Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Biblical" Parenting, Criticism #3: A Parent Who Tries to Change Minds and Hearts through Spanking

This is part of a series of posts reviewing Reb Bradley's book "Child Training Tips".
Read the introduction here.
Read criticism #1 here.
Read criticism #2 here.
Read criticism #4 here.
Read the conclusion here.

To briefly review, my first criticism of Reb Bradley's book "Child Training Tips" discussed the way his advice pushed parents toward the worst possible interpretation of their child's behavior at the expense of mercy and understanding.  My second criticism looked at the extreme level of control that parents are urged to have over their child's mind and body, which can prevent the child from maturing and can put the parent at risk of developing abusive habits.  Now here is my third criticism.

Criticism #3: Parents are instructed to use spanking as their primary tool of discipline, not only for behavior modification but also to force the child to change their opinions or feelings.

Spanking is one of those hot button issues; some parents are strongly against it in all cases, while others find it a useful last-resort parenting tool.  However, whatever your feelings on spanking, I think that we can all come together to condemn the abusive spanking instructions that are given to parents in this book.

You see, Reb Bradley views spanking not as one of many parenting tools, but as the only tool.  Before giving parents his specific instructions on how to spank, he reminds them, "Spanking is incorrectly used if it is a last resort rather than the first response for rebellion" (p. 71).   He adds, "Beware of trying to cure rebellion with 'creative alternatives.'  Any alternative to chastisement [spanking] is an alternative to Scripture -- God offers no better solutions to subduing rebellion outside the Bible" (p. 74).  What are those creative alternatives to spanking that he's referring to, that are apparently un-Biblical?
  • "When your authority is not sufficient to motivate your child to pick up their toys, you make a game of it, so that their desire for fun will gain their cooperation." (p. 61)
  • "When they will not obey your specific direction to go into their room for a nap, you become animated, playful, and silly, and make the walk to their room look like a lot of fun." (p. 61)
  • "Instead of giving them a direct order to go to bed, manipulate them by saying, 'Which do you want to take to bed with you right now -- the teddy bear or the doll?'"  (p. 61)
  • "When they will not cooperate, you create a contest to gain compliance, i.e.: challenging them to get their room clean within a time limit." (p. 61)
  • "A three year old who is throwing a fit, may forget that he was upset if an animated parent points out the window and exclaims, 'What could that be?'  However, the calming effect of the distraction does not subdue his will and should not be a substitute for chastisement [spanking]." (p. 62) 
  • "The parent who is unaware of his authority sometimes resorts to offering bribes to his children to evoke obedience: 'If you behave in the grocery cart, I'll get you a treat when we check out.' 'If you get into bed for your nap, I'll read your favorite story.' 'You may have cake for dessert if you eat your vegetables.'" (p. 57-58)
From his examples of un-Biblical techniques, we see that a parent is not allowed to do anything to diffuse tension, increase positive motivation, or add humor to the moment.   Reb Bradley claims that these parenting techniques are unBiblical even though they are clearly not forbidden in the Bible, and even though the Bible clearly doesn't claim to be an exhaustive child training manual.  Ironically, these so-called unBiblical techniques are much more in line with verses such as Ephesians 6:4 "Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger," and Colossians 3:21 "Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged."  Reb Bradley's advice, in contrast, seems much more likely to provoke, embitter, and discourage the child, since he urges parents to treat everything as a power struggle and to use only direct confrontation and physically-aggressive punishment to deal with it.   In addition, the techniques that Reb Bradley deems unBiblical are the ones that the child could most benefit from seeing modeled; offering positive motivation, diffusing tension, and using humor to promote cooperation are techniques that are useful in peer relationships and adult relationships, where spanking is less socially acceptable.

So spanking is the only tool a parent can use against rebellion, but what is Reb Bradley's definition of rebellion?  As I'm sure you can imagine, an extremely controlling parent has many opportunities to see rebellion in the child's behavior, especially when the parent thinks the goal of parenting is to completely subdue the child's will.  It's no surprise, then, that Reb Bradley has many strange and sad examples of rebellion to give us, which he separates into two categories: active rebellion and passive rebellion.

Active rebellion is defined as purposeful or premeditated disobedience, although it oddly includes things such as any form of sass and back-talk (p. 75), a toddler crying uncontrollably over not getting their way (p. 76), a child moving away from a parental hug or touch (p. 76), a child who attempts to get off the parent's lap without verbal permission (p. 77), and a toddler who arches his back against a seatbelt (p. 77).

Even worse are the examples of passive rebellion, which is "less conscious and premeditated than active rebellion...requiring parents to work harder to expose to them their rebellion" (p. 78):
  • "Consistent forgetfulness: When they can remember to set their alarm and dress themselves for soccer practice, but habitually forget to take out the garbage, they are demonstrating they can be capable when they choose to be.  They just need greater motivation" (p. 78). 
  • "External obedience with a bad attitude: They cooperate with your directions, but talk, complain, or whine about it the entire time, i.e.: The three year old who lets his mother shower him, but is permitted to complain throughout the shower: 'But I don't want a shower. I don't want a shower.'" (p. 79). 
  • "Obeying only on own terms: Does not come exactly when called; walks slowly...Dictates to parents when they will obey: 'I'm getting a drink first,' or 'I'll be there in a minute.'" (p. 79). 
  • "Doing what is required, but not how it should be done: Does chores, but not by parents' established standards, i.e.: dishes are not quite clean, bed is not made properly, bedroom is not ordered as required" (p. 79). 
  • "Violating unspoken, but understood rules: The toddler who is caught in the bathroom unrolling the toilet paper, may not have been specifically forbidden to unroll the tissue, but the tears he sheds, and the haste with which he continues his deed as he sees his mother approaching, verify that he knows he is doing wrong" (p. 80-81).
In other words, the child can never do anything less than instant, cheerful obedience to a parent's spoken and unspoken commands.  The child's obedience must be up to the parents' standards at all times in both speed and quality.  Anything less can be interpreted as rebellion.  Please keep in mind that, according to Reb Bradley, the only appropriate parental response for active and passive rebellion is to administer a spanking.  It's no wonder that children raised with this mentality often have trouble relating to the grace and love that Jesus demonstrated, since they learned instead to evaluate themselves by impossible standards and habitually feel deserving of punishment.

With all this in mind, let's look now at Reb Bradley's instructions on how to spank, which he calls chastisement: "Chastisement is a calm, controlled spanking on the bottom...uses a light-weight done after the first offense, while the parent is still calm" (p. 70-71).   He continues by explaining a common spanking mistake that parents make: "Many parents implement chastisement with their children, but are frustrated because it does not seem to subdue their wills.  The most common reason for this is incomplete chastisement -- it is administered as discipline for rebellion, but is ended before its goals have been accomplished.  What are the goals of chastisement? 1. To cause children to be humble before their parents' authority. 2. To cause them to take responsibility for what they have done. 3. To cause them to submit to the consequences of their actions" (p. 71).

What does incomplete chastisement look like?  Here are a few of the many horrifying examples that Reb Bradley lists:
  • "No obvious sign of brokenness or humility" (p. 72)
  • "Refuses to hug the discliplining parent" (p. 72).
  • "Cries out for the non-disciplining parent" (p. 72).
  • "Extended or extra loud crying (venting anger -- not pain or sorrow)" (p. 72).
  • "Expresses no remorse to God in prayer, and refuses to ask for forgiveness of those they offended" (p. 72).
In other words, if the child doesn't appear broken, doesn't want to be hugged right after being hit, cries in the wrong way, or doesn't seem sorry enough in prayer to God, then "the chastisement obviously did not work, and should be repeated a second time," or perhaps even a third time, although Reb Bradley apparently rarely hears of a third time being necessary (p. 73).  It would seem that Reb Bradley has mentally adapted the verse, spoken by Jesus, from "Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them" (Luke 18:16), to a crusade-like mentality of "Beat the little children until they come to me and confess their sins with appropriate sorrow."  Reb Bradley also seems to believe that a parent can and should beat their child into demonstrating love through a hug, which is an absolutely disgusting attitude for a parent to have.

As if that's not horrifying enough, there is also a list of behavior during chastisement that "merits extra discipline" because they indicate resistance to parental authority (p. 73-74).
  • "Moving away from the rod" (p. 74).
  • "Putting their hand in front of their bottom" (p. 74).
  • "Pleading for mercy; making vehement promises of repentance" (p. 74). 
  • "Requesting limited number of swats" (p. 74).
  • "Extra loud, angry crying" (p. 74).
Why is it ok for me to ask God for mercy, but a child requesting mercy from a parent deserves more punishment?  Why is it ok for people like King David and Job to express strong negative emotion, sometimes even toward God, but a child who feels anger when hit by a parent deserves to be hit more?  And how is a child expected to override the subconscious physical reflexes that help prevent bodily injury?

If you are wondering what this type of spanking can be like from the child's point of view, here is a truly heartbreaking first-hand account.  Clearly, even calm parent using an "appropriate" rod can be abusive in their attempts to follow these guidelines of chastisement.

Reading this book, you notice right away that almost everything is a strong assertion that is not backed up by evidence, not even Biblical evidence.  The lack of support throughout the book makes the few verifiable claims stand out even more; unfortunately for Reb Bradley, the verifiable data from his book is easily disproved by a few simple google searches.  For instance, he claims, without citing his source:
"That society which does away with corporal punishment will raise undisciplined, self-consumed young people, who lack the security that comes from being required to stay within firm limits.  Sweden and Denmark, famous for their prostitution, drugs, and child pornography, are the world's first countries to have outlawed spanking.  Not surprisingly, since their first generation of undisciplined children has grown up, these two countries are now reported to have the highest teen suicide rates in the world.  Eliminating the rod is not a sign of a civilized society, but of one in moral decline" (p. 69-70).  
In mentioning prostitution, drugs, and child pornography, perhaps Reb Bradley is thinking of Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where spanking was actually legal until 2007; Amsterdam, after all, has the famous Red Light District and legalized marijuana.  Sweden and Denmark, on the other hand, are certainly not famous for these things.  In regards to spanking, Denmark didn't outlaw spanking until 1997, after this book was written, and at least five other countries had already outlawed spanking before Denmark did.

So let's look at the three countries that first outlawed spanking: Sweden, where spanking was outlawed in 1966; Finland, where spanking was outlawed in 1983; and Norway, where spanking was outlawed in 1987.  According to Reb Bradley, these countries should now be showing increased rates of teen suicide.  However, the opposite is true.  In Sweden between 1969-1979, the suicide rate for teens aged 15-19 was 8.69 per 100,000 people.  That number had decreased to 6.30 by the 1990s.  In Finland between 1980-1989, the suicide rate for teens aged 15-19 was 24.54 per 100,000 people.  That number had decreased to 15.51 by the 1990s.  In Norway between 1980-1989, the suicide rate for teens aged 15-19 was 15.71 per 100,000 people.  That number had decreased to 12.12 by the 1990s.  

Although Reb Bradley doesn't mention crime rates, they are worth looking at too.  Currently, the homicide rate in the USA is 4.2 per 100,000 people; in contrast, the homicide rate in Sweden is 1.0, in Finland it's 2.2, and in Norway it's 0.6.  Murder rates in all four countries are on a downward trend, regardless of the legality of spanking.

This basic data certainly doesn't prove anything about whether spanking should be legal or illegal.  What is does show, however, is that spanking is not a necessary part of a harmonious society with low rates of suicide and homicide.  It also shows that Reb Bradley is extremely negligent in his research.

In conclusion, Reb Bradley's tells parents that hitting a child with a rod is their only possible response to perceived rebellion, and that the spanking should be used to control the child's behavior, mind, feelings, and even relationship with God.  In giving these instructions, he shows a severe misunderstanding of the Bible and serious scholarly negligence.


  1. His theories are simply horrifying. I have enough trouble with decision-making and self esteem thanks in part to an incredibly controlling upbringing. I can't imagine even being able to function if my entire childhood had consisted of being hit.

  2. wow. This is awful.... My theology is to put myself in the arms of God as a little child and God never hits me but patientlt instructs me... I am so sad that this "christian" is spreading these awful theories. The child can never do anything.

  3. I've been reading quite a lot of blog posts on the topic of fundamentalist "discipline" and spanking recently, so the examples you bring and the arguments you make are not all that new to me. Nevertheless, I greatly admire the thought and effort you are obviously putting into this series. I very much admire how comprehensive and well thought-out your posts are and it's great to have such an exhaustive discussion of the many aspects of this topic in one place.

    What really gets me, personally, is that this kind of corporal punishment (or rather, physical abuse, IMO) is actually legal in a supposedly developed country like the US. (In about two fifth of all states not only parents but even teachers may legally spank children!) Where I'm from, this kind of violence (though by no means inexistent) is at least prohibited by law. While I am well aware that outlawing it does not in and of itself end spanking immediately, I do believe this is an important step in the right direction because
    - it sends a signal that children have rights and will be protected (even against their parents, if necessary);
    - it does away with any discussion about what constitutes "reasonable physical force" and makes *any* physical force against children unreasonable (personally, I think this is one of the very few instances where the argument of the "slippery slope" has any merit);
    - over time, I do believe it makes spanking less socially acceptable and therefore less common.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to future posts in this series. Keep up the good work, Latebloomer!

    1. Thanks for the encouragement, Katty! It's a depressing topic to write about, but it's something that's really important to me to process now that I'm a new mother.

      Although I don't think that spanking will ever become illegal in the US (because it will be perceived as religious persecution), I think that it's still possible to reduce it in the US by educating parents about other options.

  4. I agree with you Latebloomer.

  5. As a parent and counselor I am thankful for your dissection of this individual's skewed belief about discipline.

  6. Constant forgetfulness, violating unspoken rules, and resistance to touch are all things I experience as an autistic person. I can't help it, Reb, and I'm an adult.

    Child abusers are scum, doubly so when ableism contributes to their motivations.

  7. I think there are two main goals when parenting,1 have a loving relationship with your children and 2 have children who respect your authority. I have seen two short comings in parenting which I’d like to address. What I have seen occasionally in the christian church is abuse. Yanking a child around and intimidating them with your force is abuse, saying threatening things and exercising discipline inappropriately is terrible and it makes me sick. When I see this being done in the name of God or Christianity my stomach gets in knots and I want to scream, NOOOO! Sometimes this occurs because people don’t know better or they think this is the way to have a child respect your authority. Unfortunately it produces terrible results, perhaps the child will submit to your authority for a time but they will not respect it, you also will have no relationship with your child because they don’t trust you. It is a lose-lose parenting outcome. The second type of parenting I have seen is parents who revert to psychology and refuse to spank their child at all. Those parents appear exhausted to me. Constantly "negotiating with terrorists" and manipulating and compromising over every little thing. I’d also note that the children are extremely unhappy despite getting almost everything they want. This type of parenting while not ideal is at least better than the first type. I believe these parents will eventually still have a loving relationship with their child, if the child is not too unbearable to be around. Sometimes life will (fortunately) teach these children that they are not the center of the universe even if the parents won’t. I have raised 4 children while not very many by some standards, I find so much peace and enjoyment in my family and believe we are in the middle. My children respect our authority but they also love us. They tease us, have fun with us, love being around us, I rarely spank them now, but when they were little yes I did calmly, lovingly, spank them. How can you calmly spank a child? Is this post going to be erased because it “advocates abuse” maybe, but I sincerely hope not. I pray you can listen, we take our children after a transgression e.g. I said no to something they didn’t obey, I asked them to come, they ran away, and I spank them, using as few words as possible I explain to them what was wrong, spank them and we move on. I also don't force them not to cry or keep spanking them til they stop crying. Sheash people use common sense it hurts and they will cry thats okay. I’d also say we exercise caution in only spanking them on their butt and whatever I use to spank my child I have first regularly tried out on my own butt to see how much it hurts. So that I know what I am doing to my child and I don’t do something that is too harsh and I later regret. My children are happy, they get a long with each other, they don’t fight with us or other children. I sincerely never knew how much peace and love a home could have til I learned this. I don’t wait til they have disobeyed 3 times or I have counted to 3 or I have tried to manipulate them by rephrasing what I asked for, kids are not stupid. They know abuse and they know when you are exercising self control and sacrificing yourself to lovingly discipline them. Does fundamental christian parenting occasionally abuse children in the name of the Lord, yes I also have seen that and it makes me sick. Mainly because people then throw out the baby with the bath water and don’t realize their is a middle way… If you are so sure christians are close minded please consider this post before throwing it out. We all love our kids and want whats best for them.

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