Misbehaving Children Need Punishment

There seems to be a lot of overlap between people who don’t believe in spanking, and people who don’t believe in sin. This is a long-standing theory of mine, but it was especially confirmed in recent weeks following the kerfuffle over NFL superstar Adrian Peterson’s severe spanking of his 4-year-old son.

To be clear, I don’t approve of Peterson’s actions. His punishment was clearly too harsh, especially for such a young child. And it’s important to note just in general that punishment can pose moral hazards for parents. Children are enormously aggravating at times, and young ones especially have no real sense of the emotional toll their behavior takes on parents. Nobody’s patience is endless, and parents can easily be tempted to use spanking as an outlet for their own frustration. That’s not a good lesson for kids.

It’s the backlash, however, that’s really telling. It’s interesting to see how willing some opponents are to argue that in fact, children don’t need to be punished, because they’re not really bad. Consider this argument from Dan Arel’s recent piece in Patheos:

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If my friend does something wrong, even terrible, it is illegal for me to hit them, it is assault and I can be jailed for it. Yet if my child eats a cookie when I tell them not to, I am legally permitted to hit them, or spank them as we call it because hitting sounds to violent. Yet there is no difference between hitting and spanking a child.

Arel subscribes to the usual arguments put forward by the anti-spanking camp. It instills fear rather than helping children to understand good behavior, and it encourages them to solve problems through violence. Studies supposedly show that kids who were spanked are more likely to become bullies and have other behavioral problems.

I guess we should use other punishments instead, right? But wait! It’s not just spanking that’s bad. Time-outs are cruel as well:

When children are overtaxed emotionally, they sometimes misbehave; their intense emotions and the demands of the situation trump their internal resources. The expression of a need or a big feeling therefore results in aggressive, disrespectful, or uncooperative behavior—which is simply proof that children haven’t built certain self-regulation skills yet. Misbehavior is often a cry for help calming down, and a bid for connection.

When the parental response is to isolate the child, an instinctual psychological need of the child goes unmet. In fact, brain imaging shows that the experience of relational pain—like that caused by rejection—looks very similar to the experience of physical pain in terms of brain activity.

How should we punish young children, then? Shall we tell our 3-year-olds that they’re grounded? Restrict their cell phone privileges? A friend of mine cleverly pointed out that, as Hell has a reputation for being quite lonely, it may be healthy for kids to associate isolation with sin. But according to Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, we should offer misbehaving children, not a “time-out” but rather a “time-in.” That is, we should shower them with love and attention to sooth their negative feelings.

I’m not a professional therapist, but if tantrums are rewarded with attention, I predict many more tantrums. In any case, it’s hard to take seriously any exploration of the topic that doesn’t recognize punishment as a necessary part of good parenting.

Why is it so hard to acknowledge that children (like adults!) can be bad? Shouldn’t this be obvious to anyone who’s ever met a child? In a world that doesn’t believe in sin, it becomes natural to psychologize all bad behavior, but especially the misbehavior of children. Modern liberals are scandalized by the idea that humans might be “born bad,” with some already-internal inclinations towards sin. If we give children appropriate love, care and stimulation, it shouldn’t ever be necessary to punish them. As the Siegel and Bryson article states, “Discipline is about teaching—not about punishment.”

In fact though, children do sometimes need, and even in a way “want,” to be punished. I remember vividly the first time I had this insight. My oldest child, then a toddler, spent the whole morning finding subtle ways to “push my buttons,” slyly violating several household rules with an obvious intention to offend. Seeing that he was in a sour mood, I thought I was responding in a loving way when I ignored his minor infractions and patiently encouraged him to play nicely. It didn’t work. He just kept getting surlier.

Suddenly it occurred to me in a blinding flash that my willingness to ignore the rules was actually feeding his bad mood. It made him feel insecure. I was acting like a sympathetic friend when what he was craving authority. So, following the next minor act of disobedience, I gave him a stern rebuke and a “time-out.” He howled and protested for about two minutes. Then he returned smilingly to his play with his entire mood transformed. Everything was fine. The moral structure of the universe was restored.

For children, as for adults, it’s actually reassuring to know that there are rules and boundaries in the world, and that trespassing those boundaries has consequences. At the same time, kids crave reassurance that they’ll always be loved even when they’re bad. By administering the expected punishment and then moving on with the day, parents can send the message, “I’ll always love you, so much in fact that I want to help you be good.”

It shouldn’t be hard for Catholic parents to understand this. Punishment gives kids a comfort somewhat akin to what we feel when we go to confession. By regularly receiving the sacrament of reconciliation, we come to understand that in fact, we don’t want to be excused for our misdeeds. Rather, we want to be forgiven. By taking seriously our real defects, forgiveness reminds us that we’re capable of doing better, that God wants us to do better, and that the Church is willing to help. Young children aren’t yet able to receive this sacrament, but parents can give them a bit of that same reassurance, by setting age-appropriate rules and administering appropriate punishments.

Can spanking ever be an appropriate punishment? I think it can, and I think Ramesh Ponnuru’s recent piece on this subject nicely summarizes the important points.

As he observes, it’s important to distinguish between different methods of spanking. Kids can be traumatized if they are spanked to hard or too often, but if spanking is used more judiciously, it can be an appropriate and effective punishment. It’s brief and immediate, which means that young children easily associate the punishment with the misbehavior. But, because it’s over quickly, it’s easy to follow the spanking with an expression of love and forgiveness, and then a resumption of the normal daily routine.

Whether or not spanking is used as a punishment, however, this much should be clear. Children, like adults, are tempted by sin. They crave moral guidance long before they are ready to make their first confession. Loving parents should of course instruct them in the good. But they should also, when appropriate, be prepared to administer punishment.

Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from “Spanking” painted by Norman Rockwell in 1936 depicting Mark Twain’s fictional character Tom Sawyer.


  • Rachel Lu

    Rachel Lu, a Catholic convert, teaches philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota where she lives with her husband and four boys. Dr. Lu earned her Ph.D. in philosophy at Cornell University. Follow her on Twitter at rclu.

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