Spanking, Fear, and Privileging Obedience

This is part of a series in which I am re-posting a number of posts I’ve written in the past on issues involving parenting and Michael and Debi Pearl. I think these posts may be of interest to new readers, and if you’re a reader who has been around with me since the beginning, they may be worth a re-read. This post was originally published here.   

Growing up on Michael Pearl’s discipline teachings, James Dobson always seemed mild in comparison. My impression was always that Pearl was about absolute immediate obedience while Dobson tempered his advice to spank with an emphasis on understanding child psychology. I just came upon a quote from one of Dobson’s books that is making me rethink that – and has emphasized to me once more that the whole point of spanking a child is to make him or her afraid of disobeying.

“The day I learned the importance of staying out of reach shines like a neon light in my mind. I made the costly mistake of sassing her when I was about four feet away. I knew I had crossed the line and wondered what she would do about it. It didn’t take long to find out. Mom wheeled around to grab something with which to express her displeasure, and her hand landed on a girdle.

“Those were the days when a girdle was lined with rivets and mysterious panels. She drew back and swung the abominable garment in my direction, and I can still hear it whistling through the air. The intended blow caught me across the chest, followed by a multitude of straps and buckles, wrapping themselves around my midsection. She gave me an entire thrashing with one blow! But from that day forward, I measured my words carefully when addressing my mother. I never spoke disrespectfully to her again, even when she was seventy-five years old.”

Dobson prefaces this anecdote by stating that his mother had “an unusually keen understanding of good disciplinary procedures” and follows it up by endorsing the beating his mother gave him, explaining that it was “an act of love.” Dobson explains in this anecdote that after his mother beat him with his girdle, he never spoke disrespectfully of his mother again. Why? He doesn’t say explicitly, but the answer seems clear. He knew that if he disrespected his mother, she would give him a beating.

Here is what I seriously, seriously don’t understand. What parent wants their child to obey them out of fear? What parent wants their child to do what is right out of fear? And yet, this is what Michael Pearl and James Dobson endorse! I wonder if there is any correlation to their conservative theology. If God demands absolute obedience from his children, and punishes those who step out of line, why not demand the same of your children? Perhaps they feel that demanding absolute obedience will help prepare their children for absolute obedience to God.

But even if that is the case, here is what I also don’t understand. How is a child supposed to go from doing what is right for fear of being hit to, as an adult, choosing voluntarily to do what is right? I mean, if children grow up doing the right thing because they’re afraid of being punished if they don’t, what happens when they grow up and the restraints are off? It strikes me that Pearl and Dobson don’t look at the long term of helping children become mature, independent adults; instead, they look at the short term and focus on having kids who jump when you say jump.

And I’m not the only one who has noticed this. Here is a quote I just found in a book about child rearing in different religious traditions in America:

Conservative Protestant parents are more likely are more apt to value children’s obedience to parental authority, whereas their non-Evangelical counterparts tend to value youngsters’ autonomy and self-direction.

You couldn’t hit the nail on the head more directly. And when you put it in that light, I simply fail to see any real difference between the methods advocated by Michael Pearl and James Dobson. They both amount to the same thing.

I Stand with Alecia Pennington
Grown Children and Estranged Parents
What the Ruff, the Spotted Hyena, and the Cuttlefish Taught Me about Gender and Sexuality
HSLDA on those “Radically Atheistic” Public Schools
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Lyra

    The thing that I wonder is how these people think that “Kids will do what’s right to avoid getting hit” will not translate into “Kids will do what’s wrong to avoid getting hit.”

    It isn’t only a matter of wondering how kids will grow out of being someone who does what is right out of fear of pain growing into being someone who do what is right without fear of pain; it’s also about wondering how kids are supposed go from being a person whose actions are dictated by fear of pain to a person whose actions aren’t dictated by pain.

    People like the Pearls expect children to do whatever their parents expect out of fear of pain, but they also expect that these fearful children will somehow grow up and turn into adults who are willing to suffer any amount of pain in the name of Christ. But it doesn’t make any sense to say, “What I say is right because I have the power to hurt you, but what THEY say isn’t right even if they have the power to hurt you.” It’s mind numbingly stupid.

    • Sastra

      I suspect the Pearls would never advocate violence towards one’s children if the parents weren’t also supposed to teach the children that “no matter how much I or anyone else can hurt you — God can always hurt you more. And He will, guaranteed … unless.”

      Without that, it won’t work.

  • Sastra

    The whole idea that obedience through fear counts as ‘obedience’ seems to suggest a basic philosophy of ‘the ends justifies the means.’ As long as the result is right, then the method must have been correct. You’re in the mindset of a storyteller who knows the story. You can work backwards.

    I think religious thinking is similar to that. You become the Mind of God.

    Here’s what I mean. In “Jack and the Beanstalk,” Jack trades his mother’s only asset — a cow — for some “magic beans.” He trusts the word of a stranger. Even his mother thinks him a fool. But lo and behold, the beans really are magic — and Jack makes his fortune.

    Ask a room full of children “did Jack do the right thing, to trade that cow?” The answer of course is “Yes!” It turned out right. But you can put that same question to adults — and tell them to consider it seriously — and then the answer is fuzzier. IF Jack were a real person … and this were a real situation … then no, Jack did not do the right thing. It was an unjustifiable risk, assuming the facts of ordinary life and what we know about con artists. He made the correct choice given that we know the ending, sure. But Jack didn’t know the ending. Nor can WE take that ending into account when we decide whether the method was right.

    Children won’t get this. It takes some maturity.

    The followers of Pearl ask the question of whether or not it is right to obey God through fear as if they were children thinking about a story. We KNOW it is God. We KNOW what God wants. We KNOW obedience is good. We KNOW how it all turns out. Therefore, the answer is “yes.”

    There is no wrong way to obey God. There is no wrong way to teach children how to obey God. If God wants children to obey their parents, then there is no wrong way to get them to do that. If we are sure of the ends and certain of the result, then any means is justified and every reason works. The Pearls understand the formula, and pass it on knowing that it will be implicitly understood, too. Everyone accepts the story, the supernatural narrative used to interpret how we live in the natural world.

    So when the question has to do with matters of faith and faith must be strong, then you can be as sure of what you know, as you are sure of God. And you can be as sure of God, as God is infallible. It makes sense, within that framework.

    Given all this, it seems to me not unreasonable to think that a habit of “obedience through fear” is a habit of obedience, and counts well enough. Go through the motions and learn what you live. Love will presumably follow, in a sort of theological version of Stockholm Syndrome, I guess.

  • Contrarian

    Corporal punishment was much more widespread a generation ago. I wonder if there is a correlation between harsher corporal punishment and conversion to conservative theology, beyond the correlation between conservative theology and harsher, authoritarian parenting.

    • Contrarian

      * if experiencing harsher corporal punishment as a child ceteris paribus increases the likelihood of converting to conservative theology as an adult.

  • Judy L.

    Here is what I seriously, seriously don’t understand. What parent wants their child to obey them out of fear?

    Hmmmm…I wonder where bible-believing parents would get the idea that obedience as the result of fear is a good thing?

    Oh hey, it’s right here in Genesis 22!

    And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood.
    And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
    And the angel of the LORD called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I.
    And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son, from me.
    And Abraham lifted up his eyes, and looked, and behold behind him a ram caught in a thicket by his horns: and Abraham went and took the ram, and offered him up for a burnt offering in the stead of his son.
    And Abraham called the name of that place Jehovah–ji’reh: as it is said to this day, In the mount of the LORD it shall be seen.
    And the angel of the LORD called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time,
    and said, By myself have I sworn, saith the LORD, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son,
    that in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the seashore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies;
    and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice.

    • gwen

      ….and yet it is STILL (see, I can use caps too), a bronze age fairy tale..

      • Judy L.

        And a nasty fairy-tale told by ancient desert-dwellers. I can not think of a single act more morally reprehensible than a parent not protecting their child. Abraham’s response should have been: ‘Seriously? You want me to kill my son? What kind of sick fuck are you, God? You want my son dead? You’re going to have to go through me first.’

  • Anat

    But even if that is the case, here is what I also don’t understand. How is a child supposed to go from doing what is right for fear of being hit to, as an adult, choosing voluntarily to do what is right?

    Zie isn’t supposed to. As Children become adults they transfer their fear from their parents’ violence to God’s. I suppose the point of this style of upbringing is to impress on the child that though they may not experience God’s violence immediately it always awaits them – after death if not sooner. So they should get used to obeying out of fear, and keep doing so throughout their lives.

    And this is why conservative Christians believe atheists must be depraved immoral people – without the fear of hell why would they act morally? They don’t understand any other kind of moral reasoning.

  • Ned Champlain

    I was conversing with a Jewish Doctor about the phrase “spare the rod, spoil the child. Heinformed that the word they use in Hebrew is not rod it staff. A staff is used for guidance not punishment. Lack of guidance spoils the child, not lack of beating them.
    The commandment of “honor thy mother and thy father” is a terrible commandment, the parents should be honoring their children, guiding them to the best of their ability, and nuturing them,

  • sonjaphillips

    My girls are 17 and 13. I have spanked my daughters but its been at least 10 and 6 years respectively for the last time for each. It was never a lesson of fear we were teaching it was a consequence for repeated failure to follow rules. The only time that either were spanked and that fear was the desired result was from one of their grandfathers – and they’ve never stayed with that set of grandparents again.

    I honestly don’t have a problem with the occasional open hand swat to the butt as a consequence. But there few occasions when that’s appropriate.

    We are a huge proponent of teaching natural consequences. Teaching the girls to see the full outcome of their actions or lack there of, is hard! But it pays off in watching them transform into young adults with solid senses of how to make good decisions on their own. I love hearing them talk to friends and walk them thru their problems and how to improve things.

    I am sooo glad that we are not bringing up the girls “in the church”-they are caring, loving young ladies who will enrich the world with their own moral sense and not needing to be afraid of anyone – Sky Wizards or otherwise.

    Something tells me

    • sonjaphillips

      Sorry about that ending sentence fragment…ignore it.

  • scotlyn

    I also wonder why parents who wish their children to be uncritically obedient never consider the possibility that they themselves might be wrong! If I ask my child to come to me and they can see the curled up snake between us that is invisible to me, I don’t want them having a moral dilemma. I want to have already taught them that my authoritative advice is only one fact out of the many they will have to learn to weigh up for themselves when deciding things. This, on a continuum, where, when they are small my authoritative advice will be, proportionately a pretty large fact, while, when they are grown, a proportionately much smaller fact. And this with my constant striving to make my authoritative advice as sound and well reasoned as possible. If that makes sense. And with the recognition that while whatever authority I have does derive from greater experience, there is lots I don’t know, and I am quite fallible.

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