We learn a lot of our theology as children. We learn an awful lot about God from our parents, rightly or wrongly. We learn as they teach us and answer questions, but we also learn through experience.
I think smacking is a very specific thing for parents, particularly of very young children. There is an immediacy of a young child’s experience, they need to understand what’s going on in a very ‘now’ moment. One of the great benefits of smacking is that it is very clean in that it deals with an issue very quickly, and enables it to be moved on from.
I think children need two things: unconditional love and clear boundaries. With both of those things, physical contact is a huge aspect of that. Hugging is absolutely vital. In our house we talk about ‘five a day’ not referring to fruit and vegetables, but to hugs. Physical contact, particularly with young children is immediate and so profoundly affecting. Therefore, in extreme circumstances, once you have gone through every other ‘system’ of punishment, using very brief, controlled, non-emotional, not-done-in-anger physical pain can also serve a purpose in communicating the ‘nowness’ of right and wrong in discipline and punishment.
Proverbs 13:24 says: “He who spares the rod hates his son, he who loves his son is careful to discipline him.” It’s not saying: “Unless you hit children every day, they will grow up terribly.” It’s saying the rod is part of the careful disciplining of the child and that is going to take a huge amount of energy and conversation between mum and dad in order to do that properly. It’s clearly not about hitting someone because they’re blocking your view of the TV or they’re talking too loudly. This is a very specific and careful understanding of punishment.
What we found, with our children, was you were never going to be on the step three times. You were on the step once, if we went to you after the three minutes, and you weren’t ready to say sorry and to pray, then you would stay there again, but if we came back that second time and you were still not ready, then it would be escalated, we’re going into ‘smack mode’, if you like. We found it put an end on it; we weren’t spending hours and hours trying to deal with what was probably, at the beginning, a rather minor issue, which escalated by becoming defiant. We found that this simple ‘escalation’ meant things would be dealt with much more cleanly.
After a smack and after any form of punishment, we would always pray with our children. We would always try and tie in any form of discipline into discipling and a consciousness of God’s presence and God’s word. We’re saying: “I’m in charge of you, but I’m also a fellow sinner like you are, and I need God’s grace just as much as you do, and I need to apologise to you when I do wrong.”
This is where I would really stress the unique nature of the parent-child relationship. You’re using a very controlled, process-oriented form of discipline, which feels a million miles away from: “You just grabbed my fidget spinner and so I’m going to wallop you.”
I think I was always convinced that the Bible taught that it was appropriate in certain circumstances for parents to smack children. The experience of having a child is amazing. The greatest privilege of my life is to be a parent. Your hearts are just so overwhelmed with desperate love for their wellbeing and flourishing. You question: “Could I ever smack the little peachy bottom of this tiny baby?” But I’ve also realised the nature of the human heart - defiance never had to be taught. I see my son taking another child by the hair and pulling them out of the toy car at toddlers group - it’s basically car-jacking and he’s never seen us do that in a supermarket car park! That’s not learned behaviour. So, part of our love is to discipline them, so that they love God and they love other people.
Nate Morgan Locke is an associate evangelist at Christianity Explored Ministries. He was speaking to Premier Youth and Childrenswork. Click here to read the full discussion between Nate and Alice Smith