The following was published as LOVE AND PUNISH in Marriage: The Magazine of Catholic Family Living in September, 1962, and later re-published as a Marriage Pamphlet titled  Discipline–with Love. Human nature has not changed much in the interim.


Should children be punished?  Why?  When?  How?  One mother, when invited to attend a lecture by a child guidance expert commented:  “I don’t need any lecture.  My kids toe the line or they get the strap.”

Another mother retrieved her two-year-old from the middle of the street and, setting him down on the curb, gave him a smart whack on his well-padded rear.  The child cried for only a minute but the mother’s whole day was ruined.  “I shouldn’t have hit him,” she fretted.  “It’s a terrible thing to strike a child.”

These two women have radically different ideas about discipline.  One considers corporal punishment a cure-all, another considers it an abomination.  One spanks often, confident she is right; another seldom, and then guiltily.  Is there a happy medium?  What have the experts to say?

The following quotations from two who disapprove of corporal punishment are typical:  “What possible benefit can be derived from corporal punishment?  Its object is to produce “moral” or desired behavior as a result of pain and fear.  Clearly no real morality can be achieved in this way.”

“Children have to be controlled at times, for their own good.  But it should be in more gentle and dignified ways.  There has been a revulsion against such methods of dealing with children (as spanking and slapping) because they outrage decency– and because they are unsuccessful except for the moment.  They do not inspire a child to want to do right so that his parents may be pleased with him.”  Others point out that whipping on the buttocks may be sexually stimulating and a factor in sexual aberrations.

The result of such pronouncements is that good and conscientious parents, who occasionally feel it in order to administer a whack or two, do so with their fingers crossed and a lurking fear:  while it seems at the moment to be necessary perhaps they are traumatizing the child’s psyche as well as his backside.

Certainly no one will dispute the superiority of love over fear as a motive for obedience.  It is true that discipline by fear of punishment is effective only as long as the parent has the power or strength to enforce his decrees.

Love can do what fear cannot.  It makes obedience cheerful, sacrifices willing, the hard easy.  We fly to comply with the wishes of those we love.  Fly??  Well — sometimes.  If we love enough…if we do not love our own wills more.  We are all, children included, partakers of Adam’s fallen nature and, though we usually love the good, we do not always choose the greatest good.  We often prefer a small but immediate gratification to a greater but more distant good.  God does not disdain to use fear of punishment to make us tread the straight and narrow until we learn to love enough, and we could to worse than to follow His example.  Although fear of punishment is an inferior motive to love of God or of neighbor, it is not an unworthy one.

Just as adults cannot see the greater good which God intends for us when He denies us our heart’s desire of the moment, so the child finds it difficult to understand that it is because his parent loves him that he must forsake television for homework, dishpan, or bed — or else!  It is all well and good to tell the child that his parents take the place of God in the home and he should be subject to them as Jesus was to Mary and Joseph.  But sometimes children need to be told to obey their parents because disobedience is a sin for which they will be punished here or hereafter.  When love is not great enough, fear steps in as a deterrent to undesired behavior and as an aid to formation of good habits.  It is better that a child should do good through fear of punishment than that he should do wrong.

Now, for what misdeeds should a child be punished?  We can narrow the field down considerably by mentioning some of the things for which he should not be punished.  For example, any experienced parent knows it is futile to punish a child to make him eat, sleep, or use the toilet.  These are things he does best when he is relaxed and happy.  Fear of punishment gets him all tensed up and unable to cooperate.  Threats in these areas reap nothing but trouble.

Secondly, a child  should not be punished for accidents.  It is certainly trying when one is eight months pregnant and Junior has spilled milk on the floor — again!  But mother’s wail of anguish as she contemplates crawling around under the table mopping up will be sufficient to inform him she wishes he’d be more careful.  He didn’t do it on purpose and she wouldn’t want to be punished if she had accidentally spilled her milk.  This is the kind of occasion when one is apt to lash out in a fit of temper and think later.

It is a good deal safer not to hit a child in anger.  Anger may be justified and the punishment meted out in anger may be just.  All too often, however, the angry spanking is too severe or not called for at all.  If it is your best china that has just crashed to the floor and you feel you must pound something, take it out on the nearest inanimate object.  However disastrous the results of your child’s actions may have been, it sometimes turns out that his motives were pure gold:  “I was going to set the table, Mommy, to surprise you for your birthday.”

From the parent who hits in haste and repents at leisure, an apology is in order.  It confirms what the child suspects, that parents are not always perfect, and it may help him later to admit to his own mistakes.  But an apology cannot undo the injury; it only eases the pain.  The precocious child who too often hears, “I’m sorry, honey, Mommy didn’t realize,” or “Daddy acted hastily”….might well reply:  “Well, it’s about time you showed a little self-control.   How am I going to learn some if you never show any?”

Finally, a child should not be punished for childishness.  It is in the nature of children to have a short attention span, to be active, noisy, curious, and so forth.  If we give a child commands at odds with his nature, he is in quite a dilemma.  He must either be disobedient or unnatural.  We should learn what to expect from a child at a given age and not ask for more than he can give.

Parental authority is from God and its purpose is to lead the child to God.  Parents’ commands should reflect God’s laws.  Assuming that they do, once an order has been issued, it should be obeyed.  A child not only needs reasonable limits, he needs to know that they will be enforced.

There are several things that will help to make obedience willing.  No one likes to be constantly ordered about, and, especially when a small child is just acquiring the habit of obedience, commands and prohibitions should be as few and far between as possible.  Put things that the child cannot safely handle out of reach for the time being.  One small boy living in a houseful of untouchables got the impression that his name was No-no-Michael.  A child mustn’t touch the stove, turn on the gas, or run out into the street.  But many of the things the toddler’s curiosity leads him to do are things he will tire of and outgrow once his curiosity is satisfied.  If, in the process of growing up, he unrolls a roll of toilet tissue, well, how else could be buy so much amusement for a dime?

Let him learn by personal experience when possible.  When an unpleasant consequence is the natural sequel of his own mistakes, he will accept the lesson more readily than when his behavior is criticized by another person.   We can’t let him find out from experience how it feels to fall out the second story window, but we can let him take a few small falls as insurance against a big one.  When he has learned to tell time, it might be better for him to be late for school once than to get into a daily routine of prodding, “Get up, get dressed, get washed, eat, put on your coat, etc.”    We can’t let him learn by experience not to eat rat poison, but he can find out for himself what happens when he puts too much salt on his food.  In brief, the fewer commands he receives, the more likely he is to attach importance to obeying the occasional necessary one.

It is not surprising that obedience is more cheerful and willing when requests are prefaced with “Please” and praise is heaped upon good or improving performance.  A job well done carries with it the satisfaction of accomplishment and when this is topped with praise or gratitude the child has a good feeling which he wants to recapture.  How much better it is for a child to feel that his parents are generally pleased with him than to think that he can’t do anything right!  And how shall he know that they are pleased with him unless he is smiled upon and approved more than he is criticized and punished?

Some children may be guided to responsible, law-abiding adulthood with only the gentlest of direction.   However,  there are times when a child has transgressed and he knows it.  He was trying to get away with something and he got caught.  He knew he shouldn’t do something, and he did it anyway.  Some action on the part of the parent is necessary to let the child know that we care that he has erred and we don’t want it to happen again.

Far from making a child feel unloved, he may interpret punishment as proof of love–but only when he thinks it is just and when he knows it is being administered for his own good.  The youngster who says, “My father will clobber me if I don’t get home before dark,” may well be the envy of the child who boasts, “My father doesn’t care what time I get home.”  One adopted boy did not really believe his new father loved him until he showed that he cared enough about misbehavior to spank him for it.

Punishment should be tempered to the individual child.  What may put one child in tears for half a day may roll of another like water off a duck’s back.  And before deciding on punishment it is only sensible to inquire into the cause of the misbehavior…there are often extenuating circumstances which will incline us to lighten punishment or even omit it altogether.  When a child is ill, over-tired, jealous, or frustrated, what he needs is a doctor, more rest, more attention, or more creative outlets–not a spanking.

Once punishment has been decided upon, it seems to me that corporal punishment is not intrinsically worse than any other, provided, of course, that it is moderate.  I strongly suspect that there is an age beyond which spanking is too great an indignity and should be abandoned in favor of more “adult” punishments.  But there is a younger age at which it might actually be the punishment of choice.  The small child who is too young to reason with or to understand the “denial of privileges” routine, understands the sting of his mother’s hand.  A spanking, once given, is over and done with as compared with fifteen minutes sitting in a chair, an hour in one’s room, or a day in the house.  If given his choice, many a child would choose a whack or two in preference to more contrived punishments.   Spock says, “I’m not particularly advocating spanking, but I think it is less poisonous than lengthy disapproval, because it clears the air for parent and child.”  Like any other punishment, when spanking is resorted to frequently it is an indication that it is not serving its purpose.  And, like any other punishment, spanking is not resented when it is understood as fair (even a three-year-old knows when he “has it coming’) and when administered by a usually loving and kind parent.

A woman psychiatrist writes:  “This is not meant to be a plea for spanking, but I could not claim to be in agreement with some authorities on parent-child relations who have expressed the opinion that parents who spank their children are thereby admitting how poverty-stricken they are in their resourcefulness in dealing with their children.   To be sure, a spanking or a swat is quite a different matter from a beating wherein a child may conceivably be injured.  Nor can spankings be expected to make an insecure child secure, but the spanking itself is not traumatic if the basic relation between the parent and child is sound.  It is a quick effective method of terminating a situation–like placing a period–which discharges parental tension especially but also discharges the guilt of the child and permits both to go on serenely, without hostility and without guilt.  It is a device for clearing the atmosphere, and other factors being even, it is not a traumatic or pernicious instrument any more than it is a panacea.”

These things are essential:  the punishment must be understood as fair; the child must know he is being punished for his own good; the child must know that he is still loved.  As an occasional medicine, measured with care and administered with love, punishment may be of value; as a steady diet it is certainly harmful.

Our first notions of God are often the result of our early experiences with those in authority, especially our parents.  Says Father Boylan, “If they are harsh, and ‘just’, and strict, we find it difficult to be convinced that God is a loving Father and merciful Savior.  We all know the cringing, fearful way in which a dog shrinks away from our caresses if he has been previously ill-treated by others.  One meets children whose arms go up to ward off a blow as soon as anyone in authority approaches them.  The same sort of attitude is often found with regard to God.  He is thought of as a hard master, overreacting and meticulous, setting traps for his creatures, and almost anxious to catch them in wrongdoing.  No true love of God is possible with such a concept in one’s mind.  Yet such ideas can exist and we must take care that we are not responsible for their formation.  This is one reason why, if we must err in dealing with out neighbors, we ought to err on the side of mercy and kindness rather than of justice and rigor.

This is such an important point that it bears repeating.  We may try to be both merciful and just, but our knowledge of the factors involved in human motivation is so very limited that our justice and mercy will never be perfect so that, like God’s, they are one and the same.  If we must err, therefore, let it be on the side of mercy, so that when our children say the “Our Father”, Father will mean to them love and forgiveness rather than stern retribution.

Though punishment may occasionally be used to curb misbehavior, the best behavior is that which flows from love,– first of parents, then of God.  Let us try to get that boy who came home before dark because he feared his father would “clobber” him (fear of punishment) to come home because he fears he may worry his father (filial fear).

Praise and approval have been widely acclaimed as better motivations than punishment.  However, their use is not without pitfall.  The child who acts to win the approval of parents, teachers, and friends, who is repeatedly told that he is a “good” boy, may acquire an illusion of virtue.  In reality, good actions caused by a desire for praise and recognition are just as selfishy motivated as good actions caused by fear of punishment.  Imagine his mental turmoil if the day should come when the action which he thinks is right is one which will bring him only rejection and humiliation.  A Catholic, for example, might find himself in this kind of situation when his rapidly growing family threatens to lower his living standard considerably below that of his social set.  He will then realize that when he performed “virtuous” actions for approval his virtue was rooted in self-love and pride–and that he had anything but Christian charity and humility.

Noel Mailloux, O.P. writes:  “Actually the age of reason is reached when the child conceives of goodness as an absolute motive of action, quite apart from all its inherent possibilities for self-gratification, and when he becomes capable of identifying it with God as the supreme goal of his whole life’s moral strivings.”  What he calls an “adult, disinterested, objective morality” is one in which we do what we see as right without regard to whether if brings reward or punishment, praise or humiliation:  “hew to the line; let the chips fall where they may.”

Praise and punishment have a place in the disciplining of children, but neither is the whole answer.  Both praise and punishment break down as sources of good behavior when there is no one about to either approve or punish.  In the final analysis, nothing makes us love goodness like goodness.  Much cooperation can be achieved by explaining to the child the reasons behind what he is asked to do and by sincere praise.  Much more can be accomplished by being ourselves more kind, more generous, more patient, more understanding, more fair, more devoted to the good, the true, and the beautiful … for then the child will want to obey even when he doesn’t understand the reason, because he loves and trusts us.  The child who finds it easy to love and trust his parents will later in life find it easy to love and trust his fellow man and his God — and that is a priceless heritage.

Human nature being what it is, our children will have children and we will not yet know how to be perfect parents, nor will we do as well as we know.  But let it be said that we made the effort.  For we can preach and praise and punish, but unless we practice what we preach we may find that our actions speak so loudly the children cannot hear what we say.  To prayerfully seek to be perfect ourselves is the best way to show our children the road to sanctity, which is the only true maturity.


And he said to them, “How is it that you sought me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?..and he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them.  Luke 2:49-51.