Sin and spanking

I had a commenter on this post that asked about what the Catholic church teaches about discipline and what they have to say about spanking.

Here is the section of the catechism that directly addresses raising and disciplining children:

The duties of parents

2222 Parents must regard their children as children of God and respect them as human persons. Showing themselves obedient to the will of the Father in heaven, they educate their children to fulfill God’s law.


2223 Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the “material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.” Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them:


“He who loves his son will not spare the rod. . . . He who disciplines his son will profit by him.”

“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”

As I replied there, the Catholic church doesn’t seem to have any specific rules on how to discipline you children. And I know there are Catholic families that spank and that it used to be allowed in schools. However, I do think that the view of sin can change the way that you think about discipline, and I think that my delving into Catholic theology helped to re-shape the way I look at child-training.

Protestants and Catholics have different understandings of Original sin. Calvinists teach Total Depravity (from the synod of dordt) which means that humans are born in sin so great that they are incapable of doing good. Reason is clouded, so much so that the man has no free will and is in bondage to sin, which means that without the intervention of God (much like lighting zapping you) you will be unable to seek for God, or have any desire to serve Him. Original sin taught in this way, is almost “original damnation”.

And just in case you think that only the Calvinists have such an extreme view of the evil of humanity, you can see it in Luther’s writings on Original sin. While most Protestants would not formally endorse “Total Depravity”, through Luther, this intense view of original sin is a common thread throughout the Protestant tradition.

“It is also taught among us that since the fall of Adam all men who are born according to the course of nature are conceived and born in sin. That is, all men are full of evil lust and inclinations from their mothers’ wombs and are unable by nature to have true fear of God and true faith in God”
Augsburg Confession

That original sin (in human nature) is not only this entire absence of all good in spiritual, divine things, but that, instead of the lost image of God in man, it is at the same time also a deep, wicked, horrible, fathomless, inscrutable, and unspeakable corruption of the entire nature and all its powers, especially of the highest, principal powers of the soul in the understanding, heart, and will, so that now, since the Fall, man inherits an inborn wicked disposition and inward impurity of heart, evil lust and propensity; that we all by disposition and nature inherit from Adam such a heart, feeling, and thought as are, according to their highest powers and the light of reason, naturally inclined and disposed directly contrary to God and His chief commandments, yea, that they are enmity against God, especially as regards divine and spiritual things. For in other respects, as regards natural, external things which are subject to reason, man still has to a certain degree understanding, power, and ability, although very much weakened, all of which, however, has been so infected and contaminated by original sin that before God it is of no use.
Concord Catechism

How does your understanding of Original sin effect your view of the behavior of children? If you believe that humanity essentially has no desire or ability to seek after God, that those desires and behaviors are only available after God changes you (and regeneration is not connected to baptism) then it is easy to see your children as bad versions of yourself. Of course the sin “bound up in the heart of a child” will distort everything they do. Your children are out to sin and manipulate you as much as possible from birth. If you believe that your child is incapable of any good, and is only inclined to sin and perversion, how are you going to understand your child’s behavior? If you start to think that your baby is crying because they are selfish, and your toddler is messy because they have no self-control, then it’s easy to resonate with authors like Michael Pearl.

“To the child, a righteous parent is a surrogate god, representing the rule of law and the bar of justice. When the child is yet too young to fathom God, he is nonetheless able to relate to his parents in the same manner that he will later relate to God. The properly administered rod is restorative as nothing else can be. It is indispensable to the removal of guilt in your child. His very conscience (nature) demands punishment, and the rod supplies the needs of his soul, releasing him from his guilt and self-condemnation. It is the ultimate enforcer, preserving the child in authority and discipline until he is old enough to submit himself to The Eternal God.”
(You can read the rest of this here)

What is the child being punished for? “His very nature”. This may sound crazy to you. But when your entire understanding of humanity and sin has been shaped in this way it makes perfect sense. Good or even desire for good is impossible until regeneration by the Holy Spirit, and that is not possible until the child reaches the “age of reason”.

When I read the Catholic Catechism, I didn’t really notice anything different at first. But slowly it began to change the way I thought about my children.

405 Although it is proper to each individual, original sin does not have the character of a personal fault in any of Adam’s descendants. It is a deprivation of original holiness and justice, but human nature has not been totally corrupted: it is wounded in the natural powers proper to it, subject to ignorance, suffering and the dominion of death, and inclined to sin – an inclination to evil that is called concupiscence”. Baptism, by imparting the life of Christ’s grace, erases original sin and turns a man back towards God, but the consequences for nature, weakened and inclined to evil, persist in man and summon him to spiritual battle.


1704 The human person participates in the light and power of the divine Spirit. By his reason, he is capable of understanding the order of things established by the Creator. By free will, he is capable of directing himself toward his true good. He finds his perfection “in seeking and loving what is true and good.”

Here sin has changed the world and humanity, but human nature has not been totally corrupted. Man has free will, and is capable of seeking after God. God created humans good, and while we are flawed and crippled by sin, we still have the desire to do good, and the desire to seek after God.

The Catholic Parent should be seeking to discipline their children to cultivate the virtues, not punish them for the evil nature they already possess. For the Catholic, Original sin is about a lack of relationship with God which is changed by baptism. Humans have free will and because they live in a fallen world, they will choose sin, but they are equally capable of choosing good. For the Protestant, Original sin is a flaw to the core of the human being which cannot be corrected by baptism or anything else save the resurrection. You may still be saved by faith, but original sin (or your deeply flawed nature) is never truly resolved.

My perception of sin changed the way I disciplined my children.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10254315970336710941 CM

    Wow! This whole thing is absolutely fascinating. I've noticed other places where the difference in the Catholic/Protestant view affects how we think about things, but I never thought of this. Great post!

  • Anonymous

    Your posts have (again!) coincided with my own reexamination of the same topic. I am not fully convinced that either way is completely right or wrong yet, but have clearly seen that often in the many minute decisions we make while training toddlers in the ways of compassion, patience and selflessness we can only do so with huge doses of our own – which often takes more "creative" and time consuming parenting than the black and white "if/then" statements that some parenting techniques teach under the name of Consistency. I have see the most important constant in my home needs to be the virtues I am attempting to teach, so not so much WHAT to do to a particular offense but rather HOW to respond to it… which often includes lots of hugging, re-enacting or role playing of similar events to drive the point home. This is for 1, 2 and 3 yr olds of course so every age could be different. I am rambling what I believe you have largely expressed anyway but thanks for sharing. I did read many of the books you mentioned and my whole family has greatly benefited from re examining all of this!-Traci

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13240230832660127316 Michelle

    This is a wonderful post. As a Catholic mother to four, it is often a struggle to ensure discipline, while always respecting the dignity of children. I am finding it much harder to walk the line as my children get older. Actions have consequences and what I have been trying to do with my older daughters (for whom spanking would be a complete waste of time anyway) is take the time to show them how their actions provide consequences for their souls, for their relationships…and that those consequences don't necessarily come in the form of punishment anyway.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/06374573594800663980 Kacie

    It's not a Catholic/Protestant split, though – it's really a Calvinist/every other version of Christianity split. Any Protestant who isn't a Calvinist wouldn't believe in total depravity.

    Even someone who does believe in total depravity also believes that God draws His people to Himself. And thus, the good in children is God already prompting their hearts towards Him, and this should be nurtured and developed by parents.

    Interesting how it affects parenting, though. It drives me crazy that some people think that children ONLY deserve discipline and never grace.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Young Mom

    Yes, only Calvinists subscribe to what they call "Total Depravity". However, you will note that I cited Lutheran documents on original sin.
    Michael Pearl is a Free-Will Baptist, and maintains that Calvinists are incorrect, yet he teaches this mentality of Original sin.

    I feel that Protestants have a view of original sin that is darker and more all emcompassing than the Catholic Church(of course non-denominational Protestants and non-confessional Protestants can quibble because they don't have doctrinal statements that are exhaustive in the way historic Protestantism and Catholicism does.)

    And while my husband grew up calvinist, I did not, and I was still taught this mentality towards sin.

  • jennifer

    wow, what a great analysis. If you haven't already, check out Popcak's book "Parenting with Grace". They do a great job outlining fundamental differences of catholics and protestants when it comes to family life, and raising kids in particular! It's well-rooted in Scripture, Tradition and the experience of recognized saints who worked with children. I think its a fairly recent publication, last few years or so, and very unique as far as what's out there! As a life-long Catholic whose family and friends were heavily influenced by protestantism growing up, I found this absolutely enlightening, exciting and refreshing! you may really enjoy it to.

  • Anonymous

    Very interesting. We are new to lutheranism, but out understanding is that something does happen at baptism. they are given the Spirit which will eventually result in faith, but it all starts with something given to them in baptism totally outside of themself. this allows us to look at our children as part of the redeemed and our disciple-ing of them points them to what they are in Christ–they don't have to sin.
    this is hard for me because i grew up with the "they are little devils until they pray a prayer and that makes it all better for the rest of their life" mentality. i struggle with trying to remember that they are people/image bearers not things i have to mold and reign over.
    i'll stop the rambling now.
    Leigh Ann

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Young Mom

    It is a major mentality shift! And I still struggle with remembering. Nice to meet you Leigh Ann!

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/09461435143872441097 Jessie

    This is interesting. I'll jump in here (just to shake things up!) and say that I am a Calvinist, I do believe in Total Depravity, AND I practice gentle discipline. :-D

    The way I see it, my child and I are very alike — we both need Jesus desperately. God has been and continues to be gracious to me. Even though I'm totally depraved, He has mercy on me. My life is a continual striving toward being more like Jesus. It's not a "me vs them" situation with my daughter. We're in this together! We both need Jesus, and the best way I can help her is to model Jesus and godly behavior to her. How could I possibly treat her any more harshly than God has treated me??

    (Though to be fair, not many of my Calvinist friends see it this way.)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Young Mom

    Jessie- Very interestig, I agree with your thoughts on it! Thanks for jumping in with a different perspective. :)

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/11136609393330129614 Genevieve

    i know that I'm commenting late in the game, but the thing that really struck me about this Catechism paragraph 2223 was this statement: "By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them."

    This indicates a method of parenting that I would guess is very far different than the super-authoritative one that you grew up with. And the Church does give lee-way to parents to raise their children as they see best through discernment and prayer (a common theme with the Church: certain hard and fast guidelines, 2000 years of non-binding thought, and all of which provides the framework for the believer to have a personal relationship and discernment of action with his/her creator), so I know plenty of Catholic parents that were very authoritative. But my mother was not (maybe too much not in the end. shrug.). And one of the very most valuable things about how she parented us was that she acknowledged her failings and imperfections. She talked with us about things that she did wrong, and (with great humility, I now realize) allowed us to talk with her about things she was continuing to do wrong. She would apologize and try to change. We were allowed to see that she wasn't perfect – which I can't imagine and authoritative-type parent doing because it would lead to questioning his/her authority. I think it meant that, when my mom was being angry, tired, grumpy, we didn't have to internalize it. Her mistakes could be mistakes instead of assuming in my heart of heart that she MUST be right when she did something stupid that hurt us. I have plenty of issues with how my mom raised us, but this stands out as a huge plus. And as we got older, my mom would ask us to evaluate our own actions to see what was good and bad, and what we learned from our mistakes. My sister always says that was the worst part of the punishment, talking about it. My mom acknowledge she was just human and that taught me a lot.

    Now, with 2 kids under 4, I find myself losing my temper, or getting irritable, as every parent does. But when it happens, instead of trying to "maintain my authority," I stop, sometimes mid-sentence, mid-yell, and call a spade a spade. "I'm sorry, kiddo, that wasn't nice." "I'm sorry I yelled at you, I was angry. What should we do when we are angry?" I have even on occasion put myself in time out. And there is nothing like seeing me apologize and correct myself to drive the point home to my kids. It is humbling, but we aren't God. We are supposed to be humble.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/13674332089949439989 Young Mom

    I realize that Authoritative parenting exists in every religion, I think I was really drawn to exactly what you pointed out in the catechism. A Church document that advocated for respecting children as people! It was stunning to me when I first read it. I agree, apologizing to your children has incredible power. My Dad apologized to me for the first time in my life when I was 22, and it made a big difference for me.


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