I am the mother of four daughters, from fifteen to three years of age. Two weeks ago I punished my oldest daughter with a whip because she was not being obedient. After she left, with the marks from the whip on her arms, I felt badly. I had never disciplined my children like this before, but I wanted her to respond.

My question is: Up until what age should I discipline my daughter physically? Does the Bible say anything about this?

Dear Friend,

Your questions are of interest to many parents. Yes, the Bible does mention physical discipline of children several times in the book of Proverbs. However, there are no specifics as to appropriate ages or appropriate methods. Primarily the proverbs make it clear that it is a good thing to discipline your children so that they will learn appropriate behavior and have respect for authority throughout their lives.

Although reasonable discipline is always a good thing, physical discipline is a controversial matter that has even become illegal in some countries. The high numbers of cases of child abuse have led some lawmakers to decide that, in order to avoid it, adults should not have the choice of disciplining children physically. The correction that the Bible mentions is certainly not discipline that would be considered child abuse.

As the parents of five children, we found that a slap on the hand of a toddler was an effective way of keeping him from touching a hot stove or an electrical outlet. Most children under three occasionally need a slight slap on the hand or a mild spank on the bottom to keep them from danger. However, we changed our methods as soon as our children were old enough to understand consequences. From that time on we used alternatives to physical punishment because we believed that those alternatives were more effective.

When physical punishment is used on a young child, it is extremely important that it is not done in anger. Many parents overlook disobedience until they get angry. At that point they lash out at the child, hitting arms, legs, or even the face. This is never acceptable. Appropriate physical punishment should be administered only on the small child’s hand or bottom, and should have enough force to only sting for a second or two, but never enough force to leave a mark. We believe that your hand is the best instrument because you can feel how hard you are hitting.

When possible, consequences should be related to the specific way that a child was disobedient. For example, if she doesn’t come in the house when called, then she should not be allowed to go out the next day. If he leaves his bicycle in the street, the bicycle should be taken away for a few days. Natural consequences are the best consequences and the most effective.

We have three reasons for believing that you made a mistake when you beat your daughter with a whip. First, she is much too old to be punished physically. Secondly, using a whip is not an acceptable way to punish a child. And lastly, the punishment left marks on her, which means you used too much force. We suggest that you apologize and explain why you were so upset. Also, make a list of consequences that are appropriate for her age and explain that these consequences will be used for future disobedience.

Parenting isn’t easy!

Linda and Charles