Bible scholar Tom Wright gives his answer
Q: I do my best to parent from a place of rest and peace, and don’t use punishments or consequences, such as smacking, timeouts or taking away privileges. I get a lot of pushback on this and am often told I’m not parenting my children biblically. What do you think?
Approaches to parenting should be driven by the gospel, but also wisely rooted within local culture. There’s variance between different parts of the world and, of course, as Christians, we should be subverting the culture where necessary, too, such as when violence is the norm.
When I was younger, being smacked was normal; it didn’t mean I was a bad person, just that I’d overstepped the mark, and my parents wanted to help me realise my behaviour was not good.
It has been very interesting for myself and my wife, Maggie, who were children in the 1950s, to watch how younger generations approach this issue. I think of a young family we see now and then. Sometimes, when the children are indoors together, there is friction, and the parents deal with that while respecting each of the individual participants. I’ve learned a certain amount from observing them.
However, I think the idea that you never punish – in the sense of withdrawing privileges or imposing a timeout – would be going too far. Children do need to be guided onto the right paths. By way of analogy, guardrails on the sides of roads are there for a reason: if you stray too far over, you are likely to crash. It’s about putting guardrails around our children’s lives and saying: “If you persist in going that way, you’re going to need a timeout.” It’s about helping them to think about their actions, and helping them to be wise.
As Psalm 32:9 says: “Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle.” We’ve got to train our children to realise that some things are deeply unwise. I look back to times when my parents said a very firm “No” to me and, with hindsight, I’m grateful they did. If that means imposing a timeout, or an appropriate withdrawal of privileges, I would do that.
In terms of smacking, I know that it is endorsed in Proverbs, but it’s very interesting that it isn’t reinforced in the New Testament. Paul says to parents: “do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4, ESV).
That leaves it quite open, but there are some parameters. Do not act in a way which makes your children resentful. Paul also commands children to “obey your parents” (Ephesians 6:1) because, as a general rule, parents have their children’s best interests at heart (even if they may not always get it right). That’s a good place to start when you’re growing up.
We have to be careful not to be too prescriptive, one way or another. We should seek to follow Jesus with the rule of love, realising that God’s love is very, very demanding! God loves us so much that he doesn’t want to leave us as we are. He wants to direct us onto paths of wisdom and truth. That’s often tough to navigate, but we have to be people who know how to do that with our families.
Tom answers listeners’ questions every week on the ‘Ask NT Wright Anything’ podcast.