Orthodoxy Today
Smart Parenting XXIV: Spanking - Physical, Psychological and Moral Abuse

It were better for him, that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and he cast into the sea, than that he should scandalize one of these little ones (Lk 17:2)

The major goal of good parenting is to provide the milieu and guidance their children need to become the 'most they can be' in all major domains of life. These domains include the dimensions of spirituality, moral character, family and social commitment, personality characteristics, and intellectual and cognitive-behavioral-emotional development. The cornerstone for all development in the orthodox Christian family is Christ and his Church. In this regard we can think of the words said by St. Paul to the Ephesians that we are all part of God's family that is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone." (2:20). This is especially true for those, male and female, husband and wife, who are "one flesh" in a blessed marriage, as is prayed in the Orthodox Wedding Service, "unite them in one mind and one flesh, and grant unto them fair children for education in thy faith and fear. . . ."

Psychological Principles of Smart Parenting

Morelli (2005, 2006ab) has pointed out that the principles of cognitive-behavioral management are ideally suited for application to good parenting.  All behaviors, whether appropriate or inappropriate, have both cognitive and behavioral factors that can influence their occurrence.

The major psychological principles that influence behavior can be summarized thus:

Behavioral basics:

  • Behavioral Pinpointing: Pinpointing behavior is describing what was done or said, when and where. Correct: “Johnny kicked Sally while on the lunchroom line while yelling at her: ‘You ugly idiot.’” Incorrect: “Johnny was bad today,” or “Johnny is aggressive.”
  • Behaviors are shaped (increased or decreased) by their consequences. There are two types of consequences: those which are found to be 1) pleasant or 2) unpleasant by the individual whose behavior is being influenced. [The goal of good parenting (as also of pastoring and teaching) is to increase appropriate and decrease inappropriate behavior]
    • Pleasant consequences:
      • Positive Reinforcement: something added (+) that the individual finds pleasant: watching an extra TV program, extra time to play a smartphone videogame, being told they got a math homework problem correct.
      • Negative Reinforcement: something unpleasant is taken away, subtracted (-), that the individual finds this pleasant: not having to do a boring chore, being able to skip a dull family visit.
    • Unpleasant consequences:
      • Positive Punishment: something added (+) that the individual finds unpleasant: being told to do an extra difficult chore, being told they are an ‘idiot,’ being spanked.
      • Negative Punishment: something is taken away, subtracted (-) that the individual finds pleasant: not being able to watch a favorite TV program, losing the use of a computer, game-controller or smartphone.

[Practical Hint #1: Perception of what is ‘pleasant’ or ‘unpleasant’ has to be from the point of view of the child [or individual] whose behavior is being influenced.  What is pleasant to a parent may be unpleasant to the child, and what is unpleasant to a parent may be pleasant to the child.

Practical Hint #2: Punishment of inappropriate behavior should always be immediately followed by reinforcing some ‘good’ behavior the child is seen doing.

Practical Hint #3: Tell the child of the unpleasant consequences (punishing) of their bad behavior in a soft tone and simply state the consequences due to their choosing to do something bad.

Practical Hint #4: In any situation, the child should be informed ahead of time of what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable (see Behavioral Pinpointing, above). ]

  • Modeling is the core of observational learning. We learn the behaviors others are doing by being exposed to the words and actions they are performing. This is also called by the technical, behavioral science term: vicarious learning. What is observed as being done, felt or undergone by a model is being learned and is capable of being performed, felt and/or undergone by the observer. It is as if the observer were actually performing, or undergoing themselves the experience or feelings of the model. After such learning, under appropriate motivational circumstances, the observer can perform, and/or feel, what they had previously observed.  For example, Johnny sees his father spank his younger brother Frankie for ‘talking back.’ Johnny ‘feels’ the anger and ‘power’ his father displays. Sometime later, when Frankie takes Johnny’s smartphone to play games on, won’t give it back and sticks his tongue out at him, Johnny punches him.


Abuse is defined on Federal and State levels, by State licensing boards and by various professional associations’ codes of ethics. Civil and criminal statutes associated with abuse are provided by each state. Common targets of these statutes are child, elder and spousal abuse. In this article the focus is on child abuse.

 Federal legislation provides minimal guidelines for recognizing behaviors of abuse and neglect.. A child is defined as an individual younger than 18, or “not an emancipated minor.”

  1. "Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation."
  2. "An act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm."
    [The Federal Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act (CAPTA) (42 U.S.C.A. § 5106g as amended by the CAPTA Reauthorization Act of 2010)] [https://www.childwelfare.gov/can/defining/federal.cfm]

Common categories of abuse that have been further delineated by the States include:

  • Physical Abuse, (hitting, spanking, violent striking, physical bullying etc.);
  • Sexual Abuse, (forcible intercourse and other sexual acts, inappropriate touching, exhibition, use of language, etc.);
  • Psychological Abuse (calling someone by demeaning words or phrases ("You stupid idiot,” “You m****er f***ing loser," “You retard.” [These also can be perceived as psychological bullying.]
  • Abuse by Neglect (denying, food, shelter, education, and other necessary care.)

Abuse and the human rights of the child

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (2006) issued the following statement:

18. Article 37 of the Convention requires States to ensure that “no child shall be subjected to torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment”. This is complemented and extended by article 19, which requires States to “take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to protect the child from all forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child”. There is no ambiguity: “all forms of physical or mental violence” does not leave room for any level of legalized violence against children. Corporal punishment and other cruel or degrading forms of punishment are forms of violence, and States must take all appropriate legislative, administrative, social and educational measures to eliminate them. [http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/crc/comment8.html]

The special case of spanking

From the above outline of behavioral principles, it will be clear that spanking is a form of positive punishment. The critical questions are: what are the consequences of such punishment? Is spanking effective? Does spanking have any beneficial and/or deleterious effects? Parents and others often want to employ spanking as a punishment to decrease inappropriate behavior. Behavioral research suggests that this is not accomplished. Gershoff (2008) provides an analysis of over a hundred years of behavioral research from a variety of disciplines, including education, medicine, psychology, social work and sociology. Her conclusions, summarized, are:

  • There is little research evidence that physical punishment improves children’s behavior in the long term.
  • There is substantial research evidence that physical punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant and aggressive in the future.
  • There is clear research evidence that physical punishment puts children at risk for [malevolent] outcomes, including increased mental health problems.
  • There is consistent evidence that children who are physically punished are at greater risk of serious injury and physical abuse. 

The neuropsychology correlates of corporal punishment

Current behavioral research provides a neuropsychological basis for some of these effects. Straus and Paschall (2009) found that children ages 2-4 whose behavior was managed by corporal punishment (spanking) had diminished cognitive processing 4 years later (ages 5-9). The comprehensive testing they used included: body parts recognition, memory for locations, motor and social development and individual achievement tests for Math and Reading recognition.

Tomoda, Suzuki, Rabi, Sheu, Polcari, & Teicher (2009), for example, report an attenuation of prefrontal cortical gray matter in young adults that was related to Harsh Corporal Punishment (HCP) in their early childhood years. The authors point out that “HCP may be an aversive and stressful event for human beings that potentially alters the developmental trajectory of some brain regions in which abnormalities have been associated with major forms of psychopathology.” These mental disorders include addiction, depression-suicidal behavior dissociative disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The authors consider these effects to be possibly related to the difficulty of reconciling the child’s perception of parents as nurturers and being intentionally aggressors. In a similar manner, Morelli (2006b) points out that positive punishment, such as the spanking discussed in this paper, cognitively distracts the child from associating their behavior with the aversive consequence (spanking), and rather focuses the child’s interpretation of the parental action as ‘mean and hostile.’

All well and good to know all the results of this scientifically based research, my readers may be musing, but is it relevant to the Orthodox  Christian family for which “[T]he cornerstone of all development” is “Christ and his Church?”

Orthodoxy and Scientific Healing

In and through the Church we know the Genesis account of the creation of mankind and God’s words: "Let us make man to our image and likeness: and let him have dominion over the fishes of the sea, and the fowls of the air, and the beasts, and the whole earth, and every creeping creature that moveth upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:26). As Morelli (2006c) notes, McGuckin (2004) indicates that several Greek Fathers defined the term "image" by relating it to Adam's naming of the animals, thereby linking an attribute of the image of God in man to "mankind's dominion over the created order." The patristic exegesis highlights the different characteristics that man possesses over the animals, such as understanding, rationality, and intelligence, to conclude that these characteristics define in some measure the term "image of God." Scientific knowledge applied to the prevention and healing of disease, whether physical or mental, depends on the use of the inherent cognitive or perceptual powers of the mind of mankind that are in the domain of having “dominion over the created order.”

In addition, the spirit of the aphorism ‘grace builds on nature’ can be seen in the words of St. Maximus the Confessor who said "the grace of the most Holy Spirit does not confer wisdom on the Saints without their natural intellect as capacity to receive it" (Philokalia II). This theme is echoed by a saintly contemporary spiritual father of the Church, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (2008). When asked by a disciple: “Geronda, concerning physical and mental health, to what extent must one put himself into the hands of God?” The Elder replied, “First one must entrust himself to God, and after God, he will also entrust himself to the appropriate person [healer].”

The penultimate witness of this synergy of scientific healing and Orthodoxy can be seen in the establishment of monastic healing centers in the 4th Century (Demakis, 2004, Morelli, 2006c). Our great Church Father, St. Basil of Caesarea, (370-379) was medically trained and worked with his monks in attending to the ill and infirm. As Patriarch of Constantinople, St. John Chrysostom (390 AD) opened hospitals and other philanthropic institutions funded by the Church. Because of the rapid growth of these institutions over the next two centuries, the Emperor Justinian moved the most important physicians into state funded hospitals. Importantly, while the Church maintained administration and care-giving, imperial sanction enhanced the reputation of the hospitals.

An outline of the Typikon [rule of order] of the Pantocrator Monastery provides a good example of the complex administrative structure of such institutions (Demakis, 2004, Morelli, 2006c). The Church physicians, in emulation of Christ, had to be grounded spiritually by their commitment to Christ and by, personal prayer for themselves and their patients, have great love for mankind, seeing that all are made in God’s image and attribute all their success to God.  Quite relevant to the importance of the scientific basis of medical intervention is, as Demakis (2004) points out, that “They were outstanding physicians, often ‘first in their medical school class.’ Medical science was regarded as a serious academic discipline.” 

Application of Orthodoxy and Scientific Healing to Spanking

Considering the preponderance of scientific evidence demonstrating the severe detrimental effects of positive punishment and specifically spanking, as noted above, it can be concluded that these techniques are grave moral and ethical violations. Thus, any parenting style, or mental health treatment method, or pastoral ministry that acts against the best of scientific findings of the day is morally condemnable. 

We are never to judge the hearts or inner motivations of individuals, such as those who do spank or justify its use, as per Christ’s dictum (Luke 6: 42): “Or how canst thou say to thy brother: Brother, let me pull the mote out of thy eye, when thou thyself seest not the beam in thy own eye? Hypocrite, cast first the beam out of thy own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to take out the mote from thy brother's eye.” However, we can condemn despicable deeds, as St. John tells us in the Book of Revelation  through Jesus’ words given him by an angel:  “But this thou hast, that thou hatest the deeds of the Nicolaites [a 1st Century sect of heretical Gnostics who lived lives of unrestrained indulgence], which I also hate.” (Rev 2: 6).  The mind of Christ revealed by His angel, has been the consistent ‘Mind of the Church. This is witnessed by St. Maximus the Confessor who said: “He who busies himself with the sins of others, or judges his brother on suspicion, has not yet even begun to repent or to examine himself so as to discover his own sins…” (Philokalia II, p. 92).

Unfortunately, with undoubtedly sincere motivation, even some Christian communities that are separated from the Church and the riches of its Tradition, including its support of “the inherent cognitive or perceptual powers of the mind of mankind“ engage in personal and literal interpretation of scriptural verses, including using some passages to justify physical abuse such as spanking.  We know that among the Apostolic Churches it is only the Church Herself, which canonized the Sacred Scriptures, that can thus understand and interpret them, echoing the ‘Mind of Christ. As McGuckin (2011, p. 101) tells us, “Protestantism has generally elevated the Scripture as something far and above all other things in the church. Assigned as a composition of the Spirit of God (often understood in a sense of inspiration detached from the [Church] rather than within it) it is made to stand alone, towering over any other thing that could be ascribed to church tradition.” The view of the Apostolic Churches on this matter is succinctly described by the title of Fr. John Breck’s (2001) seminal book: ‘Scripture in Tradition.’

In eschewing harsh punishment such as spanking, and instead modeling appropriate behavior ourselves and using reinforcement (rewarding) of others’ good behavior let us be mutually up-building, gently sharing, when appropriate, the benefits of using scientific understanding  to help all become the “most we can be” as Christians. Certainly we can share these insights with others. Let us recall St. Paul’s words to the Romans (14: 19): “Therefore let us follow after the things that are of peace; and keep the things that are of edification one towards another.”


Breck, J. (2001). Scripture in Tradition: The bible and its interpretation in the Orthodox Church. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press

Elder Paisios of Mount Athos (2008). Spiritual counsels (V. II Spiritual Awakening), Thessaloniki, Greece: Holy Monastery Evangelist John the Theologian.

Gershoff, E. T. (2008). Report on Physical Punishment in the United States: What Research Tells Us About Its Effects on Children. Columbus, OH: Center for Effective Discipline.

McGuckin, J.A. (2004). The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology. Louisville, KT: Westminster John Knox Press.

McGuckin, J.A. (2011). The Orthodox Church - An introduction to its history, doctrine, and spiritual culture. London, England: Wiley-Blackwell

Morelli, G. (2005, September 17). Smart Parenting Part I. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles5/MorelliParenting .

Morelli, G. (2006a, February 04). Smart Parenting Part II. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting2.php.

Morelli, G. (2006b, March 25). Smart Parenting III: Developing Emotional Control. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/MorelliParenting3.php.

Morelli, G. (2006c, December 21). The Ethos of Orthodox Christian Healing. http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/OT/view/morelli-the-ethos-of-orthodox-christian-healing .

Palmer, G.E.H.; Sherrard, P.; and Ware, K. (Trans.) (1971, 1981, 1988, 1990). Philokalia,  I IV. London: Faber and Faber.

Straus, M.A. & Paschall, M.J. (2009). Corporal Punishment by Mothers and Development of Children’s Cognitive Ability: A Longitudinal Study of Two Nationally Representative Age Cohorts. Journal of Aggression Maltreatment & Trauma, 18(5), 459.

Tomoda, Suzuki, Rabi, Sheu, Polcari, & Teicher (2009). Corporal punishment by parents and associated child behaviors and experiences: A meta-analytic and theoretical review. Neuroimage; 47(Suppl 2): T66–T71.

Fr. George Morelli

V. Rev. Fr. George Morelli Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Psychologist and Marriage and Family Therapist.

Be sure to visit Fr. Morelli's new site Orthodox Healing  for the latest essays and information.

Published: November 1, 2014

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