In today’s Vancouver Sun, Mark Penninga wrote an excellent editorial defending the right of parents to spank their children. In it he quotes Vancouver-Quadra MP Joyce Murray, who calls spanking a “cruel form of punishment, an archaic flaw in our legal system to say the least.” (Since when is “archaic” a term of judgment, anyways? Writing is archaic, and so is math, and farming, and art. Beer, too.) Murray’s comments are provocative, and since I had a couple of free hours this afternoon I decided to be provoked. This isn’t so much a response to her comments – although it is a bit – as it is an extended reflection on discipline, childhood, and the current state of things under the sun.
The point of biblical discipline isn’t simply to raise decent and well-behaved kids. Those who oppose spankings are right: there is any number of alternative ways to get your kids to behave. Rather, the point of biblical discipline is to raise kids who love goodness and hate wickedness. You aren’t just aiming for the right behaviour, you’re aiming for the right condition of the heart. We are moral beings, and children have to know this morality from the depths of their being. But instructing them in this involves more than words; Proverbs is clear that physical, painful discipline is necessary: “Punish him with the rod and save his soul from death” (13:24).
Of course, in Canada the government has made using the rod illegal. To administer physical discipline now, parents have to strike their children with their own hands. This is less painful, but it’s also less humane. When a spanking implement is used, the means of discipline is something objective, something external to both the parent and the child. It isn’t part of the parent’s body. But without a spanking implement, you have to strike your children with your own hands, the same parts of your body with which you hug them and wipe away their tears. I don’t see how this is an improvement. (I am assuming, of course, properly dispassionate discipline).
But as Murray’s comment shows, you can’t expect from these people any sort of sensitivity or wisdom on this subject. In fact, you can’t expect consistency at all. The people who decry the “archaic” practice of spanking kids are often the same people who promote the “enlightened” practice of crushing their skulls through abortion.
That’s absurd, and evil, and it just goes to show that the real issue is not children at all. The real issue is a doctrinal one, as all real issues are. It’s not the archaism of spanking that is troublesome, it’s the archaism of morality itself, the whole loving good and hating evil thing. Modern man confesses the doctrine of his own authority (archaic, anyone?), and any doctrine to the contrary is heretical and ought to be treated as such. There are no standards outside of us, no metaphysical yardsticks against which to measure ourselves, because if there are then we are obligated to obey them. So the sooner we can rid ourselves of those ideas, the sooner we can live truly free. Thus spankings, as inflictions of these authoritative moral standards on our children’s bodies, ought to be outlawed.
And the world of modern childhood has taken shape along just those lines. In its safe, sanitary, and amoral cocoon, where everything is cartoons and garish colours, subjects like wickedness, folly, and hell are unwelcome and even violent intrusions. Those are subjects with all kinds of weight and sharp edges, exactly what children should be kept away from. After all, they just might cause our children to feel fear, guilt, and shame. They might provoke our children into reflecting the way the twelve-year-old Puritan Samuel Mather did in this letter to his father from 1638:
“Though I am thus well in my body, yet I question whether my soul doth prosper as my body doth; for I perceive, yet to this very day little growth in grace; and this makes me question, whether grace be in my heart or no… And in all this I could yet take some comfort, but that it makes me to wonder, what God’s secret decree concerning me may be; for I doubt whether ever God is wont to deny grace and mercy to his chosen (though uncalled) when they seek unto him, by prayer, for it; and therefore, seeing he doth thus deny it to me, I think that the reason of it is most like to be, because I belong not unto the election of grace” (Hollitz, Thinking Through the Past, Vol. I, p.27).
That is a more moving and delicate expression of spiritual frustration than most adults today could put into writing. Samuel Mather was a gifted boy from a gifted family, yet the current climate of child-rearing deprives even aspiring to this kind of mature reflection. For to get there, kids need an intimate familiarity with the condition of their own hearts, which means they have to know their own lurking evil. A childhood that is devoid of subjects like wickedness, folly, and hell is a dishonest childhood and a disservice to society at large.
Last December our neighbours hosted a neighbourhood meet-and-greet so we could get to know each other. Arenda was chatting with one man who has a son the same age as ours. He asked her, “So, what’s your son into? Like, Thomas the Train, Bubble Guppies, Sid the Science Kid, Dora…?”
“Well, he likes dragons and adventures; that sort of thing.”
“Oh, so like Mike the Knight!”
No. Not like Mike the Knight. The problem that Arenda and I have with pretty much the entire kids culture today is not only that there is a kids culture (I don’t think Paul fell asleep under a Phonzo the Phunky Pharisee duvet, or that John Calvin screamed when he got a Rufus Reformer and the Raging Iconoclasts set for Christmas), but that the culture is simply empty of moral instruction. Where is the equivalent of Aslan on today’s kids’ shows, or Smaug? Does Thomas the Train get abandoned in the woods by his selfish mother and weak-willed father? Does Dora have to escape from a witch who boils children? Does Mike the Knight ever ram his sword down the throat of “a dragon, grim and horrible”?
Traditional (that is, archaic) fairy tales have long performed the admirable duty of both delighting children and instructing them. But they unabashedly portray the world as it really is, as a place where good and evil are not only present, but are the truly consequential things. Fairy tales presuppose what contemporary kids’ books and TV shows do not, that children have moral imaginations; and they shape those imaginations so that when children mature into men and women they understand themselves as moral beings, and know how to exercise themselves as such.
The point of all this is that being archaic is all that’s really left for parents who want to raise godly children. Whether it’s spankings or fairy tales or some other relic of the old moral order, the more we cling to those the more we will stand out from the crowd. And if there is another thing that stinks up today’s world, it is the popular capitulation to groupthink. Whether you are looking at academia, the media, or the great fetid mass of children’s entertainment, people who don’t move with the crowd are quickly singled out and punished. So you have to be archaic, but you also have to be willing to get dumped on by the haters.
But let Scripture be your respite: “Discipline your son, and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul” (Proverbs 29:17).