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Is Physical Discipline of a Child Assault?

“David, would you like to come on Good Morning Scotland, to discuss John Finnies bill on banning smacking”

It was something I did not really want to do – for many reasons, not least it is hard to discuss when the question is usually set up as ‘why do you want children to be assaulted?”. But my golden rule as regards these kind of things is ‘if in doubt, pray and do it”! So yesterday morning I found myself in the Dundee BBC studio, debating with John Finnie.

And then the world went crazy – phone calls, messages, interviews with other media outlets. It seems as though this was a story that the world wanted to cover. What I thought was a largely irrelevant and meaningless story seems to have far more importance in the eyes of the media. (An example of this can be found Here on the BBC)

One of the reasons I did not want to be involved with this was the difficulty of overcoming the narrative of the nice, kind, intelligent ‘modern’ professionals who want to protect children, as compared with the backward, dumb, religious child abusers. That narrative is never far away with the language used being particularly emotive – who wants to be cast as the villan defending child abuse? But there are other issues at stake here and the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I did not have to buy into, or defend, the ‘whack ’em and smack ’em’ brigade, but rather take the opportunity to look at the wider issues and the greater threats facing our children today.

“Scotland cannot be thought of as the best place for children to grow up while our law gives children less protection from assault than anybody else in society”

John Finnie and the Greens, supported by children’s charities such as Children First, Barnardos; the Church of Scotland, the police and various community lobbying groups, are proposing that it be illegal to physically punish a child, in any way. They believe that children should have exactly the same rights as adults, and as you are not allowed to hit an adult, so you should not be allowed to hit a child. Philosophically they think that if someone experiences violence they themselves are far more likely to be violent, and if we all want to live together in peace and harmony then we just need to avoid all forms of violence (apart from portrayals on TV, film and in other media!). So what is wrong with this and how can I justify being opposed to this?

Prov. 13:24 Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them.

Before I give my reasons let me point out one that I am not using. I am not trying to defend smacking children on the grounds that the Bible commands us to hit children – I don’t think it does and the oft quoted ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ is about the need for discipline, not a prescription for a particular type of discipline.  There are parents who are able ,because of their circumstances, gifts, personalities and children, to discipline their children without physical chastisement.  But there are others who need to use ‘reasonable physical chastisement’  and for whom it is a far more effective and loving way of discipling than all the other psychological, emotional and cultural forms.  I am also aware that people can and do misuse and abuse children, even, God forbid, using religion as an excuse.  I was once given a book on child discipline which had as one of its chapters a great debate on whether one should ‘paddle’ a toddler through their ‘diaper’ or take it off first!  That was both dumb and cruel.  The answer to the question that is the title of this blog – is ‘Yes – it can be…but it isn’t always or even mainly so”.   There is a particular warning here for those of us who follow Christ – he warns that there is punishment in hell for those who dare to abuse any of these little ones made in his image.

Having got that caveat out-of-the-way – here are my reasons – (which by the way Mr Finnie did not answer).

1. This bill is completely unnecessary – it is already illegal in Scotland to hit a child with an implement, to hit them on the head, to shake them or to leave any kind of bruise.

2. It will criminalise good parents. The proponents of the bill say that it is not about criminalising but ‘helping’.  But if you want to ‘help’ you don’t make criminal laws in order to do so. Ironically those who are complaining that the abuse of power makes people abusive, are themselves proposing to use the power of the State to enforce their philosophy!   If it is made an offence to ever hit your child then a mother who smacks wee Johnny’s hand as he sticks it in the electric socket, will be guilty of criminal assault. The notion that my parents, or indeed myself were criminals is absurd.

3. It won’t prevent one bit of abuse. It will not protect one child.  Those who are liable to real abuse will continue to do so.  Those who lose their tempers will not suddenly stop as they are about to hit their child and think ‘oh no….I’d better not do that because its against the law’!   The fact is that there are already laws against abuse, and yet many, many children are abused.

4. It is completely unworkable. Are we going to have CCTV in every room in a home?  This just becomes a charter for busybodies and another thing for parents to worry about.

5.  It is illogical and irrational to claim that children should have exactly the same legal rights as adults.   It sounds good.  But then so do most utopian delusions.   Meanwhile back in the real world….  Does this mean that all punishment of children should be banned? Or are they saying that adults should be treated like children? Should an adult be sent to their room? put in the ‘naughty corner’? grounded? have their phone confiscated? To treat people like this would be illegal. Are the Greens and their ‘progressive allies’ really saying that children should have exactly the same rights as adults, and do they realise the implications of this?

6. There is plenty evidence that a mild tap on the hand is far better than a parent shouting abuse – and yet only the former will be criminalised. If the proponents of this bill are serious about protecting the child – what do they think will be worse – a child getting a tap on their hand, or the child’s mother being prosecuted because they do that?

7. There are far greater dangers facing many children today. In my own city of Dundee I have come across children suffering from malnutrition. Poverty is a much more serious threat. Internet pornography being shown to children on their smartphones is devastating many of our children. The decline in the education system; the growing gap between rich and poor in health provision; the breakup of the family; and so on. A few minutes before our debate came on there was an item about how important it was for parents to have quality time with their children – eating together at meals etc. If Mr Finnie is genuinely concerned about children and believes that the State can legislate for child rearing, then perhaps he should introduce a bill to make it illegal for parents not to sit down with their children for at least one meal per day?!  Perhaps he should have a bill banning TV from childrens bedrooms, or children under 12 having smart phones?!

8. If we insist that children should be treated exactly the same as adults, then what about the child in the womb, who is having her most basic right, the right to life, being taken away? When I asked Mr Finnie this, he just simply refused to answer – and little wonder. Such is the cognitive and moral dissonance in our society that our elites are prepared to punish a loving parent who uses reasonable physical force to discipline their child;  and yet at the same time they campaign for the ‘right’  to take the life of the child!  The stench of hypocrisy fills the atmosphere.

9. There is a class element in this. The middle class metro elites are determined to impose their values on everyone else and especially on working class people who they patronise and demean. I listened with horror to the woman from Children First saying that parents were confused and that they ‘needed clarity’.   This is the nanny state….we need to ‘support’ parents because parents (especially working class parents) can’t really do without our support and they can’t work out things for themselves.   How could we ever survive without self-appointed ‘experts’?!

10. Why are they doing this? I am sure that some have bought into their own ideology and really believe that if only children were not smacked then they would grow up as sane, balanced, peaceful individuals. But others I suspect have not really thought about it.  It is an easy emotional response.   It is classic virtue signalling. Oh look…we are against assaulting children. Scotland is an enlightened progressive nation….and so on. It also allows politicians and others to give the impression that they are actually doing something – whilst at the same time ignoring or running away from the major problems.

And no-one does virtue signalling better than the moralistic, therapeutic Deists!

The position of the Church of Scotland depresses me. Their attitude (or at least that of their hierarchy) is disturbing.  Why?

Despite the protestations otherwise they would criminalise many of their own members who use a tap on the hand or leg (if it’s not about criminalisation then why make it illegal?).

The buying into the religion of ‘human rights’ is just as depressing and so is  the illogicality and hypocrisy of saying “the idea that some of the most vulnerable people in our society should not be afforded the same protection as others, we see as being an anomaly.” Why illogical? Because the C of S does believe that children can be disciplined and chastised in other ways (unlike adults).  Why hypocritical? because the C of S, unlike the Catholic church, has been shockingly bad in standing up for the most vulnerable – the children in the womb.

I also found it really distressing that the Church of Scotland is equating a mother who gives her child a tap on the hand with an abusive, mentally ill drunkard (which is the implication here).  They demonise those who disagree with them and accuse a parent who gives a child ‘reasonable chastisement’ as being inadequate, non-loving, non nurturing etc.

And then they buy into the idea that somehow banning smacking will help remove violence from the world. It’s a simplistic and shallow view. Do they not accept that there are other forms of violence (psychological, emotional, spiritual, media etc) which can be even more harmful? Is the only form of violence they support State violence (army, police etc)?

How I wish the Church would use its resourses to help provide care homes, schools and parenting resources – rather than seeking to upheld a fancifiul liberal agenda based upon a human rights religion which fails simply because it does not take into account the sinfulness of humanity and the subsequent brokeness of society.   And how I wish we in the Free Church (and other evangelical churches) would take this a whole lot more seriously!

So what will happen? 

Probably not all that much.  Three months of ‘Civic Scotland’ talking to each other.  Three months of wasted time and burying heads in the sand about the much more serious issues.  And then according to the Scottish Government – nothing – as they are currently opposed to further legislation.  Although they say they will listen and I wonder if the temptation to show themselves as ‘progressive’  may prove too much.

One journalist made a very revealing comment to me today. They told me that they thought my position was by far the position that most people would agree with (and indeed they personally did) but that they could not say this on air. To me this reveals both the bias of much of the media and the way that those in power use their power to intimidate and suppress any alternative point of view. For example BBC Radio Scotland ran with this as their main news item at 9am and only quoted John Finnie. They then followed it up with a call in show where the presenter was quite aggressive towards anyone who did not agree with his position.


Let me just stress again – I am not defending any form of abuse – or parental bad temper and lack of control. I don’t believe that every child should be smacked but I don’t think that parents who use reasonable chastisement should be criminalised. At the end of the day it is really hard to bring up children – but it is usually done far better by parents than the State.   What should be concerning the State is not telling parents how to bring up children, but creating an environment where equal opportunity is given to all.

What should be concerning the Church is how we proclaim the only One who can really bring the peace that we say we want.  Within the Church we really need to take seriously our covenant theology – making our children a major priority.  How can we help parents?  How can we help single parents?  Is it not the case that it takes the whole church to raise a child?!

We also need to take seriously our responsibility for outreach to other children and our responsibility to care for the poor.   When we get involved in caring for the most vulnerable, defending the unborn, advocating for the disadvantaged and supporting Christian education – then perhaps we can look Christ in the eye and say ‘Lord as we cared for the least of these…we did it for you”.  Suffer the little children to come to me…

Psa. 72:4 May he defend the afflicted among the people and save the children of the needy; may he crush the oppressor.

Prov. 29:17 Discipline your children, and they will give you peace; they will bring you the delights you desire.

Is. 54:13 All your children will be taught by the LORD, and great will be their peace.

Matt. 19:14    Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

Mark 9:37 “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.”

Acts 2:39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

1Cor. 7:14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.

Eph. 6:4    Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.

Col. 3:21    Fathers, do not embitter your children, or they will become discouraged.

Heb. 12:7    Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father?

1John 3:18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

Rev. 21:7 Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children.



  1. The voice of reason.

    Ignoring the “argument” it certainly illustrates that, whilst the lunatics are not quite past the asylum gate, there are many of them and they have nearly all the keys…

  2. Power to your arm as you go on your way in the strength of the Lord!
    And pay no attention to people quibbling about this or that detail, while really on your side right to the hilt 🙂

  3. Thanks once again for your writing. I don’t know how you manage to cover issues so thoroughly and thoughtfully in such a busy life. Clearly it is a ministry and long may it continue. My parents were not Christians but did use reasonable physical chastisement when I needed it. It was speedy and quickly over. Much better than being grounded or losing privileges which only seem to prolong the punishment and the memory of the offence…..

  4. Re the treat them as adults argument (point 5). Trouble is, what with all the kicking and biting, not to mention the shouting, screaming and general harassment, the kids would be arrested way before the adults. Bless ’em.

  5. Here in New Zealand, we have had anti-smacking legislation now for quite a few years. There have been a few high-profile court cases since, but mostly the furore over the original legislation has died down and been forgotten. Not that this is a good thing. But once it is law, it can always be used against traditional parenting by those with an agenda to push; usually, Progressives who are trying to break all traditions to mould society to their will. As a parent, I saw ‘smacking’ (a loaded word) as the last resort anyway. For us, it depending very much on the personality of the child being disciplined.

  6. How about this on raising a Godly child from Suzannah Wesley. Take a deep breath.

    Susannah Wesley was the mother of 19 children, including John and Charles Wesley. Through much adversity, she dedicated her life to instilling a sense of Christian Destiny into each of her children. Her children went on to change the world.

    Here are 16 rules she laid down in her home.

    1. Eating between meals not allowed.

    2. As children they are to be in bed by 8 p.m.

    3. They are required to take medicine without complaining.

    4. Subdue self- will in a child, and those working together with God to save the child’s soul.

    5. To teach a child to pray as soon as he can speak.

    6. Require all to be still during Family Worship.

    7. Give them nothing that they cry for, and only that when asked for politely.

    8. To prevent lying, punish no fault which is first confessed and repented of.

    9. Never allow a sinful act to go unpunished.

    10. Never punish a child twice for a single offense.

    11. Comment and reward good behavior.

    12. Any attempt to please, even if poorly performed, should be commended.

    13. Preserve property rights, even in smallest matters.

    14. Strictly observe all promises.

    15. Require no daughter to work before she can read well.

    16. Teach children to fear the rod.

    Susannah Wesley believed that for a child to grow into a self-disciplined adult, he/she must first be a parent-disciplined child. To her, the stubborn flesh was the hardest battle for Christians to fight, and Godly parents would do well to equip their children to overcome it early.

    She writes:
    When the will of a child is totally subdued, and it is
    brought to revere and stand in awe of the parents, then a great many childish follies may be passed by. I insist on the conquering of the will of children betimes, because this is the only strong and rational foundation of a religious education when this is thoroughly done, then a child is capable of being governed by reason and piety.

  7. I think on this one at least we’re more or less agreed.
    I recall chastising my own offspring with the gentlest clip around the ear in the Co-op in Tain. It certainly wasn’t enough to produce tears. Both the ex-wife and I felt the whole place was staring at us.

  8. One comment:

    The lady from Children First reported that many parents contact them having smacked their children, presumably looking for support to do differently. At present they are confessing to nothing more serious than having some parenting issues they’d like to solve. Should the law be passed they would be disclosing that they had commited a crime. Would the Children First staff report the crime to the police? Surely parents would be less likely to contact Children First if they thought it might lead to a criminal investigation but if Children First truly believe smacking is criminal and if legislation was in place then they couldn’t justify not reporting it!

  9. It is absolutely vital that Christians discuss what the Holy Bible says about parenting, because 100% misunderstanding is the norm.

    Christ did not beat His disciples to teach them. Christians have been misled by apparently deficient preaching and Bible translation. Thus one can observe: “Christian parents confused, Christian children abused”.

    The Old Testament’s commandments about parenting are tremendously tough. Unfortunately, many Christians have felt they must follow those commandments.

    Consider carefully now:
    The New Testament has a general principle of going beyond the OT, just as the New Covenant goes beyond the Old Covenant, and in parenting this appears again to be the case.

    “And, ye parents, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord.” (Ephesians 6:4, AKJV modified)

    [One could also translate: “And you parents, do not infuriate your children, but raise them in the child-training (paideía) and teaching (nouthesía) of the Lord.”]

    “Parents, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.” (Colossians 3:21, AKJV modified).

    Christ was gentle toward children and prioritized them highest. He did not teach through violence. He did not beat the disciples and apostles, for example.

    God Himself — the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — chastize forcefully, according to the Holy Bible and corresponding experience. Let God take such actions, while Christian parents heed the direct and explicit warnings to them: Do not infuriate your children (e.g. through punishments).

    “Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30, AKJV)

    “But I say unto you, That in this place is one greater than the temple.” (Matthew 12:6, AKJV)

    “But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6, AKJV)

    “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” (Matthew 18:6-7, NKJV)

    “But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, ‘Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.'” (Mark 10:14, AKJV)

    AKJV: KJV reproduced by permission of Cambridge University Press, the Crown’s patentee in the UK.
    NKJV: Scripture taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

  10. But David, of course children should have the same legal rights as adults. John Finnie would surely agree that they should be allowed to go to the pub, get married, drive a car, join the army, stand for Parliament, get a job, not have to go to school, get a mortgage, bet on the horses, cook meals and go to bed whenever they want.

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