Thou Shalt Not Abuse: Reconsidering Spanking
Dead children have a way of shocking the conscience and making us angry. Especially a dead child like Hana Grace-Rose Williams, a 13-year-old adopted from Ethiopia by Washington State parents.
Police found Hana's body starved and naked, wrapped in a sheet in her adoptive parents' backyard. They had denied her food for days, locked her in a closet, forced her to sleep in a barn, and required her to use a Porta-Potty instead of the inside toilet. She'd been repeatedly struck with a 15-inch plastic tube before she died.
Or a dead child like Lydia Schatz, a 7-year-old Liberian girl whose adoptive parents held her down for hours, beating her to death with a similar plastic tube for mispronouncing a word. Or a dead child like Sean Paddock, a 4-year-old who suffocated because his adoptive parents wrapped him too tightly in a blanket as punishment. After his death, Sean's siblings told police about their own beatings with one of those plastic tubes—a plumbing supply line.
A common theme among these deaths, besides the plastic tube, is the influence of Michael and Debi Pearl, authors of To Train Up a Child and founders of No Greater Joy Ministries. For years, their self-published book has flown quietly under the radar, selling more than 670,000 copies. According to a local district attorney, it was the Pearls' advice to use the plastic tube as a spanking instrument that gave license to Lydia Schatz's parents to beat their child.
When children die horrifically, we want to punish someone. And it has been a short trip from blaming the violence of the parents, to blaming the Pearls (who explicitly teach against the level of punishment these parents exhibited), to blaming the conservative Christian parenting culture.
New York Times told its readers that the Pearls' methods—"the same principles the Amish use to train their stubborn mules," Pearl brags—are popular among Christians. "Conservative Christians say [corporal punishment] is called for in the Bible," the paper said, admitting that "some conservative Christian parents reject the Pearls' teachings."
Actually, as William J. Webb writes in his recent book Corporal Punishment in the Bible (InterVarsity Press), the most prominent spanking advocates reject a lot of the advice in To Train Up a Child. For example, the Pearls cite Proverbs' repeated statement, "the rod is for the back," but mainstream spanking advocates say spanks are for the buttocks only. While the Pearls say, "There is no number that can be given" about how many spanks to give, James Dobson among others usually limits it to one or two. The Pearls say parents can spank children until age 18; Focus on the Family limits it to kids 5 and under. On his blog, Webb notes that the Pearls are surely more literal in applying Scripture's parenting rules than Dobson and others are. After all, the Bible does not put age limits on the rod, and seems to explicitly repudiate the repeated admonishment not to leave a bruise. "Blows and wounds scrub away evil," Proverbs 20:30 says, "and beatings purge the inmost being."
In the end, Dobson's hermeneutic is more biblical, though not more literal, Webb says. We also believe it is more consistent with the full counsel of Scripture—in short, more biblical—to provide relief to people in pain than to actually "give strong drink to him who is perishing, and wine to him whose life is bitter" (Prov. 31:6, NASB). In the same way, it is more biblical to understand the praise of "the rod" as a reference to discipline than to limit its application to physical blows.