There is such a world of difference between the Catholic view of human nature and the protestant/Calvinist tinged view of our nature as utterly depraved, even from infancy.

I do not intend to spank my son at all, because I think it is unnecessary for good discipline and also because of all the baggage it has for me. Also, for a large family that doesn't spank, Elizabeth Foss has written some about that--they don't!

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