Friday, December 23, 2011

Spanking and the Book of Proverbs

Paul Wegner is a professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary.  He has written an excellent essay on the use of discipline in the book of Proverbs--"Discipline in the Book of Proverbs: 'To Spank or Not to Spank'" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48/4 (Dec. 2005).  He looks at the full context of Proverbs to see its use of discipline.  Along the way, as the title of the article suggests, he looks at the issue of spanking in its biblical contexts as well as within the current psychological literature.  Wegner summarizes the Proverbial wisdom in this way:
In reality the book of Proverbs, when taken as a whole, encourages its readers to use multiple levels of discipline ranging from pointing out improper behavior to the use of corporal punishment. In fact, the Hebrew word musar, commonly translated as "discipline" in the OT, has a wide range of meanings that suggests various levels of discipline, including on one end of the spectrum "teaching or instruction" (Prov 1:2, 3, 7; 4:13), then progress- ing to "exhortation or warning" (Ezek 5:15; Job 20:3), and climaxing with "discipline or chastening" (Prov 13:24; 22:15; 23:13). To draw from only a few Proverbs (e.g. Prov 13:24 or 23:13-14) would be to miss the complexity and range of discipline discussed in the book. The book of Proverbs provides a full range of discipline so that even extreme behaviors can be adequately handled. Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines discipline as "[t]raining that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character of a person." The implication is that this is an ongoing responsibility of parent- hood, from infancy to at least late teens, but it does not mean that the same disciplinary techniques will be used throughout this process or that spanking will be the supreme disciplinary technique.  (pp. 719-720)
Wegner goes on to outline in some detail at least eight levels of discipline as found in the book of Proverbs.  These levels begin with the encouraging of proper behavior and instructing about the nature and consequences of bad behavior.  So often the focus in on spanking alone--either to defend its use or to speak against it.  Wegner's survey is much fuller and places corporal, non-abusive punishment (i.e., "spanking") in its proper context.  The book of Proverbs is about wisdom--learning to live life in the fear of God along with its practical applications.  So much of the proverbial wisdom is contextual.  It is learning to live in the texture of God's world with all its manifest and wonderful variety.  The proverbial sayings are not cookie-cutters.  They are general wisdom that need to be applied.  This idea of context is even seen by some in the psychological community today.  A striking example is research psychologist Diana Baumrind at the University of California-Berkley's Institute of Human Development.  In an address at the 2004 annual meeting of the American Psychological Association in San Francisco she said:
We found no evidence for unique detrimental effects of normative physical punishment.... I am not an advocate of spanking, but a blanket injunction against its use is not warranted by the evidence.  It is reliance on physical punishment, not whether or not it is used at all, that is associated with harm to the child.
Dr. Baumrind went on to conclude:
Studies of verbal punishment yielded similar results, in that researchers found correlations just as high, and sometimes higher, for total verbal punishment and harm to the child, as for total physical punishment and harm... What really matters... is the child rearing context. When parents are loving and firm and communicate well with the child [a pattern Baumrind call authoritative] the children are exceptionally competent and well adjusted, whether or not their parents spanked them as preschoolers.  (quoted in Wegner, p. 731)
Now Baumrind's conclusions will not be new to any wise parent--of course it's the context that matters!  But it is nice to be able to throw around such "psychological insight" from someone even remotely associated with Berkley--for those for whom such things are needed.