Parenting Beyond Belief: Reason vs. the Rod 

Dale McGowan


Nothing focuses the mind like scrutiny. I can get pretty flabby in my thinking when I'm just bouncing ideas against the inside of my skull. The moment I have to explain myself publicly, I put my ideas on a quick and painful diet.

Since the release of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion, I've had to tone up my thoughts on parenting a bit. How can children be good without reference to a god, how can we explain death without heaven -- these questions are a snap.

More challenging are the essential questions. What is the essence of secular parenting? How is it fundamentally different from religious parenting? Those are the questions I love the most. They are instant liposuction for my head.

Secular parenting is not motivated primarily by disbelief in God. My religious doubts sprang from thinking for myself, not the other way around, so it's freethought, not atheism, that's down there at the root. When someone asks for the foundations of my parenting, I paraphrase the Bertrand Russell quote that begins my book: Good parenting is inspired by love and guided by knowledge . In other words, next to the love of my children, my parenting philosophy is motivated primarily by confidence in reason .

But I've wondered lately if my more practical parenting decisions aren't rooted just as solidly in my confidence in reason. On reflection, they are indeed.

Take one example: I don't spank my kids. This is interesting to me because religious fundamentalists spank in earnest, citing the biblical injunction "Spare the rod, spoil the child."

There's something doubly funny about the invocation of that scripture. Funny Thing #1 is that it isn't scripture. Funny Thing #2 is its actual source -- a bawdy poem by Samuel Butler intended to skewer the fundamentalists of his time, the English Puritans:

What med'cine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets styl'd;
Then spare the rod, and spoil the child
Samuel Butler, Hudibras, Part II (1664)

He's lampooning the Puritan obsession with sexual abstinence as the cure for passion, using "the rod" in this case as a wickedly funny double entendre, and making sly reference to an actual passage from Proverbs: He that spares his rod hates his son: but he that loves him disciplines him promptly (Proverbs 13:24).

I never tire of hearing sex-averse fundamentalists quoting from a bawdy satire that was aimed at them -- and invoking a penis in the bargain. It's almost as much fun as watching my homophobic aunts happily shouting along with the refrain to "YMCA" as if it's a song about recreation facilities. But as tempting as it is to refrain from spanking just because fundamentalists spank, I have a better reason. That's right: confidence in reason.

Let me here confess that I have spanked my kids. It was seldom and long ago, before I had my parental wings. I'm still ashamed to admit it. Every time it represented a failure in my own parenting. Most of all, it demonstrated a twofold failure in my confidence in reason.

Every time a parent raises a hand to a child, that parent is saying you cannot be reasoned with. In the process, the child learns that force is an acceptable substitute for reason, and that Mom and Dad have more confidence in the former than in the latter.

I try to correct behaviors by asking them to recognize and name the problem themselves. Replace "Don't pull the dog's ears" with "Why might pulling the dog's ears be a bad idea?" and you've required them to reason, not just to obey. Good practice.

The second failure is equally damning. Spanking doesn't work. In fact, it makes things worse. The research a.k.a. "systematic reason" -- is compelling. A meta-analysis of 88 corporal punishment studies compiled by Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff at Columbia University found that ten negative outcomes are strongly correlated with spanking, including a damaged parent-child relationship, increased antisocial and aggressive behaviors, and the increased likelihood that the spanked child will physically abuse her/his own children.

The study revealed just one positive correlation: immediate compliance. That's all. So if you need your kids to behave in the moment but don't care much about the rest of the moments in their lives -- hey, don't spare the rod!

Many people think a no-spanking policy is just plain soft on crime. And if spanking was the only way to achieve good behavior, I might just have to spank. I have very little tolerance for kids who are out of control, whether yours or mine. Just so you know. Fortunately, many other things get their attention equally well or better, without the nasty side effects. A discipline plan that is both inspired by love and guided by knowledge finds the most loving option that works. Spanking fails on both counts.

Instead, keep a mental list of your kids' favorite privileges -- staying up late, reading time before bed, X-box, freedom, dessert, whatever. If they really are privileges rather than rights -- don't withhold rights -- they can be made contingent on good behavior. Choose well, and the selective granting and withholding of privileges will work better than spanking. Given a choice between a quick spanking or early bedtime for a week -- heck, my kids would surely hand me the rod and clench. Too bad -- the quick fix is not an option.

The key to any discipline plan, of course, is follow-through. If kids learn that your threats are idle, all is lost.

I hope it's obvious that all this negative reinforcement should be peppered -- no, marinated, overwhelmed -- with loving, affirmative, positive reinforcements. Catch them doing well and being good frequently enough, and the need for consequences will plummet. It stands to reason.

In the long run, if our ultimate goal is creating autonomous adults, we should not raise children who are merely disciplined but children who are self-disciplined. So if your parenting, like mine, is proudly grounded in reason, skip the spankings. We all have an investment in a future less saddled by aggression, abuse, and all the other antisocial maladies to which spanking is known to contribute. Reason with them first and foremost. Provide positive reinforcement. And when all that fails -- and yes, it sometimes does -- dip into the rich assortment of effective non-corporal consequences. Withhold privileges when necessary. Give time-outs, a focused expression of disapproval too often underrated.

And don't forget the power of simply expressing your disappointment. Your approval means more to them than you may think.

Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion and a writer, editor and critical thinking educator/consultant living in Atlanta, Ga.


Brian Worley     October 17, 2009    All rights reserved

To Return to the Main Page