Amish and Spanking

On November 6, Dr. Donald Kraybill wrote an article about Amish and spanking for The Huffington Post, and Erik Wesner posted a follow-up on Amish America. Below is my response to these articles.

“They also note that the book of Hebrews suggests that God disciplines Christians as a father disciplines a son and that such discipline yields "the peaceable fruit of righteousness" (Hebrews 12:11).”

There are several ways of looking at this verse, depending on one’s view of how God disciplines Christians. If I imagine the view of God in the Middle Ages, He sits on his His throne up in the heavens, watching for someone to sin, and then sends a bolt of lightening to strike that person down. This belief would leave the impression that humans are not good on their own, it is only when God “makes them nice” with the threat of punishment that people do the right thing.

It was in the Middle Ages that the Anabaptists’ beliefs were formed, and they were persecuted for their beliefs as is witnessed in The Martyr’s Mirror, a book found in nearly every Amish home.  Perhaps the persecution they endured explains why the Amish religion is still so punitive today. Punishment, or the threat of it, as a way of “making people nice” is very much a part of the belief system in Amish communities, which they instill in children from the time they can understand the concept. This is evident from Naomi’s comments about spankings. I had never heard the folding hands for prayer indicator of when a child is old enough to be corrected, but my severe grandmother had a similar one when she claimed that when a child is aware enough to put a comb to its head, then the child is old enough to be spanked.

Many of the comments concerning Dr. Donald Kraybill’s article have focused on spanking as correction for children, versus no correction. There are many ways to correct a child — spanking being only one of them.  The manner in which we do that is important in conveying the values we want to instill in our children. For instance, early on we need to establish that “no” means “no” and that the parent, not the child, is in charge.

Going back to the verse about a father disciplining a son the way God disciplines Christians  — in my opinion, the way God disciplines humans is by cause and effect, “what you reap you will sow.” If someone becomes a habitual liar, then people stop believing what that person has to say, even when she occasionally tells the truth. If I bully someone, that person is going to be afraid of me. And one thing I’ve noticed is that it is impossible to be afraid of someone and love her too. Therefore, if I want people to love me, I cannot bully them (including children).  It also works in the positive — if I appreciate something and thank God for it, I find joy (I see gratitude and joy as one in the same). If someone does a good deed, she is sure to be a recipient of a good deed. In this way, we learn that what we reap we will sow.

Why wouldn’t we teach our children that there are natural consequences to their actions also? This establishes true authority, without resorting to using our physical strength against a small, defenseless person. Spanking is taking the easy way out, in my opinion. Teaching natural consequences takes a lot more thought and discipline on the part of the parent. It seems to me anger or frustration would have to be present, otherwise why hit a child at all? For me, there is just this enormous disconnect between having affection for a child and intentionally hurting him.

If people get the willies about the phrase “breaking the child’s will” there is a good reason for that.  “Breaking the will” is exactly what the Amish mean. My father often used that term and he meant to do just that. I did not get spankings as a child — I got beatings. I cannot speak for all Amish parents, but I know with my own parents there was a great deal of anger and frustration that came with those beatings.  The physical pain was nearly unbearable, not to mention the emotional turmoil that comes of being overwhelmed by someone so much bigger, stronger, and more powerful.

If the Amish are successful in breaking their children’s will, it means the children become compliant because they are afraid to be otherwise, which makes them vulnerable to abuses.

The most important aspect of Amish children’s compliance is that they will not question the Amish ways. When they become members of the church, they will be asked to give up their individuality to become part of the community twice a year in communion services. And those who have been “made nice” are happy to accommodate.

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17 thoughts on “Amish and Spanking”

  1. Hi Saloma,

    I’ve been reading your blog for a few weeks (love it!) and felt compelled to respond to this thought provoking post.

    The idea of “to spank or not to spank” is found amongst the “english” as well (as I’m sure you know).

    I cannot agree with you more on your stance about not spanking.

    My husband and I use reason and explainations to discpline our sons: there is no reason to inflict pain. My eldest is the most well behaved, caring, great kid… with his will still fully intact.

    When he’s done a wrong, he *asks* us to punish him (take away TV time, etc) because he deserves it. And because we have open communication, there is mutal respect between parents and child.

    My youngest is still in diapers, but he already understands “no” and that Mom and Dad mean it. I am confidant that neither of my boys will ever require physical violence to correct behaviour and yet you would be hard pressed to find more well behaved, well mannered children.

    It’s a shame more parents don’t understand this.


  2. Saloma, you hit the nail square on the head. I had never connected the Amish spankings with the middle age mentality. But I think it is true. I am going to share your blog with my Facebook friends.

  3. I can’t tell you what an overwhelming physical reaction I felt in my body in response to reading this. Having grown up with a Dad who grew up being abused horribly in the name of discipline, and then switching to Mennonites of a very conservative branch where spankings were preached and preached and preached . . . you can imagine the ugly results. As a parent I have struggled long and hard to find a road that worked with my children. I’ve mostly ended up in the “Love and Logic” a la Foster and Cline–my children (who I have a great relationship with!) will tell me that a spanking would be easier than logical consequences. Something seems to be working. My children are growing up and turning towards God, and are happy, functional teens and on down. I’m thanking God for His mercies . . . and am thankful that my children’s wills are molded to God–but NOT broken!! I totally agree with you that “broken willed” children are susceptible to abuse of EVERY KIND–even as adults. And they in turn will repeat the cycle, because they don’t recognize HOW to live in a functional and healthy manner. Satan has really done a sneaky number on the plain churches as a whole with the damaging teaching of “spank till the will is broken”.

  4. I agree that the will is broken intentionally. This is fertile ground for all kinds of intimidation and abuse. Spankings were for me a time of sheer terror as a child. My perception of God was tainted as I had an image of God as a God of terror who would strike at us without reason. This is one way of keeping Amish youth Amish. But Kraybill’s approach to Amish ways always leaves me disappointed because he glosses over anything negative. I’m sure others share the feeling.

  5. “I’ve noticed is that it is impossible to be afraid of someone and love her too.” These words of yours really hit home for me. I was raised in a spanking home. We are raising our daughter in a non-spanking home.

  6. Oh, so thought provoking! You are right: it is a matter of breaking the will. I wish more English could understand the pain many Amish children endure–both physical and emotional. Perhaps then the idea of a rosy “plain” life would lose a bit of its glow.

  7. I will have to disagree with totally no spanking. The Bible is clear on “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” Notice though, I said spanking, NOT beating. There is a difference between the two. The spanking times with our children nearly always end with talking about what they did wrong, then a simple little prayer that Jesus can help them to be a good boy/girl. Sometimes we go and have a story yet. Our children are not afraid of us. It’s not unusual, after a discipline session, that the child wants to be with that parent, ‘helping’ with whatever we are doing at the moment.
    My experiences with spanking while growing up were not that positive. We got whupped, then had to sit until we were quiet, with a warning of more to come if we didn’t stop sobbing soon. I remember having black and blue marks a few times. My dad especially got whipped severely a few times while growing up, so my parents were using the only discipline methods that they knew.
    I also do not believe in spanking an older child. That is very humiliating! Our oldest is 6 and seldom gets spanked anymore. Most times, talking to him and/or taking away a priviledge will suffice.

  8. Saloma, an interesting thought on the Anabaptist / middle ages connection to corporal punishment. It certainly makes sense.

    However, I would agree with rally 74 on spankings. You can break a child’s will (to disobey) without breaking their spirit. This is how my husband and I were both raised.

    There is NEVER any place for anger where spanking is concerned and my kids “outgrew” their spankings (and their need for them) by 6 or 7 years of age. They were still naughty, though and then taking away privileges worked just fine. As much as I wanted to be a no spanking parent, I found out that all the talking and reasoning and “taking away” did not seem to help until they were older.

    Two of my children are now parents and only one of them is able to get away with “no spanking.” Every child is different.

  9. Maybe what some people are missing here is that 1)spanking is sometimes the ONLY discipline method used by Amish parents (and their cousins in other plain groups) and 2)the idea is to break not just the will, but the spirit. How many of you pro-spankers want a child whose only adjustment and goal in life is to work hard and obey? Also, while just about everyone agrees that spanking should not be done in anger, that is not a concept that is uniformly preached, taught, or practiced in plain culture. No one is perfect, and some plain parents do far more than just spank out of anger.

  10. In my experience, most parents do their best. Often, they just duplicate their own parents’ methods without especially thinking it through. I was spanked severely and repeatedly throughout my childhood (French Catholic, for what it’s worth). My mother has evolved greatly since then.

    Talking to her as an adult, I understand something of the overwhelming frustration she felt as a young mother and her belief that she was doing what she thought was right.

    I think if I had married and had children young, I probably would have done the same. I am grateful that I waited and went into marriage and parenthood with much better strategies and resources.

    I hope I’ve improved upon my mother’s job and that my daughter improves on mine.

  11. Thank you everyone, for your thoughtful comments. Cora, welcome, and I’m glad you are enjoying my posts. You sound like a wonderful mother, and someday they will thank you for setting appropriate limits and for doing it in such a way as to leave their dignity intact.

    Katie, until I started thinking about the post by Donald Kraybill, I also hadn’t connected the two. Thank you very much for sharing the post with your Facebook friends.

    Anonymous, so glad your children are learning good lessons in life without you repeating the family patterns… those take a lot of conscious thoughts to break. I do think the Amish are misguided in thinking that they need to break their children’s wills.

    Eli Stutzman, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Sheer terror is the right description of the spankings, or rather beatings, I got as a child and young woman. Going by your name, and what you’ve shared, I am thinking you also grew up Amish. It sometimes is hard to read the things written about the Amish that don’t address some of the deeper issues that those of us who have lived the life have experienced and know are experienced by others in the community. But that is precisely why it’s important for those of us who have lived the life to talk and write about our experiences. The same way the myths about the Amish were started… by word of mouth and by writing down these myths (as depicted by Amish romance novels, and to some degree the research that exists now) is also how we can have people learn some of the deeper truths that only those of us who have lived the life can tell.

    Sharon, I’m so glad that resonated with you. I’ve also noticed that I’ve never hated someone I wasn’t afraid of. Blessings to you and your children.

    Dee, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Were you Amish as a child? I noticed you are writing Amish fiction. I trust it’s more realistic than most Amish fiction out there now.

    Rally, thank you for respectfully disagreeing with what I had to say. That is what makes the world go around… that not everyone agrees with one another. Until you mentioned it, I had forgotten that my mother would also determine when I should be done “sniffling” with a threat of another spanking if I didn’t. And black and blue marks and welts were hidden under my dress for days.

    Blessings on you and your children.

    Peggy, thank you for your thoughts on the question. I think the Amish don’t make the distinction between breaking the will and the spirit, unfortunately. We all do the best we know how when we parent, and I’m sure you do, too. And you’re right, every child is different.

    Monica, thank you for your insights. I am always amazed at how you understand so much from the perspective of the Mennonite culture. There must be some pretty fundamental similarities between the Amish and the Mennonites that I was never aware of before.

    Angelle, thank you so much for your great thoughts. I love that idea that you have improved on your mother’s parenting strategies and that you hope your daughter improves on yours. Inherent in that idea is that much as we hope we are doing the right thing, we do not have all the answers, and someone can improve on our methods.

    Thank you all, for a wonderful dialog. Very thought-provoking, indeed.

  12. my kids have asked us if we would consider spanking them as opposed to the natural consequences they have been allowed to face by me,lol! so there you have it…I don’t think that spankings are entirely a no no by the way…in Canada the law is 2 taps with a bare and opened hand on the behind…I think that if that is what your version of a spanking is that would be why the children would prefer to get spanked as oppossed to the natural consequences…I don’t see the point to spanking any way my kids think it is funny so I guess I didn’t know how or something…well it is probably because I couldn’t bring myself to apply enough preasure to cause pain…and I have good kids…that is because I believe spankings aside the number one parenting method God has used with me is to show me how much he loves me…I teach my kids what it means to interact with God through real life examples and he has never made me feel like I am a sloth or a rebel or a no good…personally I believe to spare the rod is to fail to teach them who he is and so I do…my idea of discipline is that my daughter can have the ipod touch all her friends are sporting in a year she has to memorize and rehash 365 bible versus first…this of course imputes the behaviour we are looking for as she is learning how to act…

  13. I know for a fact that some (not all) Amish parents practice not only spankings but severe beatings. I was a victim of many severe beatings at the hands of my now deceased father. I was beat with shovels, pitch forks, horse tugs, chains, sticks, stuck in my back with a pitch fork was the very last straw that caused me to decide to never live like my father. My father had an extremely short and very severe temper that would flair for no reason what-so-ever. There were times I really thought I was going to die at his hands of abuse. The redeeming factor: I was able to fully forgive my father and mother face to face before my father died. I have often though of writing a book on teh conditions of an Amish child growing up at the hands of abusing parents.

  14. Saloma, I just now read your question to me. I am not Amish, but my husband’s family is (though he was raised Mennonite). I am writing honest Amish fiction, and am happy to say I found a publisher (Kregel Publishing) who was looking for realistic Amish fiction. They have contracted me to write a 3 book series based on my former-Amish friend’s experiences. I, along with my husband, work closely with Joe Keim of Mission to Amish People. Our home was used for the PBS filming of Levi Shetler’s story. I am looking forward to reading your book, and plan to have it featured on my blog as a giveaway. I hope you are in this area of Ohio sometime in the future. I would be delighted to meet you.

  15. I know it’s been a while since anyone commented but something in this article sparked my interest. In it the author asks the question why wouldn’t we teach children there are natural consequences for their actions (something like that)?

    I can answer that question. The Amish are not free thinkers nor do they encourage their children to become free thinkers. They believe that it leads to separation from their parents their church and each other and encourages individualization (in time). They believe and teach their children to believe that only through obedience and “following the rules” will they receive Gods glory (and bounty) in the end (at death). They believe that training thier children to follow rules, and not reasoning with them or getting them to understand the why of things, is the only way to stifle children’s individuality and inquisitive nature enabling them to receiving God in the end. In addition when a child (or even a baptized adult) leaves the community it is seen as the parents failure for not guiding them (training them) appropriately

    No I am not Amish nor am I ex-amish but I do have a baptized Amish friend.

  16. Appreciating the hard work you put into your website and detailed information you present.
    It’s good to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same unwanted rehashed information. Excellent read!
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  17. James Cahill III

    To all those people who beat their kids: Be very wary. When a boy gets old enough to defend himself against this abuse, he may go way too far and wind up killing his tormentor. IT HAS HAPPENED BEFORE!

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