Doctrine may conflict with rod-sparing bill in state Assembly
Parents who belong to the Bethel Baptist Church in El Sobrante are told in no uncertain terms: Spank your children or oppose God’s will.
The church, which also runs the 200-student Bethel Christian Academy, discourages parents from using their hands and recommends using a “rod” or flexible stick to swat children until their will is broken. But an eight-panel church pamphlet with corporal punishment instructions does caution against using instruments such as hairbrushes, cords or two-by-fours.
“Corporal punishment is not something you do to the child, it’s something you do for the child,” said Bethel Pastor David Sutton, who wrote the pamphlet. “Your goal as a parent is to correct the child or get him back on the right path.”
According to the pamphlet, parents who do not practice corporal punishment are depriving their children of the only method God says produces wisdom, and risk directly opposing God’s will.
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Though the pamphlet does not describe anything unlawful, Contra Costa County Children and Family Services is concerned about the church’s policy, CFS Division Manager Stacie Buchanan said.
“There’s a very fine line between discipline and abuse,” she said. “If you go over the line, you risk having us involved.”
Determining abuse can be tricky, depending to some degree on a parent’s attitude, Buchanan said. State law defines physical abuse as any corporal punishment that results in injury or a traumatic condition, such as severe bruising.
“If it’s a mark that might go away in a day, that’s excessive and would cause alarm, but does not constitute abuse,” Buchanan said.
The debate over spanking goes beyond just one church’s policy, and a bill making its way through the state Assembly could force changes at Bethel Baptist.
The bill, which passed the Assembly’s Public Safety Committee last week, would allow adults to use an open hand to spank a child but prohibit hitting with a stick, switch, rod, closed fist, electrical cord or other objects.
Bethel Baptist has had problems with its corporal punishment policy. Earlier this year, the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office removed a foster child from the care of a church family, Sutton said. CFS and the sheriff’s office declined to comment this week on the removal, but Sutton said it was related to corporal punishment.
“We guide our lives according to the Bible, not (Children and Family Services),” he said. “We believe (CFS) was wrong.”
Church policy on corporal punishment is sometimes misunderstood or exaggerated, said Pastor Kent Brandenburg, the leader of the independent church, which is not affiliated with any denomination and bases all church activities on the word of the Bible as written.
“People think all we do is turn our kids into hamburger or that we don’t love them,” Brandenburg said, adding that the church strongly prohibits using insulting language toward children. “The thing is, it’s fair and we’re not hurting them in terms of injuring them, and afterwards, the guilt is gone. The kid doesn’t have to sit around and think she might be a pig.”
Sonya Prophet, a church member and parent of two daughters ages 17 and 22, said her children are well-adjusted and that her family has a loving relationship. In fact, Prophet, who was not raised in the church, said she remembers her parents yelling at her much more than the times she received spankings.
“Yelling is personal, and what the child did that was wrong gets lost in the parent’s anger,” she said. “With my girls, the spanking relieved them of their guilt, which allowed them to be happy in a very short time afterward.”
If parents do use corporal punishment, they also should use other methods of discipline such as timeouts and restrictions on activities, Buchanan said
But the church directs parents to spank for all disobedience, because all other methods are not designed by God.
“We disagree with timeouts as a family,” said Sutton, who has two children. “That’s an attack on spanking.”
In a 2001 study, University of California, Berkeley, research psychologists Diana Baumrind and Elizabeth Owens followed 100 families who used light or moderate corporal punishment for 12 years. The study concluded that occasional spanking does not damage a child’s social or emotional development.
Owens said this week that she would rather not comment on the Bethel Baptist Church’s spanking policy as a research psychologist. “But I can tell you that as a mother and a person (and a Christian), I found the school’s promotion of and instructions for regular spanking of children to be very disturbing,” she said.
Adjunct professor Susan Holloway of the UC Berkeley School of Education said she was particularly alarmed by the pamphlet’s recommendation that parents swat their children repeatedly until their will is broken.
“That is not any kind of comment a psychologist would endorse,” Holloway said. “Getting along in this world requires children to assert their own will, and it’s not good to stifle a child’s. This is way over the top.”
Brandenburg insists that the goal is to break children of bad behavior and return them to a righteous path.
“There’s a difference between breaking the spirit and breaking a child’s willfulness,” he said.