The Scientific Answer: Is Smacking Children good or bad?

Today I take a look at the topic of smacking. I was once a member of a church where the preacher was a strong advocate of the bible verse that says “Spare the rod and spoil the Child”. This was not theory, he would apply this to his kids in public, and also strongly encouraged everybody else to handle their kids like this.

I’m going to explain within this posting why, in a religious context, this is a very bad idea and is not “biblical” at all. Then we shall take a look at what some of the very latest scientific research on the topic and see what that reveals.

Spoiler Alert: There is a reason why 62 countries, including Scotland and Wales, have now legally banned the smacking of children. For those who grew up with “Spare the rod and spoil the Child”, such a ban might strike you as absurd. I’d recommend hitting pause on that thought and giving some serious thought to what the actual data on it all reveals.

The Religious Argument

Below is a clip from just a few days ago via Hemant Mehta in which Pastor Roger Jimenez and Deacon Oliver Gonzalez of Verity Baptist Church in Sacramento, CA promote the idea that beating your kids is a very good biblical idea …

To save you the bother of listening to them, their argument is basically this …

  • They really do brag about the fact that they “teach” parents how to correctly beat their children
  • They don’t like the word “beat”
  • Apparently it must hurt the kids. If it does not, then you are not doing it correctly
  • The goal is to get the kids to obey and so raise offspring who will obey their boss, obey the pastor, and also for the girls to become wives that will obey their husband. (Yes, they really said that in 2021).

The only positive here within the clip is the scenery, Mount Shasta. It would have been vastly improved by multiple orders of magnitude if these lunatics were not in it and we simply got the views and nothing else.

The above is a common fundamentalist belief. It is not unique to just these guys or this specific church.

Incidentally, Hemant dug a bit and discovered just how truly odious these specific guys actually are. He reveals within a posting about that specific clip that Pastor Jimenez got his 15 minutes of fame when he commented on the Pulse nightclub massacre in which 50 people died. He told his congregation that the real tragedy was “that more of them didn’t die”. He openly said that massacre was “great” and expressed disappointment because “I’m kind of upset that he didn’t finish the job”.

That is not a human you should be taking guidance from on anything … ever.

But the Bible says “Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child”

Would it surprise you to learn that there is no such verse in the bible at all. Anybody telling you that this phrase is in the bible is lying to you, or has simply not bothered to check.

The phrase actually comes from a 17th century poem by Samual Butler called Hudibras

If Matrimony and Hanging go
By Dest’ny, why not Whipping too?
What med’cine else can cure the fits
Of Lovers when they lose their Wits?
Love is a Boy by Poets stil’d,
Then Spare the Rod, and spill the Child.

Hudibras, Second Part, Canto I, lines 839-844

The entire work is satire. In context this stanza suggests that lovers can perhaps curtail their passion by smacking each other. If they don’t spare the rod, then the result is that she will become pregnant and not “spill the child”.

It is also a play on words. To spell it all out for you, the use of the word “Rod” here is not just a stick, it is a reference to his dick, so when you are told, “Spare the Rod and Spoil the child” try not to snigger too loudly, now that you know what the phrase is actually implying.

But what about Proverbs 13:24

This is the verse that is actually in the bible …

“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

The imagery here should be abundantly clear. The rod in context is a shepherds rod. Shepherds don’t viciously beat their sheep into submission, but instead are responsible for guiding them, looking after them, feeding them, and also getting them out of trouble. If a sheep happens to fall into a hole or gets tangled in bushes, then the shepherd will use his (or her) rod that has a special curved crook to pull it back out to safety.

Unfortunately, not everybody will read it that way. The bible is in many respects the ultimate Rorschach test. People will read into it whatever they already believe.

Let’s move on now and see what the very latest scientific data reveals.

Smacking – The Scientific Evidence

Last June, just a couple of months ago, a very comprehensive peer-reviewed study was published within the world’s oldest and best-known general medical journal, The Lancet. It was a definitive landmark review that was led by an international team of experts. They analysed 20 years’ research on the topic and reached the following evidence-based conclusion:

Physically punishing children is not effective and increases behavioural problems

The full paper titled “Physical punishment and child outcomes: a narrative review of prospective studies” was published on June 28, 2021.

The summary for it reads as follows:

Physical punishment is increasingly viewed as a form of violence that harms children.

This narrative review summarises the findings of 69 prospective longitudinal studies to inform practitioners and policy makers about physical punishment’s outcomes.

Our review identified seven key themes. First, physical punishment consistently predicts increases in child behaviour problems over time. Second, physical punishment is not associated with positive outcomes over time. Third, physical punishment increases the risk of involvement with child protective services. Fourth, the only evidence of children eliciting physical punishment is for externalising behaviour. Fifth, physical punishment predicts worsening behaviour over time in quasi-experimental studies. Sixth, associations between physical punishment and detrimental child outcomes are robust across child and parent characteristics. Finally, there is some evidence of a dose–response relationship. The consistency of these findings indicates that physical punishment is harmful to children and that policy remedies are warranted.

You might of course hold a different opinion or a different belief.

The above however is neither, but rather is solid robust data that demonstrates that if you smack your kids then you are not just harming them physically, you are also going to find more behaviour problems emerging. They will become worse, not better.

Additional comments by the Study Authors

The following quotes come Via University College London here. These are the subject matter experts, the folks who conducted this comprehensive study. You really should pay very close attention to their evidence-based conclusions …

“Physical punishment is ineffective and harmful and has no benefits for children and their families. This could not be clearer from the evidence we present. 

“We see a definitive link between physical punishment and behavioural problems such as aggression and antisocial behaviour. Physical punishment consistently predicts increases in these types of behavioural difficulties. Even more worrying are findings that children who are the recipients of physical punishment are at increased risk of being subjected to more severe levels of violence.”

Lead author, Dr Anja Heilmann (UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health)

“Parents use physical punishment with their children because they think doing so will lead to better behaviour. But our research found clear and compelling evidence that physical punishment does not improve children’s behaviour and instead makes it worse.” 

Senior author Elizabeth Gershoff, (Amy Johnson McLaughlin Centennial Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at The University of Texas at Austin)

“As a former parliamentarian who championed the change in the law in Ireland and directly supported the legislative change in Scotland and Wales, I know the importance of ensuring an evidence base for policy and legislation. 

“This review has documented compelling evidence that hitting children doesn’t work, and in many cases, it is harmful. A home should be a safe place for children, yet in many countries, the law can make it one of the most unsafe places for them. Countries need to do all they can to ensure that all children have equal protection from all forms of harm, including physical punishment.”

Jillian van Turnhout, co-author of the paper and a former Senator in the Irish Parliament

“This is a public health issue. But physical punishment is not only harmful – it also violates children’s human rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is clear that children should have the same level of protection from all forms of violence that adults have. Countries where physical punishment is still legal must act and honour their obligations under the UNCRC by prohibiting physical punishment in all settings. 

“In the UK this means that England and Northern Ireland should follow the example of Scotland and Wales and give children equal protection in law.”

Lead author, Dr Anja Heilmann (UCL Department of Epidemiology and Public Health)

But my Kid is a whirlwind of terror, what can I do?

There are plenty of good sources that spell out very effective non-violent guidance that really does work. Here briefly is one example.

UNICEF: How to discipline your child the smart and healthy way

It’s a very good read and is very clear.

Briefly …

  1. Plan 1-on-1 time
  2. Praise the positives
  3. Set clear expectations
  4. Distract creatively
  5. Use calm consequences

They cover the detail of what each of those mean and much more.

Today roughly about 63% of kids between the ages of 2-4 are regularly subjected to physical punishment. There really is a better way. You can personally be part of making the world a better place by simply not smacking your kids – instead you can adopt smarter more effective strategies.

Further Reading

Questions for Readers

  • As you grew up, were you smacked as a child?
  • Was that frequent or infrequent?
  • How do you feel about that experience now?
  • If you are now a parent, did you, or do you still smack your kids?
  • If you are still convinced that it may still be appropriate to smack your kids, then what leads you to this conclusion, why do you feel that the scientific study is wrong, what have you got that trumps that?
  • If you are still convinced that it may still be appropriate to smack your kids, would you actually do this if it was illegal to do so?

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