Can We Have a Grown Up Conversation About Spanking?

spanking flow chart

I lost some friends this past week. They weren’t real friends, just the Facebook variety. I ended up blocking them after a debate over spanking spiraled out of control. Lines were crossed, and acquaintances were ended.

The conversation started when someone posted the above flowchart. As you can see, it guides parents through the decision to spank their children. If your children are old enough to understand reason, the chart directs you to simply reason with them. If your children are not old enough to understand reason, the chart claims that spanking won’t help.

There are a handful of problems with that rationale, most stemming from the ludicrous unspoken assumption that “using reason” reliably gets children (or anyone) to behave properly. I responded with a simple question. If a child is either incapable of reason or unresponsive to it, do they get to run roughshod over their parents?

I never got an answer. Instead, I was attacked by a lurking herd of demagogues, each anxious to assert their moral superiority by condemning corporal punishment. The attacks came in two broad categories. First, any type or amount of spanking was conflated with child abuse. This precludes any debate. If any type or amount of spanking is child abuse, then that’s that. There’s nothing else to say on the matter. It’s fine if you believe that. But if you’re going to invite debate on the question of spanking, then you can’t use your conclusion as the premise. The whole debate occurs around whether spanking is child abuse. Simply stating that it is does not demonstrate that it is.

The second broad category of attack, and the reason I found myself quickly blocking several of my “friends” on Facebook, was a moral equivalence drawn between spanking children and spousal abuse. “Do you hit your wife when she disagrees with you?”

Such a question in the context of a spanking debate demonstrates the futility of further association. Children are not adults. Parental relationships are not non-parental relationships. Someone who needs that explained to them isn’t the kind of person I want to know socially.

Be that as it may, for the sake of argument, let’s pretend for a moment that the parental relationship requires explanation. The capacity to apply reason and knowledge to the production of life-fulfilling values distinguishes adults from children. Left to their own devices, children may be able to forage for a short time, but lack the foresight and experience to reliably make sustainable decisions. That is why they need adult custodians, parental figures who take responsibility for them.

As the custodian of a child, you sit in the driver’s seat of their life. You think on their behalf, make decisions on their behalf, and pursue their long-term happiness by substituting your judgment for theirs. Put another way, you have authority over them. You get to tell them what to do. Importantly, this authority does not exist to serve you, but to serve them. Your goal as a parent is to bring your children up in such a way that they develop the capacity to act rationally and sustain themselves.

This is not the same kind of relationship you have with your spouse. It’s not the same kind of relationship you have with other people’s children. It’s not the same kind of relationship you have with any other human being. It is the parental relationship, and it is unique.

Next: Why loving parents spank…

If we can agree on that much, then we might debate whether and under what circumstances some amount of spanking proves appropriate. But we can only have that debate if we set aside the premise that all spanking is child abuse. It shouldn’t be hard to set that premise aside, as it proves ridiculous on its face. Historically, the vast majority of everyone has been spanked, yet we don’t generally regard parents as abusive. Child abuse exists. Spanking can become abusive. But parents do not generally abuse their children.  As a general rule, parents love their children and act with their children’s best interest at heart. Yet many parents have and continue to spank. Child abuse is the exception, not the rule. Conflating the two is disingenuous.

Why would a parent who loves their child spank that child? How could spanking ever be in a child’s best interest? Put simply, spanking asserts authority. Parental authority proves essential to a child’s upbringing. If a parent must act as their child’s custodian, thinking for them and making decisions for them, then those thoughts and decisions must be acted upon for the relationship to function. If the child does not do as they are told, authority has been breached, and the child operates beyond rational guidance. That is not healthy for the child. It is not in their best interest. Parental authority must be asserted and maintained.

Spanking asserts authority when all else fails. My ex-friends demagogued spanking by presenting a false dichotomy between reasoning with children or spanking them. But spanking has never been something that parents do in place of reasoning. It’s one tool in the box, a way to focus attention and provide consequence for severe or chronic disobedience. It’s not the first thing you go to. It’s not the only thing you go to. It’s a piece of the disciplinary puzzle. Most parents who spank will tell you that they do so rarely, mostly because they did so early.

I was not surprised to find that each of the people I blocked over this debate were professed anarchists. Indeed, the flaw chart which started the debate originated from an anarchist page. When you pause to think about it, that makes perfect sense. If you reject authority as such, then you must reject parental authority. If you reject parental authority, then you must reject any assertion of that authority, which spanking is.


Anarchistic theory operates in a utopian thought laboratory where everyone acts benevolently if simply left alone. We don’t need police, the anarchist says, because people can settle their own disputes with reason. We don’t need courts or a military either, under the same rationale. The plain truth that not everyone utilizes or responds to reason, or even that two reasonable people may have an honest disagreement requiring objective arbitration, is simply ignored by the anarchist. The “non-aggression principle” will somehow protect the weak from brutes who don’t know or care about it. Such lunacy applied to parenting gives us the anti-spanking crusade.

My anarchist acquaintances claim that “there is no evidence that spanking is helpful.” Sure, if you’re an anarchist who doesn’t believe in authority, then an assertion of authority isn’t going to help you. But I’m not an anarchist. I uphold the value of rightful authority, and parental authority in particular. Asserting that authority in the lives of my children proves vital to my pursuit of their long-term happiness. I am not their friend. They are not my pets, fed and groomed idly. They are my sons. I am their father. It’s my job to make sure they walk a straight line. In the long run, they will develop their capacity for reason and won’t need me anymore. Until then, I’m in charge whether they agree with my reasoning or not.