Spank’em sweet

So, I read Shepherding a Child’s Heart, and have been thinking about it, feeling about it, and reflecting on it. I’ve tried posting about it and haven’t been satisfied with any of the drafts. Here goes another attempt.

The good:

Tedd Tripp avoids authoritarian and libertarian parenting pitfalls, arguing that both rich communication and “the rod,” in balance, are necessary for godly parenting.

He is concerned that parents understand and know their kids. He wants parents to focus on the relationship with their child, and make sure their disciplinary efforts foster relationship instead of distance and alienation.

He understands that the heart is the root of all behavior, and that discipline that focuses on behavior alone misses the point.

The bad:

Tripp advocates teaching kids to do good to bullies instead of ignoring them or defending themselves. He doesn’t say at what age you can start expecting your kids to do so. It seems to me that a kid first needs to learn that he has the right to defend himself, before he can learn to set that right aside for the sake of agape love. It seems to me that teaching a kid that he can’t fight back is very similar to teaching a kid that his safety and dignity are unimportant. I would rather my kid feel absolutely permitted to defend herself — with the caveat that she shouldn’t seek to hurt the bully more than necessary for defense, and even that caveat has to wait for the ability to consider another’s point of view.

Tripp says that the “Who had it first” approach to resolving toy sharing conflicts is wrong.

First of all, he says that it’s about justice — as if justice is a bad thing. A kid needs to know and value justice before she can know and value loving self-sacrifice.

Then he says that this approach favors the one who is fast enough to get the toy first. Really? Is it that great a favor to have the first turn? And if it’s obvious that the grabber deliberately grabbed the toy BECAUSE he saw the other kid going for it, well, then justice would award the first turn to the other kid.

He talks about how the real heart issue is that both kids are being selfish and not putting the other kid’s happiness first. Again, a kid has got to understand his own pleasure in happiness before he can value his friend’s happiness. I’m fairly convinced that what looks selfish to an adult is not quite so to a kid — it’s not necessarily meanness or a desire to hurt the other, but a desire to protect oneself.

Tripp thinks that an eight-month-old resisting his mom’s attempt to put a hat on him is rebellion against authority, or refusal to be ruled from without. Yeesh. Seriously? Maybe — just maybe — the eight-month-old simply doesn’t like having something on his head, and is communicating that the only way he knows how. He has no idea what authority, rule, and rebellion are. (And who says authority and external rule are good in and of themselves, or that rebellion is wrong in and of itself? I want Amy to obey not merely because I’m in charge, but because she knows I love her and she trusts me.)

Tripp criticizes pop psychology and any expert parenting advice that does not come directly from the Bible. I want to be biblical in my parenting, but I don’t think the Bible is a complete parenting manual any more than it’s a math or history textbook. What it has to say about kids and parents is truth — but that’s not the same as instructions. And common grace teaches us that biblical truth is found in all sorts of places — even in psychology. Not that all psychology is sound, but neither is all of it suspect. Finally — does Tripp not realize that everyone interprets the Bible? No one can merely read what it plainly says — everyone brings presuppositions and prior experience to it. There are limits to what you can do with interpretation, and there are lots of things that are very clear in Scripture, but there’s also things that are more open to more various interpretations.

One of the biggest mistakes Tripp makes is to equate the biblical “rod” of discipline with corporal punishment. The biblical authors are quite capable of metaphor, and I don’t see any reason to believe that the “rod” is meant literally — and even if it is, then why is Tripp advocating spanking with the hand instead of with a stick?

What gets me really riled up is his idea that spanking renders kids sweet, and that timeouts are abusive. (3/18/2012 Edited to add: I have come to see why some folks argue this way about timeouts — that they are isolating and promote the suppression of feelings and make a child think they are only acceptable or wanted when they are cheerful… I’ve been moving in the direction of time-in instead, when I am able, and taking my own time-out when I need a separation.)

First of all, I really do appreciate his emphasis on restoration and correction instead of mere punishment. He is very careful to instruct parents not to spank in anger, to determine in advance how many swats and no more, to hug the child immediately after the spanking, to spank in private for the sake of not shaming the child, and always including discussion of the misbehavior.

And I believe that spanking carried out in this way can be part of a loving family life. I also believe that I personally dare not try it — nor do I have any desire to do so. (3/18/2012 Edited to add: I am more and more persuaded that spanking is never really okay. Parents who spank can be loving and devoted, and kids who are spanked can live through it, but spanking is still a mistake — there are better ways.)

I certainly do not believe that corporal punishment is necessary to drive the foolishness out of a child’s heart (I forget what Proverb that’s from). There’s the case again of confusing figurative and literal use of the word “rod.”

I’m not convinced that a timeout is necessarily abusive. It can be carried out with as much anger and punitive intent as spanking can be, or it can be carried out with restoration and correction in mind, just as Tripp recommends for spanking. The book did remind me to think about how I do timeouts. (3/18/2012 — see added note above)

The ugly:

While Tripp is correct that the heart is the root of behavior, and that therefore parents should be concerned to shepherd their kids’ hearts and not just modify their behavior, it’s extremely dangerous to suggest that parents must read back from the behavior to identify the heart issue.

Who can read hearts, but God alone?

And surely a child knows her own heart better than the parent does.

And if the parent interprets the child’s heart for her, how confused might she become? What she meant in one way, her parent insists she meant in another way, and now what should she think? (3/18/2012 Edited to add: for one example, we are so often tempted to see rebellion and manipulation where it is not yet possible — young kids are not consciously thinking this way, but are expressing their feelings, their wants, their needs, as best they can in the moment.)

Likewise, I believe in original sin and total depravity — that is, that we all do in fact sin and that even our best works have sin mixed in. But I think Tripp is overly focused on sin and does not sufficiently emphasize the glory we have as bearers of the image of God, and in how wonderfully he has made us. Sin fragments the image, and mars the wonder, but it doesn’t completely do away with that glory, and we must not let our belief that kids are sinners too lead us to dismiss, deny, or neglect their great glory.

I think it is better — at this toddler stage at least — to focus corrective discipline on concrete behavior that she and I can both see clearly. And to save heart-shepherding for generic lessons in heart issues — what it means to be loving, what it means to be sorry, what the Golden Rule requires, and so on. Let the Holy Spirit draw the connections for her between these heart lessons and her own heart and the behavior it influences.

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19 thoughts on “Spank’em sweet

  1. Oh my gosh, Marcy. This man is a zealot and is unable to freely use the brain with which he has been supplied. Probably because he was spanked and takes the fourth commandment very literally with no consideration at all to what honor might mean in certain specific circumstances. This might be why he does good to bullies. This is his dissociated way of honoring his parents (his bullies), and now he advocates for the bully that he himself has become. He’s like another James Dobson.

    Spanking can cause brain damage, mistrust, attachment problems, depression, anxiety disorders and problems with learning. There is a lot of research to give validity to these claims. Google it if in doubt. Please stick to your guns and do not ever hit your child. If you ever think you should be hitting Amy, please email me. People who advocate this nonsense are not playing with a full deck. Please don’t listen to them. Keep listening to Amy instead.

  2. I am no fan of spanking in general, but it does seem to me that there’s a difference between spanking in anger punitively, and spanking calmly and in a controlled way with an emphasis on restoring relationship. Again, not that I advocate spanking at all. Does the research lump all spanking together, or has anyone studied this allegedly calmer, more controlled method of spanking?

  3. I’d also like to know what you think about timeouts — or if you know of any research that would support or contradict this guy’s claim that they’re abusive and alienating.

  4. Yes, research lumps all spanking together. I’ve not read too much about time outs, but I have felt some upsetting things inside my being on behalf of children while watching Super Nanny. There is probably a difference between a punitive time out and a parent saying, “Something is going on. Why don’t we take a break and talk about what is happening here?” I know (from hard experience) that this can be a bit exhausting, but we owe it to the children to do the best that we can without being too inconsistent and flakey. Seriously, if you are ever in a bind, please email me. Amy is a lovely little girl and I can recognize when a mother really cares. I’ve been there. I know things get hard, but we MUST put them first to the best of our ability. Sometimes we have to work together to make it happen. You are not all by yourself. I’m a mama, too. I got your back on that (and your baby’s back). We just get up every day and do our best. It gets easier with the children. I promise.

  5. I think that sort of talking things out will be increasingly appropriate as Amy gets older. At three she can participate in quite a bit of discussion, but there are still lots of times where something more concrete seems necessary — something simple and definite like a timeout or removal from a situation (if she’s at the kitchen sink while we’re washing dishes, and does something she knows is not allowed, she must get down from the sink)or being physically brought along (like after dance class when she was unwilling to put her shoes on and go home, and when she was in no mood to discuss anything and efforts to do so only escalated things).

  6. I’ve stopped reading parenting books for the most part. I’m learning it’s okay to be me and parent how *I* would parent. Does that sound weird? What’s important to me isn’t always the same thing that’s important to someone else, and that’s okay. Sometimes I do get counsel from my Pastor’s wife (who I have grown to very greatly respect!), and she’s actually working on some short booklets that sound good to me.

    One of the hardest issues for me is when more than one child is wrong. Let me think of an example… Let’s say one child bothers another, and then the way the other child responds is wrong. They’re both wrong. OH that’s sooo hard, because they’ve both been and done wrong~LOL! Not sure that’s a good example of what I mean, but it usually just ends in a discussion with mama on how they’re both wrong. (((((HUGS))))) sandi

  7. I’m about in that same place — I have a couple that I deemed good enough to keep for reference, but generally only refer to them when I feel stumped or need refreshing. Things like what’s appropriate at this age, is this behavior normal, etc. And reminders that the relationship matters most.

    In this case, I’d asked for prayer for wisdom in parenting, and several folks in the congregation suggested this book or others, and went out of their way to find them and bring them to me. I’d heard of this one but didn’t know much about it.

    Your example — is it hard because there’s two things to talk about, and so there’s danger of unbalance, or one side getting lost in the discussion? That makes sense. Each child needs to know both that he or she DID wrong, AND that it’s okay to feel hurt and indignant about BEING wronged. And that while they can communicate with the other, they can’t change the other, and their responsibility is to worry about changing themselves.

    You’re generally more comfortable with your own values, in coexistence with others’ differing values, than I am. Theoretically, I am, but I find it more difficult in practice.

  8. I don’t know~I believe in what/how we do things (even though I don’t think we’re perfect or anything~I’m sure we get it wrong quite a bit), but I struggle so with the judgements of others. This battle inside has grown worse for some reason. WHY do I CARE? But OH! I DO! And people are SO critical and in other people’s business! 😦 (((((HUGS))))) sandi

  9. Oh, I meant that you’re not the one judging! I tend to be rather critical when others don’t share my thinking on things. I sometimes have a hard time understanding how my values can be “right” and “true” without being universal, and if they’re not universal, how can they be more than mere taste or preference, essentially meaningless.

  10. I remember you telling me something along those lines (and blowing stereo-types) when you visited, and I want you to know I’ve TREASURED IT!!! Best compliment I’ve EVER received in my whole life! (((((HUGS))))) sandi

  11. Excellent post, Marcy. I hadn’t see this before. Thanks for linking to it on fb. I never did find the time to really discuss what I thought of the book. I think you summed it up very well. It’s interesting to read this from 2 years ago, knowing the quest you’ve been on, and to see your updates added to what you wrote then.

    • Ha ha about the book confusion. I asked our pastor what resources he might have in mind for the parenting classes he was talking about, and said that if it were Ezzos or Pearls I would have concerns, and then he reassured me by saying it wouldn’t be either of those — if anything, this one, SACH — oh well, not very reassuring!!

      And yes, it is interesting to see how my thoughts and values have developed since this post. It wasn’t even really that long ago.

  12. What a well-articulated post, Marcy. It’s encouraging and heartwarming to see a parent reflect on how best to guide her child, and what types of punishments to employ when needed, rather than simply acting on impulse or falling back on how she herself was raised.

    I believe that when the Bible speaks of using the rod it is in the context of the shepherd’s rod, with the crook on the end with which the shepherd would bring the straying sheep back into the safe path. He used the rod for guidance, not to beat the sheep with! Can’t remember where I read this, but the way in which it was explained (much less muddled than what I’ve tried to express here) certainly made sense to me, and had the ring of truth.

    • Thanks, Beauty; since November or so I’ve really be on a quest to not use punishments at all — which doesn’t mean not setting limits and doesn’t mean just being permissive. And you’re right on about “the rod” — I’ve also read recently that the rod refers to a spiked weapon that was used to fight off enemies — not to beat the sheep — and that the “children” addressed in Proverbs are teens or youth, not toddlers, infants, preschoolers, or even elementary students.

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