Many Christian pro-spankers such as James Dobson and Michael Pearl equate animal training with child rearing. Pearl claims that training children is much like training “stubborn mules.” Dobson uses an example of whipping his tiny dog into submission to taming a toddler. They believe that training children and animals require fear and pain with “love” in order to achieve absolute obedience. Is this true? Is animal training similar to child rearing? What does God have to say about this?
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately due to a recent incident with our cat Patches. Patches is a calico cat. She has always been a very oral kitty. She chews cardboard boxes and lightly bites us whenever she’s happy, playful, or loving. She never bites aggressively. Recently, my husband got up in the morning and went into his home office to turn on the computer and his ham radio equipment before getting dressed, making coffee, and feeding our two cats their breakfast. There is a fan in his office door as the cats are not allowed in there due to all of his electronics. It can get quite warm in there, so the fan keeps the air flowing. As usual that morning, the cats greeted my husband in the hallway then eagerly waited for him outside his office door.
All of a sudden there were two loud bangs outside his door then the loud sound of our wooden TV dinner table crashing over. All the noise alarmed my husband and woke me up. My husband found Patches in our utility room on top of our water heater very freaked out. He picked her up and comforted her as she peered glaringly out the door towards the dining room and hallway. We had no clue what had happened, but it was quite clear that something had her very spooked.
She wouldn’t eat her breakfast until a few hours later, and she walked low and slow around the house all day while glaring into the hallway. At one point in the late afternoon she was napping in the cat tree and came flying down without warning after having a nightmare. We could not figure out why she was so scared. It was heartbreaking. All we could do was continue comforting her. At bedtime, my husband noticed her looking at the office door in a standoffish, confused way. It was at that point that he saw that she had bitten into the fan’s electrical wire and had been shocked. Just writing this is making me teary. We both felt sick when we realized what had happened to her. I cried and thanked Jesus that she had not been seriously injured or worse. My husband also thanked the Lord that she was alright. Then he immediately unplugged the fan until he could cover the wire so that would never happen again. The next few days Patches was wary of the hallway. Now she is just wary of the door. She has not made the connection of biting the wire and being shocked. All she knows is that door (at first it was the entire hallway) hurt her and she can’t figure out why.
This proved even more to me that God never intended for fear and pain to control the behavior of children or animals. Patches still bites. But now she is afraid of the door, which was the source of her pain. The same is true for children. Yes, parents often explain to the child before and after spanking/hitting him/her why he/she was spanked/hit, but as I describe in my series entitled “The Effects of Spanking,” (which you will find in my new book, “Gentle Firmness“) fear and pain hinder learning due to stress hormones bathing the brain. Also, like animals, children do not connect punishment with the behavior, otherwise one spanking/hitting would be enough to keep children from repeating the same behavior. “One reason spanking does not work is that children often forget why they are being punished. They think only of the physical pain. Also, spanking does not encourage good behavior” (Goode, 2012, Spare The Rod).
I hear so many parents say that spanking is a must for dangerous situations, but this makes no sense. Since children fear the source of pain, they can’t connect being spanked/hit with staying away from danger. So, we teach them to fear us instead of running to us and away from danger. We are to teach them about danger and be their safety as God is our safety. When we hurt them, even “lovingly,” we teach them that we are not safe. It is up to us to keep children safe until they are capable of understanding danger. Also, God never inflicts pain on us to punish us even if we are in danger. He allows natural consequences. God is love. Love should never hurt. David often sought safety in God when he was in danger. “For in the day of trouble he will keep me safe in his dwelling; he will hide me in the shelter of his sacred tent and set me high upon a rock” (Psalm 27:5). Throughout the Bible we see God is a source of comfort to His people. He never was a source of pain except to His enemies, which, even then, He allowed consequences instead of actually inflicting pain on them. The only Person that God has ever inflicted pain upon was Himself when He came to Earth as Jesus Christ to suffer and die for all of humanity’s sins.
God cares for people and animals. In fact, when Jonah told the people of Nineveh that God was going to destroy the city due the people’s depravity, the people became very upset and repented of their sins. God had compassion on them and spared them. This made Jonah very angry that God did not destroy Nineveh after Jonah finally obeyed God and told the people that God was about to destroy the city. Look how God responded to Jonah’s complaint: “But the LORD said, ‘You have been concerned about this plant, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?’” (Jonah 4:10-11).
This whole chapter also shows that God didn’t punish Jonah for expressing his anger. He gently showed Jonah why he was acting ridiculous using the plant and asking questions. God knew that the real reason behind Jonah’s anger was insecurity since Jonah was afraid that he wouldn’t be taken seriously because God didn’t do what God had said He was going to do. God knew punishing Jonah would only make things worse. The same holds true for children. It is not biblical to punish for negative feelings. And repeatedly spanking/hitting children for being upset that we’ve hurt them is not “godly” whatsoever.
So, apparently, training animals and child rearing are indeed similar—just not in the way that Dobson and Pearl claim. Both need love and guidance from us instead of pain. We want them to run to us for help, comfort, safety, and guidance. Our children also learn that God is a safe place when we accurately portray God to them. Do you want to be a source of comfort or a source of fear and pain to your children?
“He tends his flock like a shepherd:
He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart;
he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11).
Goode, C. B. (2012). Spare the rod—Ten reasons not to spank your child. http://www.pedsforparents.com/articles/3179.shtml
Is Raising Children The Same As Raising Animals? by Steph is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at www.whynottrainachild.com.