I was spanked. Not often, because I was a good kid. But still, I have one clear memory of getting a solid swat across my butt: I was probably 5 and had thrown a doozy of a tantrum in the grocery store. My mom told me that if I didn't calm down, she would spank me when we got home. I didn't calm down. So when we got home, she unloaded the car, put away the groceries while I sat, brooding and panicking. When she finished, she called me over with a pat of her lap and gave me a couple whacks.
I don't remember crying. I'm sure it didn't hurt (my mom's pretty wimpy). So of course it hurt my mom more than it hurt me, as she assured me when she hugged me afterward. And in fact, according to a study by Marjorie Gunnoe, a professor of psychology/child development at Calvin College (full disclosure: my beloved alma mater), those whacks made me the well-adjusted adult that I am today (*cough, cough*).
While other research (the ones that have kept my husband and me from spanking our children—well, except that once) has shown that spanking ramps up aggression and other not-so-great attributes in kids, Gunnoe's study says that "children who remember being spanked on the backside with an open hand do better in school, perform more volunteer work and are more optimistic than others who were not physically disciplined," according to The Grand Rapids Press.
Of course, aside from loving and following Jesus, the qualities that Gunnoe mentions—doing better in school, being uber-volunteers, and being hopeful—just about sum up what I want for my kids. So now I'm wondering if I ought to get cranking with the spanking.
Gunnoe's study certainly isn't the only time I've wondered if we have made the right—or the most godly—choice regarding discipline. I mean, I've read Proverbs. I know the verses, the ones that say that kids who get the rod turn out better. I've also read the one that says that kids who don't get the rod shame their mothers. But, yikes! I'm pretty positive God doesn't want me beating my kids with a shepherd's rod.
That said, Scripture is pretty clear that God expects us to use some form of correction—and that God himself punishes those he loves. Hebrews 12:6 says that " … the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child."
This can be hard to read, too. We don't like to imagine our loving, gracious Father doling out punishments, especially physical ones. Yet we see it in Scripture: from Jacob's zap on the hip to Zechariah's loss of speech. When God sets out to discipline those whom he loves, he seems to make it memorable—which brings me back to Gunnoe's study.
What interests me is this comment from the Grand Rapids Press article: "Marjorie Gunnoe says the study finds children who remember being spanked [not beat] on the backside [not the head or ribs] with an open hand [not a fist or a switch]" are the ones who do better. Those who remember.
God wanted Jacob to remember his wrestling match. The Jews continued to remember it by not eating the meat from the tendon. God wanted Zechariah to remember his doubt and gave him nine long muted months to think about it. Apparently God knows that when we remember a punishment, we are more likely to change.
I'm probably not going to become a spanking mom—even Gunnoe cautions that her study shouldn't be read as a "green light" for spanking—but this has given me pause about the ways I do discipline my kids. Instead of focusing on whether to spank or not to spank, maybe we should be looking at memorable forms of discipline. This sounds Draconian, I realize. I don't mean it to be.
For what it's worth, that one spanking isn't the only punishment I remember. I can still taste the Dial soap in my mouth from when I told a taunting neighbor boy that I would see him in hell. (Really, I was being witty. But it's a long story.) I also remember various droop-eyed looks of disappointment from my mom, my dad, and one high-school teacher. Now that I think about it, there are plenty of punishments I remember—and they are all the ones that "adjusted" me.
So, that's where I am in grappling with this study. I wonder if it's less about spanking itself and more about parents being parents, kids being kids, boundaries being boundaries, actions having consequences. These are the things that echo the heart of our loving, gracious God—who disciplines us because of who and how he is. Because he wants us to remember that he is God. And that he is good. All the time.
Caryn Rivadeneira is the author of Mama's Got a Fake I.D.: How to Reveal the Real You Behind All That Mom (WaterBrook, 2009). Visit her at CarynRivadeneira.com or the Mommy Revolution blog.
For more CT coverage on parenting, see our January 2010 cover story by Leslie Leyland Fields, "The Myth of the Perfect Parent."