The Question Not Asked in Germany: To Spank or Not To Spank?

To spank or not to spank? is no longer the question in Germany, at least for law abiding citizens

As of April 2013, two books were blacklisted at the request of the German child protection services because they promote spanking. The first is Michael and Debi Pearl’s To Train up a Child, the second is Ted Tripp’s Shepherding a Child’s Heart. Though these books may appear as bookshelf standards in many American evangelical homes, they are now banned from being displayed, printed, imported or exported, advertized or mailed within Germany.


To spank or not to spank?  is no longer the question in Germany, at least for law-abiding citizens. The parental right to spank was rescinded in 2000 when a new phrase was introduced into the German constitution: “Children have a right to an upbringing free of violence. Corporal punishment, emotional harm and other humiliating measures are not permissible“ (§ 1631.2 BGB ).

As of April 2013, two books were blacklisted at the request of the German child protection services because they promote spanking. The first is Michael and Debi Pearl’s To Train up a Child, the second is Ted Tripp’s Shepherding a Child’s Heart. Though these books may appear as bookshelf standards in many American evangelical homes, they are now banned from being displayed, printed, imported or exported, advertized or mailed within Germany. I believe these are the first two of many more to follow. Lou Priolo’s Teach Them Diligently and John Mac Arthur’s Successful Christian Parenting are next on the list and cited as dangerous by NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk). Though spanking is also highly debated in the United States, and each state regulates it differently, never has there been such a level of censure as currently exists in Germany.

Criminal justice research institute study

Though not new, the debate over spanking was heightened by a study put out by Lower Saxony’s criminal justice research institute in which a correlation was found between religiosity and “domestic violence” (Pfeiffer and Baier, 2012). The more religious the family, the more prone parents were to spank their children. Whereas the degree of religiosity made virtually no difference for Roman Catholic and State church Lutheran families, the percentages of “heavy violence” climbed rapidly in Evangelical Free Church families.

The study set out to prove that children who are spanked become more violent than their unspanked counterparts. 44,610 ninth graders of German descent took part in the study (11, 831 were Catholic, 11, 627 were Protestant and 431 were Free Church evangelicals). Students from the former East Germany were excluded from the study because 75.8% of them do not belong to any religion. The result of the study was surprising. The violent act quotient reached 10.6 % for Catholic youth, 11.6% for Protestant youth and only 10% for free evangelical youth. The children who were the most violent were those whose parents were non-religious (16.3% non-religious Catholics and 16.5 % non-religious Protestants). The more religious the family, the less violent the kids.

“The result that free evangelical youth display the lowest rate of violence and that the rate of violence proportionally decreases with the rate of religiosity is surprising within this group, based on the findings of intra-familial violence.” Pfeiffer and Baier explain the statistics this way: “It appears plausible that very religious parents in free evangelical churches who raise their children with beatings exercise a high degree of control over the social activities of their boys and girls and also create a pronounced fear of painful consequences for misbehavior. On the one hand, this kind of discipline might have the effect that they have less opportunity to translate the frustration over the violence they have suffered into personal acts of violence against others and, on the other hand, act out of fear and conformism.”  Pfeiffer and Baier don’t consider that there may be a positive link between spanking and the outcome of decreased violence. What if Christian parents don’t view spanking as “violence” and are teaching their kids not to act out violently?

Problem of categories and terminology

For the study, young people were asked how they had been treated in their childhood, before age 12 and how they were treated in the last 12 months. Acts of parental violence were categorized as following. “Light” violence included: a slap in the face, being grabbed or pushed harshly, or a thrown object. “Heavy” violence was described as “being hit with an object, being punched, kicked or receiving a beating.” The problem with such a categorization is that angry reactive violence on the part of the parent falls in the “light” violence category and that deliberate, controlled spanking, whether with the hand or an implement, falls in the category “heavy” violence. This means parents who spank systematically are singled out as criminals, whereas parents who get angry erratically and slap their children in the face or push them down the stairs are less guilty. There is also a semantics problem in German. There is no good word for the verb “to spank.” Schlagen, which is the word used for spank has a wide semantic range.  So if the children were asked: “Wurdest Du geschlagen?” it could mean anything from “were you spanked, hit, beat, struck, tapped, banged, pounded, punched or battered?” By lumping terminology, it is easy to criminalize parents who have the best of intentions. Arguably, as the law is phrased, it leaves no wiggle room whatsoever. Any form of corporal punishment, including mild spanking, is viewed as abuse. However, it must be admitted that there are different grades of violence and different motives involved. Spanking is not the same as beating. One is proactive, the other reactive. One has the goal to restore, the other to destroy.

Problem with history

Germany has a very difficult time with its past. The Nazi authoritarian government that demanded absolute, uncritical obedience and led its people down the path to mass murder left an indelible black mark on the German consciousness. Germans do not want to be accused of being aggressors, ever again. They tend to be pacifist and oppose each and every form of violence. Obedience is no longer a positive value in child-rearing. Children are taught to speak their mind, question authority and develop a sense of autonomy. Any book or teaching that promotes “breaking the child’s will” or expecting obedience is seen as extremist and despicable, especially if these goals are reached by exerting force. And, as with many issues, the proverbial baby is thrown out with the bathwater. Since spanking might be abused, it’s better to ban it altogether. If asked, no loving, responsible German parent who spanks their child would see it as child abuse. Unfortunately, abuse still happens, but truth be told, abuse is not limited solely to religious, spanking families. Here in Germany, very few people can understand that spanking can be done in a loving way. Spanking is unenlightened and equated with cruelty. Spanking in love is an oxymoron to most German ears.

Singling out evangelicals

As with homeschooling, the issue of spanking has targeted evangelical Christians in particular because they take the Bible and its implications for their parental responsibilities seriously. For German non-Christians who spanked, it was simply a matter of a superficial switch of child-rearing methods. For Christians who spank, it is often a matter of conscience and principle. Evangelicals who believe that verses such as Proverbs 13:24 are prescriptive (He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him) will not stop spanking their children. Others, including Christian organizations that would risk being shut down if the government found out that they endorsed spanking, have changed their exegesis to accommodate the new laws. Team F., a Christian organization that focuses on marriage and family counseling, has retracted its prior view of spanking and endorsed a non-literal interpretation of certain verses in the Old Testament. This particular organization claims that spanking is part of an obsolete Mosaic Covenant. But for the former group of evangelicals, those who still see spanking as biblical and applicable today, there is a decision to make. Do I abide by the law of land or do I use spanking as a form of discipline, risking becoming a criminal in the eyes of the State? This is an instance when the law of the land contradicts the law of God, and, for them, it becomes an issue of obeying God rather than men.  According to the law, the State is required to intervene in situations where the physical or emotional well-being of the child is at risk. Such an intervention might require taking children away from their parents, if they refuse to comply (§§ 1666, 1666a BGB). A clash of worldviews is inevitable surrounding the issue of spanking and it’s not going away any time soon. We can expect more and more cases in which evangelicals are incriminated for spanking.

Whereas up until 2000, spanking was a State-sanctioned and regulated tool for discipline, it is now a criminal offense. Though German parents cannot spank, they certainly do resort to yelling insults, shaming, bribing, and other forms of demeaning behavior. The irony of the matter is that many public school teachers and sport coaches use yelling and shaming as their primary disciplinary method. The emotional harm inflicted on children by government-paid professionals is strictly and explicitly forbidden by the same law that forbids spanking. The old saying “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me” couldn’t be farther from the truth. Demeaning words spoken by parents, teachers or coaches can leave emotional wounds that run far deeper than a smack on the hand or a swat on the bottom administered by a loving parent. And yet, to my knowledge, there are no known cases of someone being arrested for verbally abusing children.

To read the NDR news and study, go here. [Editor’s note: the original URL (link) referenced in this article is no longer valid, so the link has been removed.]

Eowyn Stoddard and her husband David are MTW missionaries in Berlin, Germany, where they have been church-planting for 12 years.