Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,
but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.Prov. 22:15
Do not withhold discipline from a child;
if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.
The rod and reproof give wisdom,
but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.
Discipline your son, for there is hope;
do not set your heart on putting him to death.
The overriding practical question is whether to use hitting as a means of discipline. I am deliberate in that word choice, because it is physically descriptive, and has fewer connotations than some of the other options (on either side of the question).
History seems firmly on the side of disciplinary hitting, and it is often risky to part ways with the ancients. Couple this with the seemingly straightforward reading of the above verses, and the question seems open and shut. The only remaining issue is a question of tactics and timing, right?
The conservative Christian camp is also fairly unanimous in the employment of hitting, and is spurred on by the resistance to the practice from a sick and secular world that is always pushing to weaken and usurp the rightful role of the family. And this is often true enough.
So what is the issue? What do I think the discussion has omitted?
"If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.' Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear." Deut. 21:18-21
I do not think that the foregoing discussion adequately considers the gravity of the laws of ancient Israel. The death penalty was an available option for parents to employ against an intractable child. We today like to read the spanking verses through the foggy glasses of metaphor, thinking about not condemning our children to lives of dissipation or something. This does no justice to the texts imploring against putting the child to death by stoning.
A related line of reasoning begs for a reconsideration of the notion of "the rod". For those blissfully unaware of it, there exists a hitting tool so named, marketed to parents as a discreet, flexible, and effective whacking strop. We are all very familiar with the twenty-third psalm, and I hope the incongruity of those images is not lost on you. Does the shepherd carry a rod to whap the sheep when they get out of line? David is very clear to Saul that his rod was turned against lion and bear and Philistine. Jesus is very clear about what the shepherd does with the stray sheep, carrying it back on his shoulder and rejoicing.
Are there circumstances that call for a physical intervention? Yes, plainly. Are there circumstances that call for hitting? I have not found any yet. That is not to say that I have never used hitting for discipline, because I am an impatient sinner, but those times were not successful. Sin lives in the heart, and hitting the body is not clearly addressing the issue.
Ah, but it may be levied that I was inconsistent. Had I hit the same every time, there would be obedience. This is true. There is no argument - hitting is good coercion. But I assert that it is bad discipline. The consistency that would help is consistency in my voice, my disposition, my prayer for my children, and the consistency to point my children to Christ when they sin.
Compliance is a woefully inadequate and dangerous goal for our children. It may make us feel good, and it may get us praise for our well-ordered family and home, but compliance is skin-deep. As soon as restraint falls away, so, often, do the children. I have witnessed this too frequently, typically correlated with the first year of college.
If children know that they can think from an early age, they may let us help them explore the difficult parts of life. They will know that we want their good. They will know that we point them to Jesus. If all we ever asked for was compliance, and all we ever pointed to was our "parental prerogative", we have no reason to expect our children to suddenly mature, love Jesus, and love us when they move out.
So let us act in love, if Christ has first loved us. And let us begin showing that love in our home, to our family. That is our great parental prerogative. Let's use it.