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The Master’s Children

 “If we truly want a less violent society, not hitting our children is a good place to start,” was Paul Holinger’s response to the editor of the New York Times following a recent article on the status of “paddling” in the nation’s school systems. Dr. Holinger went on to say, “I see the carnage of physical punishment every day in the office.  Physical punishment is a major public health problem in this country.”

  Elizabeth Gershoff, a researcher at the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work, also wrote in to say, “The more children are spanked, the more aggressive they are and the more likely they are to engage in delinquent or at-risk behaviors.”  (1)

“Spanking” is a euphemism for “hitting.” (2)  In the name of “discipline” children are daily spanked, slapped, hit, smacked and shaken, by adults – mainly by those whom they trust the most.  And this humiliating treatment is both socially and legally accepted.  One is not permitted to hit one’s spouse or a stranger as this action would be considered domestic violence and/or assault.  However, one is permitted to hit a smaller and even more vulnerable person if one is a parent or caregiver.

The invention of concepts such as ‘reasonable chastisement’ and ‘lawful correction’ in the law arises from the perception that children are the property of their parents.  Children are seen as only “half” persons with a limited number of rights.  This is the modern equivalent of laws that were in force a century or two ago that allowed masters to beat their slaves or servants and husbands to ‘discipline’ their wives.  (3)

The assumption is that parents have a right, even a duty, to hit children.  Children, whose developmental state and small size are acknowledged to make them particularly vulnerable to physical and psychological injury, amazingly have less protection under law from deliberate assault than do adults.  

Many will counter with the argument that there is a big difference between ‘necessary loving discipline’ and child abuse. Parents who cross the line need to be punished, but conscientious parents who spank their children are not in that category.  Dr. Murray Straus, a sociologist, maintains that it should not be necessary to choose between corporal punishment done with love and abusive corporal punishment.  There is an alternative, he says, just stop hitting children.  (4)

Save our Children foundation, a worldwide organization that promotes child welfare has taken a strong stand against the use of corporal punishment.  In addition to the physical and psychological damage to children, they see the social consequences as being equally damaging.  “The strongest, usually unintended, message that corporal punishment sends to the mind of a child is that violence is acceptable behavior, that it is all right for a stronger person to use force to coerce a weaker one.   This helps to perpetuate a cycle of violence in the family and in society.”  (5)

Children raised on an ethic where the strong hurt the weak with impunity become adults who believe that hurt and pain are part and parcel of a love relationship. Studies show that children who are hit identify with the aggressor and are more likely to become hitters themselves, i.e., bullies and future abusers of their children and spouses. 

In addition, the rational that “I must hurt you for your own good,” teaches the concept that right can only be maintained by the use of power and might, that right in and of itself is not a strong enough motivational factor for correct behavior. 

It may come as a surprise to many but corporal punishment of children has been declared a human rights issue by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.  In Europe, this convention has been ratified by all Members States of the Council of Europe and a majority of their member states have committed themselves to put an end to all corporal punishment of children. Full prohibition in law has been adopted by 18 member states and at least seven others have publicly pledged to do the same. (6 )

It is interesting to note that South Africa’s constitutional prohibition of corporal punishment in all schools was challenged in 2002 by a group of Christian schools who maintained that this law limited their parental and community rights to practice their religion.   The law was upheld on the basis that schools function in the public domain to prepare learners for life in the broader society.  As such, codes of discipline fall under the same norms as those of health and safety, fair labor practices, planning permissions and national examination standards. (7)  I mention this case as an example because the resistance to laws restricting the use of corporal punishment are usually brought forward by religious groups and organizations. 

While methods of raising children without the use of corporal punishment can be taught, it is really a way of life that is best learned by example.  My own maternal grandmother used non violent methods and techniques that were observed by my mother and passed down generationally.  My two beautiful grandsons, 17 and 22, have never experienced corporal punishment. Throughout their school career teachers have consistently reported that they are exceptionally respectful, cooperative, courteous and kind.   

Non-violent child rearing methods work.  And they work well.  Nevertheless, I would never encourage parents to eliminate spanking unless they were willing and able to replace corporal punishment with better child disciplinary methods – just as I would not tell someone to quit eating meat if there were no nutritional alternatives available.  However the persistence of Christian parents to hold on to the “spare the rod and spoil the child” philosophy and even promote spanking of children in light of the fact that there are much better and more effective ways to discipline children defies my imagination.

In my previous career in Corrections, I was friends with an officer in charge of training police dogs.  He said it was very important never to use harsh methods or physical punishment on the dogs.  Dogs who had experienced pain in their training phase would often freeze up in an actual emergency situation, fearing punishment if they acted outside of their training boundaries.  Dogs who had never been physically punished would often come up with a creative solution in a new situation which saved the life of an officer. 

Over a hundred years ago, animals were routinely trained by harsh, often painful methods. In light of the common practices of her day, Ellen White made this remark:   

The severe training of youth – without properly directing them to think and act for themselves as their own capacity and turn of mind will allow, that by this means they may have growth of thought, feelings of self-respect, and confidence in their own ability to perform – will ever produce a class who are weak in mental and moral power.  And when they stand in the world to act for themselves, they will reveal that fact that they were trained, like the animals, and not educated.”  (8)

While many may acknowledge that hurting children, like waging war, are not ideal behaviors for either home or country they nevertheless will justify these actions as “emergency measures” vital in the present age to deter worse behavior, expedient in this sinful economy to restrain evil.  They will even suggest that God Himself has resorted to such methods to keep his children in check and use a literal reading of scriptures as their justification.

Long ago, in those early years of our own lives, before we had the ability to define our emotions or even words to describe how we felt, our perception of God was being formed.   How we respond to God today was shaped in large part by our encounters with God’s surrogates during our formative years.  As a society our acceptance of violent child disciplinary practices and behaviors has been inculcated into our corporate psyche. Sadly this acceptance is now reflected in our Christian teachings and doctrines.   

Thus the suffering of the innocent becomes redemptive.  Law and order are maintained by visions of hell fire.  The door is opened to the belief that God himself is an Inflictor of pain and ultimately the Executioner of death.  When we worship a God who not only sanctions but encourages the use such methods then, I believe, Satan  succeeds in turning the truth about God into a lie. 

I have a close friend whose parents were missionaries and he grew up in China. As both his mother and father traveled extensively during his early years, he was left to the care of devoted Chinese servants.  Recently he had the opportunity to return to China and was curious to know about his childhood.  He was able to locate and speak to a couple who had raised him.  As they shared with him stories about his childhood, he asked, “Did I ever misbehave?”  “At times,” they replied smiling. “What punishment did you use?  Did you ever spank me?   At this the couple seemed taken back and became very serious, “Oh no,” they said, “we would never hit the master’s child.”  

© Donna J. Haerich


1.        New York Times article by Dan Frosch,” Schools Under Pressure to Spare the Rod Forever” 3/28/11  

2.        The United Nations committee on the Rights of the Child defines corporal punishment in these words:

Corporal punishment is any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.  Most involves hitting (“smacking”, “slapping”, “spanking”) children, with the hand or with an implement – whip, stick, belt, shoe, wooden spoon, etc.  But is can also involve, for example, kicking, shaking or throwing children, scratching, pinching, biting, pulling hair or boxing ear, forcing children to stay in uncomfortable positions, burning, scalding or forced ingestion (for example, washing children’s mouths out with soap or forcing them to swallow hot spices).

3.        Susan H. Bitensky, Corporal Punishment of Children: A Human Rights Violation.  Transnational Publishers, 2006

4.        Murray A. Straus, Beating the Devil out of Them. Lexington Books, 1994

5.        See web site:

6.        The Council of Europe, Commission on Human Rights’ web site lists the following European countries as having banned corporal punishment at a national level in legislation.   Austria, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Spain, Sweden and Ukraine.  The following countries have committed to banning it in the near future: Czech Republic, Estonia, Ireland, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Slovakia and Slovenia.

See web site:

7.        In the Constitutional Court of South Africa: Christian Education South Africa v Minister of Education, case CCT 4/00.  Decided on 18 August 2002.  Information taken from the position paper by the European Commission on Human Rights.

8.     Ellen G. White, Child Guidance.  Southern Publishing Association, Nashville, Tenn. 1954, page 227


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