Parents As Gentle Shepherds: A Few Words on Spanking

Christ the gentle shepherd would never beat his sheep.

When Philip and I were new parents, the subject of spanking never came up between us.  We considered ourselves attachment parents when Aidan was a baby, but we never thought much about the significance of our parenting style after that stage had passed.  We certainly had no clear plan about how to handle “problem” behavior.

As Aidan grew into a toddler, we unconsciously (in other words, we acted without giving it any thought, discussion, or consideration) became what I’d call “light spankers”.  We rarely spanked and when we did it was a light swat on the behind.  We did, however, slap a “naughty hand” (as we called it) when Aidan touched something after he had been warned about it — or something of that nature.

As more children came along, we became non-spankers not because we made a conscious choice not to spank but because we became more effective and competent parents.  We didn’t need to spank. We discovered that we were firmly in the attachment parenting camp philosophically as we studied the significance of a strong rapport between a child and his parents well into childhood and the teen years.  As we matured as parents and as a family, we focused increasingly on the quality of connection between all family members and less on performing behavior triage.

Just in strengthening our family bonds and in demonstrating respect and kindness toward our children at all times, spanking phased out of our parenting toolbox quite naturally (as did the naughty hand thing).  Again, it wasn’t because we had some epiphany that was spanking was undesirable.  It became unnecessary for our family, but we never thought it was wrong in some way.

Gone are the days of our unconscious non-spanking.  My own opinion on spanking has in recent years become very clear.  After reading the research on outcomes for children who are spanked and the strained arguments presented by pro-spankers, I think it’s not only unwise to spank, but it’s wrong.  You  might gain compliance with spanking in the short term, but it does far more harm than good —  period.  It hurts the both you and your child, and even the larger society.


When a child is physically assaulted by somebody she trusts and loves, she has no choice but to create defenses against her anger and sense of betrayal.  In his book, Spare the Child, Philip Greven discusses the effects of corporal punishment on children, which include anxiety, apathy, depression, obsessiveness, and aggressiveness.   See Spare the Child, Part 4.   Murray A. Strauss also discusses the painful effects of legal forms of violence against children in his book Beating the Devil Out of Them.   He points out that the damage done to children isn’t always apparent until much later, often not until the child enters adulthood.


Spanking doesn’t work to change behavior in the long run because fear doesn’t change the heart.  Empirical evidence shows that children who are subjected to physical punishment have more behavioral issues not fewer, and they exhibit greater aggression toward their parents and peers.  The Center for Effective Discipline, Spanking Myths.  Most chilling, few children of parents who use corporal punishment regularly have a well-developed conscience.  Strauss, 154.


At law, you can strike a child if it doesn’t result in “abuse”.  Abuse occurs if the hitting results in demonstrable injury, either physical or psychological.  Corporal punishment is the use of legal, socially acceptable violence.  Why is physically punishing a child – so much smaller and more vulnerable in every way than an adult victim – still legally and socially acceptable?  Hitting a child seems to be socially acceptable partly because it’s legal, but physically chastising one’s wife was once legal, as was physically punishing an employee or apprentice.  Just because it’s legal doesn’t make it a morally appropriate choice.  We know that hitting your spouse is wrong whether or not it results in injury.  Hitting your employee seems preposterous to us, no matter the injury equation.   I also wonder how the law can evaluate “injury” when much of the psychological damage of corporal punishment isn’t apparent until adulthood.

Murray A. Strauss is concerned that legal corporal punishment can damage the larger society because it legitimizes other forms of violence:

Used by authority figures who tend to be loved or respected as a way to achieve a morally correct end, it carries a powerful message aside from the immediate effect intended.  The message is that if someone is doing something outrageous and other methods of getting the person to listen to reason have failed, it’s ok to use physical violence.  This message tends to carry over into adulthood.  The socially approved and legal violence in the parent-child relationship may spill over to other relationships in which hitting is not legal.  This is because sooner or later, in almost all interpersonal relationships, someone will persist in doing something wrong and won’t listen to reason . . . The more a person was spanked as a child, the greater the likelihood of that person later hitting his or her spouse.  Beating the Devil Out of Them, 9.

Strauss is spot on.  Socially approved violence leads to further violence.  It deprives people of the skills and qualities they need to enjoy deeply, loving, connected relationships.   Even it didn’t result in the damage outlined by Greven, Strauss and others, why would we condone violence in any form when it clearly contradicts humanitarian values?  Why is it more socially acceptable to hit a child than to hit a dog?  Our culture trivializes violence against children, but at a great price.

Let’s spare the rod so we don’t ruin our children.  Let us remember that the shepherd’s rod  is not a tool of punishment and pain, but of protection and guidance.  Let us look to Christ and His Mother for guidance in shepherding our children to heaven.  Christ ushered in a new era of history: love and gentle leadership is our new model for society as a whole and certainly for our homes.

Further Reading:

  • Dr. Sears on 10 Reasons Not to Hit Your Children.
  • Dr. Popcak’s Parenting With Grace in which he outlines “Ten Reasons Why We Don’t Spank” in Appendix 2.
  • Empirical evidence about the harmful impact of physical punishment on children presented in this report , this article , and this report.  The last report, published in the professional journal Pediatrics and explained by an L.A. Times reporter, found that “a child who is spanked, slapped, grabbed or shoved as a form of punishment runs a higher risk of becoming an adult who suffers from a wide range of mental and personality disorders, even when that harsh physical punishment was occasional and when the child experienced no more extreme form of violence or abuse at the hands of a parent or caregiver”.
  • The websites for The Center for Effective Discipline and  Project NoSpank.


  1. Your comment touched my heart. You are a father who wants to lead his family, and you are searching for the best way to guide your children to Heaven, which is after all our fundamental hope for our children.

    You are right: There’s a big difference between a parent who lashes out at a child in a rage and leaves physical marks on the child, and a parent like your father who took a more measured approach to spanking, trying to spank when he was feeling rational, and trying to explain to you what he was doing.

    But I still think your dad could have found better ways to guide you to adulthood. I would describe your mom’s approach as abuse and your dad’s approach as sub-optimal. I guess the question is: what is your goal? If you want mere obedience, then spanking is likely to get quick results (though some studies show in the long wrong children are less likely to internalize their parents’ values if they were hit). If you want a child who feels valuable and loved, and learns to recognize the value of others and to feel empathy for others, then we have to consider how spanking affects a child’s self-concept and their ability to recognize other people’s suffering.

    A spiritual director once told me that in difficult decisions to try to recognize the spirit of darnkess and the spirit of light at work. For me, I usually feel like I want to spank only when I’m frustrated, angry, or not particularly rational. I think this is the spirit of darkness working in my life. When I parent with awareness and consideration, I usually find non-violent ways to help my children understand how to be decent human beings. But I cannot make some proclamation that spanking is wrong for you just because it’s wrong for me.

    However, I do hope you’ll consider the books and articles I recommend in my original post. It’s difficult in a blog post to articulate everything we want to communicate on these important topics. With a blog post the aim is to “get in and get out” with as few words as possible.

    After reading the Popcaks argument against spanking in their book Parenting With Grace, I could see how Catholic theology helps us answer these difficult questions. I highly recommend that resource. I know you are suspicous of “expert” arguments, but when I looked at the quality of the evidence on both sides of this issue, it was clear to me that those who oppose spanking stand on firmer ground empirically. I also considered how the Theology of the Body reflects what so many of these studies have found. The Theology of hte Body is a person-affirming approach to living — we do all we can to affirm the value and dignity of others. I found that harsh discipline makes children feel devalued and invaded, and in the end they may obey out of fear but not out of a sense of what’s right. You found this in your own life.

    I had not considered the Bible passage you gave us, but I certainly will. I think the passage is, at its heart, trying to tell the listeners to bear their sufferings with dignity, that our trials can form us and lead us to God. There is no doubt that parents are called to discipline their children: We must teach them right from wrong, how to live out their Christian calling to love, but I don’t think this means we have to hit them. In fact, if hitting them is less likely to teach them these lessons, I think the more reflective, gentle approach to discipline answers the call better.

    You are frustrated. Your child is 20 months old, barely passed babyhood. At this stage, your son is testing his world, balancing attachment and exploration with an increasing movement toward autonomy. He’s testing his will! The will is a good thing, but our little ones have to learn to exert their wills respectfully. At this age, your son also lacks the abiltity to handle stress or frustration very well — that’s why toddlers have meltdowns. They lose their minds. 🙂 We can help them by comforting them and leading them through their frustrations. Your son watches everything you do and will imitate your behavior, language, and even your mannerisms. He’ll begin internalizing the messages you are giving him about how valuable and precious he is. There’s a LOT going on between you and your child right now!

    If you get to a point where you need a break, TAKE IT. Take a walk, do some jumping jacks! I’ve found that a change in my physical state — either from resting to activity or from too much activity to rest — helps me gain my composure when my kids’ needs and my ability to handle them are on a collision course.

    No matter what you decide to do, know that you still have a forum here for exploring your journey with your son. Pray for me and I’ll pray for you.

    Kim Cameron-Smith

  2. Toddlers can be extremely frustrating. Even though cognitively, they don’t have a lot of self-control, they seem to know how to push our buttons.

    That said, this really isn’t a time for discipline (at least if you define discipline as time outs, spanking, and other punishments) as much as it is a time for training. Redirection, rehearsing, do-overs, and best of all, prevention (anticipating temptation/distraction and planning ahead) are the best ways to get a child of this age to comply. Likewise, at 20 months you don’t need to get into power struggles. For instance, tf you ask him to get in the tub and he doesn’t, just pick him up and put him in the tub. There’s no need for an additional consequence because he is still learning that he needs to listen to you.

    At this age, time-outs don’t work anyway (see Parenting With Grace for a more complete explanation) and spanking is over-the-top because there are much more gentle and effective ways to get him to listen. Don’t focus on consequences. Focus on teaching him what he needs to do instead of merely showing disapproval for what he does wrong.

    As for the “turning him gay through affection” idea, I don’t even know what to say to that. There is not one single study that suggests that generous physical affection is anything but good for children. Not one. There are lots of people–and even some self-proclaimed experts– who might tell you differently, but that advice has no basis in science whatsoever.

    I’m glad you reached out. Clearly your heart is very much in the right place. You want to raise a strong, healthy, godly son and I believe the Holy Spirit is tugging at your heart. You are wise to be listening to his movement in your heart. To raise godly children and have a joyful family , combining generous (or as one study that examined 500 children over 30 years recently put it “extravagant”) affection and discipline that teaches what to do instead of fighting with the child for not doing what he was told is the way to go. Let me know if I can help. Just click on my website link at the top of this post for more parenting resources and even Catholic counseling by phone if you need additional one-on-one support. God Bless, Dr.P.

  3. I am saying prayers for your patience and perseverance in becoming the parent God created you to be. I have four children, and I am observing many similarities between my first born son and my fourth child (also a boy) who is now 20 months old. These are two very strong willed, energetic children who have been known to actually LAUGH at my face when given a stern “no!” I can certainly sympathize with your level of frustration as you strive to raise holy and obedient children.

    With my first son, I was simply learning the ropes and while I never spanked, I often felt terribly guilty at actually yelling at him quite often, so great was my frustration at this inquisitive, persistent little boy who seemed to be trying my patience every time I turned around. Three children later, I am so glad I never did spank and that I am learning to (almost) never even raise my voice or yell. I see in my oldest (8 years old now), a person emerging who feels loved, sure of his own identity, and possessing a will that has not been broken which is very useful when faced with peer pressure or difficult moral decisions. He is still a personality that requires a more stern approach to discipline, but we’ve found alternatives to spanking or time outs to be highly effective.

    So what have we learned works with our now 20 month old (whom we hope will follow in the footsteps of his older brother)? First of all, prayer, prayer, prayer! I pray almost constantly for patience and wisdom in teaching my little son proper behavior. I also pray for creativity, as distraction is essential at this age. I’m always trying to think of fun things for him to do besides literally scale the walls while I cook dinner, empty cupboards while I take a shower, or harass his siblings while they do “big kid” stuff. I’ve also learned that it takes hundreds, and sometimes thousands of repetitions of teaching them the right thing to do before they possess the skills to actually do it of their own accord. Young children take so much time and energy; it’s very important to take a break if you feel your own temper rising–I have been known to take a walk down the street while my husband continues the bedtime routine so I can collect myself and be a better mom after a few minutes of breathing in some fresh air!

    Also, if he is really acting out and being defiant, I usually realize that I have simply had my attention focused on other things for too long instead of him, and just sitting down and reading a book, going for a little walk, or doing a puzzle together settles him.

    As for the “experts” and scripture we look to for parenting guidance; I try to only look to trusted Catholic resources and remember that we also look to traditions and other writings of the Church for guidance in interpreting scripture. I find Theology of the Body in particular to be right in line with attachment parenting. I also love Dr. Greg and Lisa Popcak’s book “Parenting With Grace”.

    I continue to work every day myself on being a better parent, and as I embrace a more gentle, sympathetic, and loving guidance approach I can visibly see my family as a whole growing in joyfulness and holiness. May you find the same peace and joy as you continue on your parenting journey!

  4. I’m praying a rosary for you right now. I too struggled with what I had experienced as a child (spanking) and what I wanted to do as a parent (not spank). I think mostly I realize now (awaiting our #6 child anyday) that spanking is hitting. And there are SO many more ways to help teach a child of the most appropriate ways to behave that don’t require me hitting one of them. Habits are taught over LONG periods of time. A 2 year old needs love to learn those habits..and distraction and redirection and lots of other ways rather than a spanking. I personally did spank my oldest daughter a few times before I realized it created more negative behaviors on both of our parts and separation from the love we felt for each other.
    May you find grace and peace to parent the way God is leading you.

  5. Dear Mrs. Smith,

    I found your article as I was looking around for advice on disciplining our 20 month year old son. My wife and I, who are both Catholics seriously trying to practice our faith, have practiced attachment parenting up until now, because we have both wished to avoid “beating the Devil” out of our children and have been impressed by the results achieved by several Catholic APers we know. I still remember my Mom flying into rages when I didn’t understand what she wanted or forgot what she told me and spanking me hard on my bare legs with big kitchen spoons. Several times she slapped me in the face. I never had anything but bitterness toward her. My Dad on the other hand was a different story. He himself never went out of his way to spank us and was also much warmer towards us, but he did spank me several times. I can’t remember now whether I had really acted up on these occasions or whether he was doing so at my mother’s behest; I suspect a little bit of both. However, I do remember that when my dad would say to me, with sorrow in his face, that this hurt him more than it hurt me, I really believed him and I still do. I was genuinely sorry on the two or three occasions when my Dad spanked me, because I knew it caused him agony and he would rather not have done it.

    Now my son, who up until now has seemed to go by the AP book (warm, intelligent, loving, highly empathetic) has taken on some unpleasant characteristics. He is increasingly defiant. He goes out of his way to test the limits. Time out isn’t working anymore, because he won’t stay seated and looks at me to see what I will do. I’ve been increasingly worried that I am doing him a disservice by being overindulgent with this behavior. He was particularly defiant the other day and I finally resolved that if I let this go, I would allow him to turn into a monster eventually because he would have no sense of right and wrong. I smacked him once on the top leg, not hard enough to bruise, but hard enough to sting. It was heart wrenching to inflict pain on him. He laid down on the bed (it was nap time and we co-sleep) and was quiet, but I saw tears in his eyes. Now I am so confused and distraught because I am worried that if I spank him he will not trust me, but if I don’t he will become a spoiled brat.

    As a father it is my responsibility to help my children, sons in particular, to win the battle of self mastery. Scripture seems to indicate that this is correct:

    “My sons, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord, nor lose heart when he reproves you. For whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he receives” (Hebrews 12:6)

    Yet, I am torn, because I would rather follow the “way of love” than the “way of fear”. I like the SOUND of what your are saying, but I fear and suspect that the REALITY is much grimmer, because of original sin. I don’t want my children to distrust me, but looking at the world of today, which is so opposed to discipline, morality and the idea of rational limits, I am afraid that I will be setting him up for great danger if I don’t spank. I love my son, and I don’t want him to fear and loathe me the way I did my own mother, but I also don’t want to be a bad, overindulgent parent.

    You reference Christ’s gentle shepherding and say he doesn’t beat the sheep, but there seems to be may indications to the contrary in scripture. How do you deal with this? I am sure you must have thought about it as a serious Catholic.

    Finally, I am skeptical about studies by child psychologists because of the vast difference of opinion that exists among them and because they rarely proceed from philosophical premises that can be reconciled with anything like a Christian worldview. You can find psychologists for example who say that sexually deviant behavior is perfectly normal. My in-laws on the other hand never picked up their sons because some psychologist had convinced them that this would turn their sons gay. It seems like you can find a study to prove anything nowadays.

    What do you think about all of this? I appreciate your response when you have the time and please remember me next time you pray.

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