The Bible says a great deal about the bringing up of children. On the matter of physical punishment its stance is clear from several proverbs (13:24, 22:15, 23:13, 14, 29:15). He who spares the rod hates his son; the rod of discipline drives out folly; punishment with the rod imparts wisdom and preserves both physical and spiritual life. Now there is a breadth of understanding among Christians as to how discipline works out in practice. Among our members we have both a theonomist and a pacifist and so I am well aware of that. Nevertheless if the civil government has the intention of enacting laws that are going to hinder Christians in following biblical precepts then all will be concerned, especially those who are parents with children.
Corporal punishment has already been banned in all schools, nurseries and children’s homes. Now (2000) the civil government have produced a 25 page consultation document on the matter of physical punishment of children in the home called Protecting children, supporting parents. It has only to do with England, but similar documents will no doubt be produced in connection with legislation in the other home countries.
The document presents itself as a reasoned and unbiased approach to the subject but we should not be taken in by its apparently neutral stance. It begins by saying that as the law presently stands a parent challenged over corporal punishment and taken to court can raise a defence of ‘reasonable chastisement’. This idea, according to the document, ‘has its origins in Victorian times’. Why this phrase is used is unclear unless to undermine the idea as out of date. The European Court of Human Rights is unhappy, it appears, not with the concept but its application and so the United Kingdom is obliged to alter its laws in this area. Hence the document.
The paper goes on to assert that the government does not think it right to make smacking or similar punishments unlawful. They distinguish, in a way that many do not, between beating children and ‘mild physical rebuke’. It promises that the government is seeking to support the institution of marriage and does not want to introduce heavy handed interference in families. All this sounds encouraging. However, the paper also talks of a new National Family and Parent Institute and a new telephone helpline for parents. This prospect is much less re-assuring. It is made quite clear that the aim of such institutions will be to aid and abet parents in finding means of punishment other than those that involve physical punishment. In other words this is a government that is not against ‘mild physical rebuke’ and yet will be ploughing precious resources into encouraging parents not to use this biblically sanctioned method of punishment.
One of the government’s problems is that, as the paper reveals, a poll revealed that 88% of us are in favour of smacking. Therefore, it is not easy to bring in a law banning it. The plan appears to be, therefore, to chip away at public opinion until it changes. All that is necessary in light of the decision of the European Court is to prevent ‘inhuman and degrading treatment’ from being defended as ‘reasonable chastisement’. However, the government is taking the opportunity to consult widely on further issues with a view to introducing new law in these areas.
They appear to be asking four questions in particular.
1. Apart from what is set out in the document, what factors should the law require a court to consider when determining whether physical punishment of a child constitutes ‘reasonable chastisement’?
2. Are there any forms of physical punishment that should never be capable of being defended as reasonable. Specifically, should the law say there is no reasonable defence for
- Physical punishment that causes, or is likely to cause, injuries to the head.
- Physical punishment using implements (eg canes, slippers, belts).
3. Should the defence of reasonable chastisement not be open to those charged with the more serious crime of causing actual bodily harm or worse?
4. Should those able to plead ‘reasonable chastisement’ be, as now, both parents and those acting on their behalf or should it be limited to either
- Parents only.
- Parents and those acing on their behalf where express permission has been given for physical punishment.
The most disturbing element here is the idea that use of an implement should be outlawed. The Bible specifically refers to use of the rod and so any attempt to outlaw its use is against the Bible and against Christianity. Further, it is a fact that without due care more damage can be done with the hand as its force is spread across the fingers of one hand and can easily jolt the poor child’s whole body. With an implement the blow is concentrated in one narrow area. It can be more painful but it is less likely to do permanent damage.
Though for many it is a not an issue removing the automatic right to physical punishment from those who are in loco parentis is unwelcome to some. The idea of limiting all physical punishment to parents only is even more unwelcome.
One is loathe to make a great fuss in an area like this. It is not that Christians want to beat their children. This is something that affects us all, as a generation grows up without firm and loving discipline at home. As much as some people in this country detest the rod, they are metaphorically making one for their own backs by neglecting children in this way. Other forms of punishment simply do not work and are often psychologically damaging. The short sharp shock is not a panacea for all ills but children who are denied it are certainly being deprived. It is a pity that this government seems unaware of the dangers they are courting as they show their willingness, once again, to completely disregard biblical teaching.
If anyone wants to see the document referred to and respond to the questions put (before April 2000), it can be obtained from the Health Department or accessed at:
Responses need to be in written form and sent by ordinary post.
This article first appeared in Grace Magazine
In 2004 the Children's Act was passed. It updated the legislation on physical punishment (section 58) by limiting the use of the defence of reasonable punishment so that it can no longer be used when people are charged with the offences against a child of wounding, actual or grievous bodily harm or cruelty. Therefore any injury sustained by a child which is serious enough to warrant a charge of assault occasioning actual bodily harm cannot be considered to be as the result of reasonable punishment. It does not appear to have caused problems for Christians.