July 13, 2024

Part 4: The Precision of Discipline

Read the book of Psalms to better feel the precision and intricacy of God’s activity.  God is always doing a billion things at once.  There are a billion purposes for every activity in time, including the most minute movement of an atom in time and space.  We are fortunate to get a glimpse of a few possible purposes with each act of God, and I am proposing here God is active in spanking.  God is doing something good for his people when their parents spank them.  In addition, the same act of spanking likely does something good for parents.  In this case, I have identified two purposes of God in spanking.  Multiply this by a billion, and we’re still far from all the purposes of God in a single act of spanking.  God is awesome.

The universe is orderly because God created it and knows it (John 1:1-5).  From beginning to end of it, all aspects of reality were planned by God before they even started (Rev. 13:8).  It is impossible, therefore, for a spanking to be magical or impractical.  By this, I mean that spanking achieves its intended results in an orderly and therefore identifiable way.  Spanking does work for disciplining children, and the process of how it leads to behavior change is definable.  To that end, let’s explore some possible ways modern thinking can explain how spanking leads to behavior change.  Please note that I am using the assumption that spanking is beneficial and causes behavior change in children of parents who spank per God’s word (namely, planned spanking, calm spanking, and physical spanking).

Spanking breaks through bad choices

Behavior can indeed be motivated by reward.  Do something, get something good, and increase the chance of getting that same good behavior in the future (because of the anticipation of reward).  This process is called Operant Conditioning and is the foundation for the belief that I was taught in graduate school that sufficient reward makes punishment irrelevant and unnecessary for behavior change in people (even if punishment technically works well to change behavior).  Psychology has shown that rewards work in modifying the behavior of mice, birds, monkeys, and people.  The parallel between mice and children breaks down at some point because mice don’t have wills, and people do.  Creation (e.g., mice) was subjected to futility (Rom. 8:20) because of the choice of a man (Rom. 5:12).  People knowingly choose things that ultimately destroy them all the time (Rom. 7:18-19).  We can know something is hurting us or killing us and pick that thing simultaneously.  In defense of their marketing strategies, Big Tobacco said in the 80s that they didn’t know cigarettes were harmful.  There was no question in anyone’s mind about the harmfulness of smoking.  Research had already linked cigarettes to cancer and this did little to curb smoking.  People smoked, knowing full well that about half the people who smoked died from smoking.  We choose what kills us.

We are not entirely rational, and we are certainly not good (Rom. 3:23).  Our default and primary desire is to be independent of God (Gen 3:6).  We are the supreme object of our idolatry, so the ultimate reward is self-satisfaction.  Under the influence of sin, self-satisfaction always leads to destruction, so rewards are not sufficient to change behavior in humans, even if they are sufficient for the unwilled family dog.  What is the alternative to reward?  It’s punishment[1].  Punishment not only works for behavior modification in humans; it’s necessary.  Humans require discipline not to destroy themselves. 

The Speed and Clarity of Pain

Why pain, and why pain through a spanking?  Another behavioral tenant says that the closer the response (reward or punishment) is to the target behavior, the stronger the mental connection between the behavior and response.  Parents know that punishing a child for behavior they did a long time ago is rarely effective in curbing that behavior.  They know they have to compensate for the lag with the intensity of punishment and then keep reminding the child of the link between the behavior and the discipline to change any behavior.  Clinicians advise parents to make the lag between behavior and reward as short as possible so good behavior and reward pair as strongly as possible. Reducing this lag means you can get behavior changes with modest rewards. For example, you don’t have to give a child $100 every time they feed the dog without being told.  They would probably develop the habit with a single piece of chocolate as an immediate reward. 

The ability to delay gratification is something all people must achieve.  Parents intentionally and gradually increase the lag between behavior and reward over time to build delayed gratification skills.  The ability to delay gratification (i.e., tolerate longer periods between behavior and reward) is necessary to do suitable activities like saving for a big purchase, eating at a healthy pace, sitting through boring meetings, and a hundred other tasks adults do every day.  Lack of this skill leads to problems down the road.  Spanking, and specifically pain, is a response or consequence that is almost immediate in its understanding.  Wrong behavior followed by a spanking (which brings immediate pain) is a better learning tool for children than a more delayed response from a parent (such as no screen time later today).  Otherwise, children must use delayed gratification skills to pair the punishment of loss of screen time later in the day with the current misbehavior.  Most children cannot do this effectively.  Spanking, on the other hand, is less dependent on delayed gratification.  Instead, with spanking, it’s over and done.  If they are initially upset, many children experience a competing feeling of relief that the spanking is over.  Parents see that the child made the connection between sin and discipline.  Also, the shorter the lag between the behavior and the spanking, the less intense the spanking needs to be to have its fullest impact.  The longer the lag (wait until your father gets home), the more intense it most likely needs to be.

Discipline your son, for there is hope;
do not set your heart on putting him to death.
Proverbs 19:18

I should note that there was one circumstance my professors advocated for corporal punishment.  If the child was doing something life-threatening, like running in the street or intentionally harming himself or others, the parents should engage in “single-trial learning.”  In some cases, it was advocated that a swift and comparatively harsh punishment follow one of these highly dangerous acts to reduce as close to zero as possible the chances that the child would engage in that behavior again.  Another way to say Proverbs 19:18 is “Parents who set their hearts on putting their son to death will not discipline their son.”

The Disqualification of Pain

As discussed elsewhere, God allows and even causes pain and suffering for the good of his children.  God never does this to punish His children because Jesus’ punishment for sin was total and complete.  Still, God does this for discipline (i.e., training and instruction, even purification, is an intensely painful process).  The point is that God not only uses pain and suffering, but He causes pain and suffering for the good of his children.  God works all things together for the good of his children (Rom. 8:28).  “All things” include pain and suffering, which God “works” or uses for His purposes.

Consider the belief that pain can never be good, which is fundamental in Modern Psychology’s arguments against corporal punishment.  If you believed that pain could never be good, of course, your goal would ultimately result in the avoidance of all pain.  Consider the limitations that will place on a person.  The prohibition of pain means you cannot stress the body through exercise.  You also cannot engage in anything that intentionally causes physical or mental discomfort.  You would, however, condone eating any time there is hunger to decrease that discomfort[2].  You would only attend classes that were interesting or amusing.  You would never go to work when you’re tired.  The point is that if you believed that pain was always wrong and applied that belief to your life, you would ruin your life (Prov. 24:33-34).  Everyone knows this.  Even if people feel the reality of pain is unfair and wishes it were otherwise, they accept that this is the way life is.  Consequently, the Bible agrees that pain and suffering are part of God’s design.

Even though Psychology warns against corporal punishment in parenting, most Psychologists don’t believe what their advice suggests they believe.  There is purpose in pain.  Pain can be practical and beneficial.  Once this premise is accepted, spanking as a legitimate form of discipline becomes not only possible but likely. 

Conclusion

I have two regrets when I think about the stance Psychology took on corporal punishment.  The first is that they called into question the morality of spanking.  For this reason, I believe there are at least several recent generations of children who did not benefit from spanking.  Parents effectively had that “tool” pulled from their toolkit and were left to address issues with improper tools.  Anyone who has had to pound a nail without a hammer knows what I am talking about.  It’s possible to pound a nail without a hammer, but it’s tough and usually ends up ruining both the nail and the shoe with which you are using to pound it.

Second, we should have trained people on using spanking because we all know spanking can be ineffectively and harmfully done.  The Bible states it matters that you spank your child and gives guidance for how.  For instance, spanking should not be done impulsively or with anger.  I have also suggested that the ultimate purpose parents have in mind should not be punishment for sin.  My industry has not only misled a generation; they have missed opportunities to inform and train parents for the good of both families and the community.

Thankfully, and not surprisingly, the Bible continues to be a standard on even mundane and routine activities like parenting. As a result of my study, I feel much more confident about spanking.  I know it is suitable for today’s parenting.  I know God works through spanking for the good of His children and despite our imperfections and mistakes as parents.  I also have a better sense of how spanking causes behavior change, and from that sense, I feel more equipped to discern what situations are appropriate for spanking and which are not.


[1] I want to be clear that being saved by grace changes the meaning of parental punishment.  A more accurate, if more vague, term for punishment in this post would be discipline.  Operant Conditioning uses the terms reward and punishment, and for the Christian, punishment is no longer relevant when talking about God’s response to man’s sin.  Jesus was punished for our sin and God’s wrath (punishment) was satisfied.  It was finished.  When the opposite of reward happens to Christians by God (and I’m suggesting that God is active and working in the process of a parent spanking a child to create behavior change), it is not punishment because Jesus was fully punished for our sin.  What is happening is discipline which includes training, reminding, encouraging, stressing (for the sake of building strength), and any other experience that is suitable for growth and development.  When the butterfly is struggling to get out of the cocoon it is not being punished, it is being intentionally stressed and placed under hardship.  It is a purposeful and intentional process.  This is what God is doing when parents spank their children.  Even if parents are mistakenly spanking out of retribution, God is not pouring out his wrath on that child through the parents.  God even promises to use parent mistakes (e.g., retributive spanking) for our good.

[2] “Only eat when you’re hungry,” is what some professionals recommend for weight loss.  This advice does not make sense to me because I get hungry all the time.  I do know that if I eat after 8 pm I will be hungry first thing in the morning.  If I stop eating at 6 pm, I can avoid hunger until lunchtime the next day.  This advice is problematic, so why are people still giving it?  Perhaps they also believe that pain can never be good.

AJ Switzer

This name is a moniker so that the text can speak for itself. I am developing what I can write about more than how I write. I use AI to edit my stuff.

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