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Scripture, Spanking and the State
Advocates for and against spanking agree on very little, except, perhaps, that the debate is far from over.

"Kids don't like being spanked," says six-year-old Erik. That seems to be the only thing people with strong feelings about corporal punishment can agree on. These days, spanking has been on the minds of more than just kids trying to avoid it.

" … most Canadians know the difference between spanking and abuse."

Since the forced removal of seven children from a Christian home in Alymer, Ontario during the summer of 2001, under allegations of child abuse by parents relying on Scripture and corporal punishment with a rod to discipline their children, the spanking debate has re-ignited.

A legal attempt by the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law (CFCYL) to abolish Section 43, the so-called spanking law, stalled in January. In its ruling the Ontario Court of Appeal upheld corporal punishment as a legitimate means of discipline. Section 43 of the Canadian Criminal Code allows parents and teachers to use "force by way of correction toward a pupil or child … if the force does not exceed what is reasonable in the circumstances."

According to a poll conducted shortly after the Court of Appeal ruling, more than 50 percent of respondents said they used corporal punishment as a discipline technique with their children. Approximately 70 percent were opposed to having the government strike down Section 43, making spanking illegal in Canada.

Spanking versus abuse

"It is a case of my study versus your study," says Derek Rogusky, director of research for Focus on the Family Canada. "I think spanking is one of many tools for a parent to use. No one takes pleasure from spanking their children, and most Canadians know the difference between spanking and abuse." (The Canadian Paediatric Society defines disciplinary spanking as physically non-injurious, one or two mild to moderate smacks administered with an open hand to the buttocks.)

Rogusky argues the difference between mild corporal punishment and child abuse is key to interpreting the studies that show spanking has negative effects on children. He says many studies lump abuse and disciplinary spanking together.

"However, the studies done that differentiate between abuse and spanking show kids who are occasionally spanked, in a loving and caring environment with other forms of discipline also used, are very well adjusted," he says.

Not so, says Joan Durrant, a child clinical psychologist and head of family studies at the University of Manitoba.

Durrant filed papers in support of abolishing Section 43 and criminalizing spanking in Canada. She told Christian Week she was shocked when the Court upheld a parent's right to spank.

"I find it very hard to comprehend that there is a consensus that spanking is harmful to children and then we condone it," she says.

Durrant argues that study after study shows a strong link between physical punishment and "negative outcomes" for children, including increased aggressive behaviour, decreased quality of parent-child relationships and increased mental health problems for children, such as depression and eating disorders.

"In the case of corporal punishment, and other things that hurt children, you obviously cannot do experimental studies on them. You look at the best studies out there and you see how the research falls," explains Durrant. "Physical punishment is shown again and again to be a risk factor for physical abuse. There is a higher risk for injuring children."

Know the difference

Rogusky counters that parents who spank know the difference, and are not looking to hurt their children. "There should be clear boundaries with spanking. If a child has upset you until you are angry, it is not the time to spank," he says.

"Parents are in the best position to decide what is best for their children. It is not for the state to decide. There are other ways to solve abuse problems. If we are focussing our resources on parents who spank, then real abuse may go undetected," warns Rogusky. "We are dragging kids out of families they want to be a part of."

Few Canadians were comfortable with the images from Alymer, Ontario of children being dragged from the home of what appeared to be loving and well meaning Christian parents.

But not all Christians, even those who believe spanking is acceptable, are comfortable using Scripture to justify a specific method of discipline, as the congregation in Alymer does. Henry Hildebrandt, pastor of the Alymer Church of God where the family attends, explains: "The Bible clearly teaches physical discipline, not just condoning it but commanding it. The reason behind it is this: Parents are saving their children's souls from hell by disciplining them the Bible way."

According to Hildebrandt, the Bible way of discipline is found primarily in Proverbs 23:14, 19:18 and 13:24. These verses instruct parents to discipline their children using a rod of correction. Members of the Alymer Church of God believe it is wrong for a parent to use their hand directly for physical correction of a misbehaving child. Some other instrument must be used.

"I don't understand how following the teachings of Jesus Christ leads someone to hit a child with a stick," says Joan Durrant.

"The hand is to be understood by a child as comfort, guidance, strength and love," says Hildebrandt. "The hand is also too ready to be used. When needed, physical discipline should always be applied in a careful and loving way."

Care must also be taken when applying Bible verses to parenting. Says Rogusky: "Some Christians build up a theology over one verse. That is not the intent of Proverbs. We are commanded as parents to discipline and correct. The big picture is one of love."

Big picture view

Rebecca Idestrom, Professor of Old Testament Studies at Tyndale College and Seminary in Toronto, stresses that this larger picture must be viewed when interpreting the rod passages in Proverbs. "I don't see those verses command corporal punishment; I think they command correction and discipline leading people to wisdom. It is not the 'how' of discipline, it is the 'why', to lead people in the way of wisdom," she explains.

But, says Joan Durrant, "I don't understand how following the teachings of Jesus Christ leads someone to hit a child with a stick."

Cheryl Milne, a lawyer for the CFCYL agrees. She told Christian Week, "I think the religion thing is smoke and mirrors. Spanking is culturally ingrained. It is how we oppress weaker parts of society." Milne is ready to continue the fight to have physical punishment outlawed. Her group is seeking leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Groups like Focus on the Family are on high alert. "They really want to stop physical punishment outright. If we are involved in our children's lives, we will know what works for them and what doesn't," says Rogusky. "Most Christian parents are trying to do that. Who are these groups to get involved in the relationships of a loving family?"

In its position paper on corporal discipline, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada also warns of an "unwanted intrusion into family life by the state," if Section 43 is repealed.

Durrant rejects such language as " … inflammatory and over-dramatic. People like me who argue for a change in the law are parents themselves. This is about giving kids the same protection adults have."

The controversy over spanking, Scripture and the state will continue in Canada. Advocates for and against spanking agree on very little. Except, perhaps, that the debate is far from over.

Karen Stiller is a freelance journalist and associate editor of Faith Today magazine. She can be reached at

Originally published in Christian Week, April 2,




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