When is a child too young to spank? The answer is obviously dependent on your definition of the word “spank.”
Some parents practice spanking in a manner that is inappropriate for any child at any age. They strike out in anger and seek to punish the child for the offense the bad behavior has caused them. This is unacceptable at any age, but it is especially egregious when directed at very young and immature children. Spanking at any age should only be administered by those who have a proper philosophy of spanking and are not emotionally-driven. Our booklet Biblical Chastisement thoroughly discusses the philosophy of the biblical rod, but there is an additional point that we must make regarding age-appropriate chastisement.
First, let’s get our terminology about spanking correct. Terminology is particularly important, because our subconscious is highly influenced by the definitions we assign to the terms we commonly use in the training or our children. For that reason, no matter the age of the child, we do not speak of “corporal punishment,” as do some, but rather of “corporal chastisement”—a biblical term found in the New Testament in the twelfth chapter of Hebrews. Emotionally stable parents, when disciplining their children, do not view themselves as instruments of the wrath of God falling on deserving young sinners. Parents emulating the nature of God have no desire to punish (to execute retributive justice) small children. A teenager who commits a violent act may need punishing, but a small child, not yet having developed a moral perspective, cannot do anything that deserves punishment. The application of punishment assumes responsibility and accountability. Punishment is not about training or correcting behavior; it is about returning “an eye for an eye.” The concept behind the principle of punishment is, “You caused pain and suffering in others, so you will receive pain and suffering as a means of paying for your wrongdoing.” So, let’s ask the question again, “When is a child too young to spank?” If, based on your terminology, you mean “spanking to inflict punishment,” all young children are too young. Until a child is old enough to know right from wrong, good from evil, heaven from hell, obeying the law from breaking the law, he is too young to punish.
Before we address the issue of age appropriateness, we must make clear the vital principle that proper biblical chastisement, at any age, is not the infliction of pain so as to create a deterrent. It is true that some ten-year-old boys may be forced to obey out of the fear of a painful spanking, but in most cases, they will be motivated more by either their passion to disobey or by a learned desire to obey. Older children (ten and older), like most adults, live more by their own values than they do the fear of police or parents; whereas, young children (under three years old) are not usually intellectually mature enough to remember and calculate the possibility of consequences for their actions. They pretty much live by whim and habit; they are not that calculated and premeditated in their thinking, which is why fear of spanking is not a very good deterrent. Furthermore, obedience rendered out of fear of spanking serves no purpose higher than preventing the child from doing the bad deed again. It does not train and it does not build character. The best child-training manual ever written says, “The rod and reproof give wisdom” (Proverbs 29:15). Reproof is delivered in words. Reproof is designed to impart wisdom and understanding. Reproof corrects the child’s perspective and gives him a reason to obey that is higher than fear. The rod alone may create fear but reproof creates wisdom.
However, just as the small child is not mature enough to remember to associate disobedience with the pain of spanking, neither can he receive the words of reproof, for he does not yet possess a command of the language, nor can he effectively think in terms of philosophy or principles. In short, the small child under three years old is not fully capable of profiting from either punishment or reproof. Are we parents then left without recourse? Of course not! God has provided us with the instrument of training, with very occasional use of corporal chastisement, provided it is not related to punishment.
While we can reasonably agree that the small child is too young to be punished, and we can understand that he is too immature to profit from reproof, are we to leave the child to himself until he gets old enough to discuss his fleshly actions and riotous ways? “…a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame” (Proverbs 29:15). Too young for corporal punishment and too immature for reproof? What’s left to us is “Training.” “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Proverbs 22:6). Biblical training will incorporate the principle of the rod as a reinforcement to parental commands. By the term “rod,” I mean spanking. The Bible never uses the word “spank,” but it is bold in its use of the word “rod” in regard to child training. “Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him” (Proverbs 22:15). Notice, it is a rod of correction, not a rod of punishment. The rod that corrects is the rod that trains.
We have made the point here that children under three (give or take six months or so) cannot profit from corporal punishment, but we have made the point elsewhere that small children do profit from the application of the training rod. How are they different? In both cases, the child is being swatted with an instrument. There is a great deal of difference in both the severity and the number of “licks,” and also in the parents’ expectations and perspective. For that reason, we cannot arbitrarily specify a suitable age and declare that it is fitting to spank a child beginning at that point. Children differ, spankings differ, circumstances differ, and parents differ.
A six-month-old boy is capable of throwing a fit, demanding to have his way, but he is not being “a bad boy.” He cannot be declared morally bad with his limited intellect and zero moral perception simply because he acts in a socially unacceptable fashion. Although he can make it uncomfortable and inconvenient for his parents he cannot be blamed; for to consider punishing a six-month-old is absurd—a total failure to grasp reality. But all of his demanding behaviors and disruptive outbursts become a heavy (sometimes embarrassing) burden for parents to bear, often leading them to ignore him, or worse yet, allow him to develop a deeply imbedded selfish attitude. It is obvious to any parent that the six-month-old can be demanding and angry. He can demand his way, even when it is not good for him, like crawling on the floor in a restaurant, or eating what he ought not. He can demand to have your glasses, which he will immediately destroy, and scream defiance if you do not comply with his lusts.
These “partly wise” parents know that the little blustery ball of bouncing boy is intellectually beyond the profit that comes from punishment or precept, so they allow him to practice his intimidating tactics for the next year or two until his language skills develop and they are unavoidably convinced that he can now understand rebuke and appreciate responsibility. But by then he has perfected his pernicious ways. When parents are finally convinced that it is time to crack down and make demands, the child is able to crack back and win. By the time parents realize he can reason, he is beyond reasoning. He is a hardened, hedonistic heathen, steeped in fleshly practices and convinced that the world is centered around him. In the first three years, he has developed a worldview that puts him at the center and makes gratification the chief end of his life. By default, he has learned that people exist to please him; after all, that has been the order of things for all three years of his life.
Sometimes, parents suspect that their one-year-old knows more than is obvious. It is as if he has the devil in him. They began this journey not believing in spanking, but now they feel like striking the “little brat.” The sudden rise of their rage shocks them: “What kind of monster am I to feel like hitting my child?” They should be shocked. Such unchecked feelings can only lead to abuse. Parents with convictions and some degree of self-control find themselves jerking the screaming child up by one arm, sitting him down a little too forcefully, with their monster screaming back in anger. Their red faces and the haste and anger with which they deal with the child testify to their sense of helplessness. But they resist taking the dreadful step of spanking. When they hear about someone else “spanking” a one-year-old, they are offended, for they know that if they were brought to the place where they lost control and spanked their child, it would be a definite act of violence against the little one. They have a concept of spanking that was derived from their own frustration and anger, which in some cases is added to what they remember as a child when their father or mother had even less self-control than they do, and they ended up on the receiving end of violence in the name of spanking. Their own experiences have left them with a warped perspective. They see all spanking through the scarlet of their own colored glasses. Theirs is a common and painful experience, but there is another way.
It is the way of peace. It is a path without anger or loss of control. It is the method of training, the walk of discipline. First, the parent must be trained to exercise personal discipline, and then he is capable of constraining the child to walk in discipline—sometimes by application of the rod of training. The child grows up emotionally secure, with no self-loathing, wrapped in a bright beam of love, and walking securely on the ground of self-respect. It is a journey that ends with exceptional adult children who bless their parents.
“When is a child too young to spank?” Based on my definition of “spanking,” I can answer the question. A child is too young to spank when spanking is not profitable to the child. Of course, the same applies to a child of any age.
Let me give you an example of the application of the “rod of training.” A six-month-old throws his food bowl on the floor because he doesn’t like what is in it. This is the early stage of self-will and defiance. If the little guy gets away with it and if his parents don’t constrain him to do otherwise, then they are normalizing such behavior. Furthermore, they are allowing the seeds of defiance to grow in the child’s soul. Rebuke here would not be effective, nor would punishment. The child would not make any connection between his action and any suffering that you inflicted. If he were spanked hard enough to create significant pain, he would become so distracted with the pain and so fearful and emotionally disturbed that he could not be trained to any end. Remember, the child is simply expressing his will by dumping the food in the floor. I have had food set before me that I felt like dumping on the floor, but it would have been socially embarrassing to take that action. The child has no social consciousness, so he does whatever he feels like. Dumping it is not a great offense for a six-month-old, but he will not always be six months old, and it won’t be cute for long. It will make you downright mad when he is three years old and flings a whole plate of food into your lap.
So we watch him, knowing his propensity to selfish compulsion. When he seizes his bowl with intentions of dumping it, swat the offending hand with a little instrument (light wooden spoon, rubber spatula, flexible tubing less than a quarter inch in diameter, or any instrument that will cause an unpleasant sting without leaving any marks). As you swat the offending hand, say “No” in a normal commanding voice. The tone is more important than the word―not angry―but decisive. Children understand the temperament in your tone before they are born, and will recognize it. This swat is not punishment. Probably, it will not even cause the little guy to cry. He will be shocked and stop any action in which he is engaged. Explain to him that he is not to throw his food onto the floor. If he again makes an attempt, swat his hand again and say, no. The third time is the charm. He now knows that “No” uttered in a commanding tone, is something serious. He will not try that stunt again—at least not for this meal.
Understand well, if he has already dumped his food onto the floor, it is too late to swat him. He will not make the intellectual association, and any spanking would then be “punishment” for past deeds, entirely counterproductive for a small child. If you didn’t catch him as he was attempting to spill it, then you must put the plate and food back in front of him and be ready to respond when he tries it again. This is training for the purpose of discipline. The child will actually profit emotionally from this exercise, for he is constrained to act in ways that will make him more loved and cause him to find wide approval from everyone he is around. A child with unacceptable habits becomes a rejected child, then a dejected child, and eventually a self-loathing kid who feels that he can never please anyone and that no one likes him. I am sorry the psychologists and secular child advocates don’t get it, but then if all parents practiced child training as I have suggested, there wouldn’t be any need for abnormal psychologists or child protection agencies. A lot of people would move on to more practical kinds of work, and there wouldn’t be any more crime or war.
Yes, we spank our little ones, but only as we define spanking, not as others might imagine it to be. We obey God in applying the rod of training, not because we are gullible and blind religious fools, but because the Word of God has made us wise beyond our secular peers. We know what is good for our children. We know it from experience, our own and the experience of our forefathers who walked in wisdom applying the rod of correction to our backsides. Some of us don’t remember any of the much-talked-about “cruel beatings” that are attributed to our “strong disciplinarian” forefathers. We remember loving parents who cared for our souls. They applied the rod with firmness and dignity. To us, they represented the law of God, and they stood for everything that was good and wholesome. They called us to the higher path and chastened us when they felt we needed a little reminder to walk by the rule of law rather than by our passions. Today, we thank them, just as our children now thank us. Since our Heavenly Father chastens us (Hebrews 12), could we do otherwise than to emulate his child-training methods?