Conservative Protestant Child Discipline:
Authority and Affection in Evangelical Families
John P. Bartowski, W. Bradford Wilcox,
and Christopher G. Ellison
Authority in Evangelical Homes
An emphasis on parental authority—and children’s compliance with household rules—is one of the most distinctive features of evangelical family life. Conservative Protestant parents tend to value children’s obedience while generally downplaying the importance of youngsters’ autonomy. Apart from the parental valuation of obedience, the lines of authority in conservative Protestant families are demarcated and affirmed by the more frequent use of corporal punishment in such homes. Many conservative Protestant leaders—from James Dobson of Focus on the Family to pastors in grassroots evangelical congregations—strongly encourage the use of corporal punishment when parents are confronted by children’s willful defiance against house rules. Recommendations in favor of corporal punishment are coupled with the mandate that parents clearly articulate their behavioral expectations to children, and are accompanied by caveats that urge leniency in the face of mitigating circumstances (e.g., a sick child, age-appropriate parental expectations).
Yet, there can be no mistaking the fact that under normal circumstances, evangelical parents are urged to respond to a child’s willful defiance through the use of physical discipline. In fact, many best-selling evangelical advice authors explicitly instruct parents to spank defiant children early in the face of willful disobedience—before tempers flare—to offset the chance that physical punishment might escalate into abuse. Moreover, many of these commentators recommend that parents use a neutral instrument (e.g., a wooden spoon, switch, or small paddle) rather than their hand to spank their children so that youngsters will not confuse the parent’s touch with physical pain. At the same time, evangelical child-rearing experts discourage the use of parental yelling as a means of discipline. In their view, yelling signals a loss of control by the parent, breeds disrespect in children, and is seen as both ineffective and abusive.
Our survey research reveals that, on average, evangelical parents spank their children considerably more often than their non-evangelical counterparts. Interestingly, these same parents also yell at their youngsters significantly less than their peers. So, evangelical parents seem to be heeding the advice they receive from leading religious conservatives. Taken together, these findings suggest that spankings in evangelical homes are more narrowly circumscribed around specific infractions and are considerably more controlled than those meted out in other households where spankings occur. Within this religious subculture, specific passages in the Bible (e.g., Proverbs 13:24, 22:14; 2 Samuel 7:14) are interpreted to support corporal punishment. Other scriptural passages (e.g., Hebrews 12:5-11) are understood as connecting such discipline with parental love and concern. These readings of scripture, then, support the frequent—yet bounded and restrained—use of corporal punishment by evangelical parents.
Evangelicals’ enthusiastic support for obedience and corporal punishment has caused many social commentators (e.g., mainline theologians, secular parenting experts) to dismiss conservative Protestant child-rearing methods as backward and harmful to children. However, our analyses of conservative Protestant parenting advice manuals and survey data with evangelical parents suggest that corporal punishment in evangelical homes may insulate children from the negative effects typically associated with physical discipline. As noted, evangelical parenting experts have written volumes of advice manuals describing what they define as the proper administration of corporal punishment. Moreover, we surmise that physical discipline takes on a unique meaning within this religious subculture because conservative Protestant leaders define corporal punishment as a demonstration of love and concern for the psychological, social, and spiritual well-being of youngsters.
Affectionate Parenting in Evangelical Households
There is a complementary element of evangelical child-rearing—namely, a focus on affection—that counterbalances this religious subculture’s emphasis on parental authority. Conservative Protestant parents are not only more likely to spank their children. As it turns out, these caregivers are considerably more inclined to affirm their youngsters with frequent hugs and words of praise. For those situated within this religious subculture, the evangelical emphasis on affectionate child-rearing comes as no surprise. The very same conservative Protestant advice manuals that highly recommend the spanking of children have whole chapters dedicated to the more tender side of effective child-rearing. Because evangelicals see the nature of children as a product of willfulness and tenderness, physical discipline is encouraged to "shape the will" while regular displays of affection and support are urged to "build the spirit." Thus, the careful use of physical discipline, admonitions against yelling, and open emotional expression directed at children are seen as complementary—not contradictory—parenting tools among evangelical caregivers.
Evangelical child-rearing manuals, many of which have sold millions of copies, also admonish fathers not to become so engrossed in their professional careers that they neglect the needs of their wives and children. This advice, commonly reinforced from pulpits in local evangelical congregations, seems to be getting through to the men situated at the grassroots of this religious subculture. Conservative Protestant fathers report considerably more involvement with their youngsters than their mainline and non-religious counterparts. Higher levels of paternal involvement within evangelicalism are not spurred on merely words of encouragement articulated by religious luminaries. Within local conservative Protestant churches across the nation, pro-father language is coupled with an array of faith-based youth activities (e.g., Boy Scouts, youth groups, father-child events) that regularly give evangelical men a multitude of opportunities to spend time with their own children and to sharpen their caregiving and mentoring skills with other youngsters.
Research on U.S. fathers at large has shown that for many American men, the iconic "new father"—the nurturing, involved, and emotionally in-tune dad of the late twentieth century—remains a hazy image and an unrealized dream. The reality behind the gloss of "new fatherhood" is that broad cultural and economic shifts have prompted men—and increasingly women—to privilege their work lives over their family commitments. Yet, by effectively carving out a distinctive, neo-traditional niche for fathers to fill within the household, conservative Protestant congregations and social movements (such as the Promise Keepers) have made it possible for men to strike the delicate balance between work and family by putting their faith into action within the home.
Evangelical Parenting: Toward a Reconsideration
Given the fact that evangelical child-rearing melds authority-minded and emotionally expressive parenting styles, the time is right to reconsider the one-dimensional portraits of conservative Protestant parents—and, particularly, notions of an authoritarian evangelical father. These unflattering and inaccurate depictions have held sway in American culture for far too long. To be sure, evangelicals distinguish themselves from most other parents by the premium that they place on children’s obedience and by their more frequent use of corporal punishment. However, critics of religious conservatives would do well to remember that many of the values embraced in progressive quarters—i.e., admonitions against parental yelling, encouragement of open emotional expression and paternal involvement—are clearly present within evangelical homes. Indeed, these progressive parenting strategies are utilized more by evangelicals than by other parents. The portrait that emerges from research on conservative Protestant child-rearing paints a more complicated and balanced picture of parenting within a religious subculture that, by some estimates, is comprised by nearly twenty percent of the American population. This unique amalgam of traditional and progressive child-rearing practices is not producing discernible negative developmental outcomes in evangelical youth. Quite to the contrary, existing evidence suggests that evangelical parenting yields positive benefits for the children raised in such homes.
The Authors’ Research on Evangelical Parenting
The authors are in the process of writing a book, God’s Children: Parenting Ideology and Practice in Evangelical Families, on this subject. Their previous work on evangelical child-rearing includes the following publications and research papers.
Bartkowski, John P. 1995. "Spare the Rod..., or Spare the Child? Divergent Perspectives on Conservative Protestant Child Discipline." Review of Religious Research 37: 97-116.
* This article compares elite evangelical justifications for corporal punishment with academic and popular criticisms of this parenting practice.
Bartkowski, John P. 1996. "Beyond Biblical Literalism and Inerrancy: Conservative Protestants and the Hermeneutic Interpretation of Scripture." Sociology of Religion 57: 259-272.
* Using conservative Protestant advice manuals, this study examines the biblical interpretations and scriptural debates concerning evangelical parenting; this article also examines the scriptural basis of evangelical debates over submission within marriage.
Bartkowski, John P. 1999. "One Step Forward, One Step Back: ‘Progressive Traditionalism’ and the Negotiation of Domestic Labor within Evangelical Families." Gender Issues 17: 40-64.
* This article investigates how select evangelical families struggle to balance the commitments associated with parenting, housework, and employment.
Bartkowski, John P. 2001. Remaking the Godly Marriage: Gender Negotiation in Evangelical Families. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.
* This book examines marriage and parenting in evangelical homes, with special attention to the family practices recommended in conservative Protestant family advice manuals and their influence on the household practices of Texas evangelical families.
Bartkowski, John P., and Christopher G. Ellison. 1995. "Divergent Models of Childrearing: Conservative Protestants vs. the Mainstream Experts." Sociology of Religion 56: 21-34.
* This article compares parenting strategies recommended in best-selling evangelical and secular child-rearing advice manuals.
Bartkowski, John P., and W. Bradford Wilcox. 2000. "Conservative Protestant Child Discipline: The Case of Parental Yelling." Social Forces 79: 265-290.
* This study examines evangelical advice manuals and national survey data concerning parents’ use of yelling to discipline their children.
Bartkowski, John P., W. Bradford Wilcox, and Christopher G. Ellison. 2000. "Charting the Paradoxes of Evangelical Family Life: Gender and Parenting in Conservative Protestant Households." Family Ministry 14: 9-21.
* This review essay discusses the unique contours of evangelical marital and parent-child relations; it summarizes the authors’ collective and independent research on these topics.
Bartkowski, John P., and Xiaohe Xu. 2000 "Distant Patriarchs or Expressive Dads? The Discourse and Practice of Fathering in Conservative Protestant Families." The Sociological Quarterly 41: 465-485.
* This article compares fathers’ involvement with children in evangelical, mainline, and non-religious households.
Ellison, Christopher G. 1996. "Conservative Protestantism and the Corporal Punishment of Children: Clarifying the Issues." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 35: 1-16.
* This study summarizes the current state of research on evangelical child discipline and discusses issues that should be explored in future research on this topic.
Ellison, Christopher G., and John P. Bartkowski. 1997. "Religion and the Legitimation of Violence: Conservative Protestantism and Corporal Punishment." Pp. 45-67 in The Web of Violence: From Interpersonal to Global, edited by Jennifer Turpin and Lester R. Kurtz. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
* This book chapter discusses the ideological rationales and theological values underlying conservative Protestant support for corporal punishment.
Ellison, Christopher G., John P. Bartkowski, and Michelle L. Segal. 1996. "Conservative Protestantism and the Parental Use of Corporal Punishment." Social Forces 74: 1003-1028.
* This article summarizes elite evangelical advice on child discipline and analyzes national survey data to explore the frequency with which corporal punishment is used in evangelical homes.
Ellison, Christopher G., John P. Bartkowski, and Michelle L. Segal. 1996. "Do Conservative Protestant Parents Spank More Often? Further Evidence from the National Survey of Families and Households." Social Science Quarterly 77: 663-673.
* This study uses national survey data to explore the use of corporal punishment by evangelical parents and their non-evangelical peers.
Ellison, Christopher G., Marc A. Musick, and George W. Holden. 1999. "The Effects of Corporal Punishment on Young Children: Are They Less Harmful for Conservative Protestants?" Paper presented at the annual meetings of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, Boston, MA.
*This study explores the effects of corporal punishment on the development of conservative Protestant children.
Ellison, Christopher G., and Darren E. Sherkat. 1993. Conservative Protestantism and Support for Corporal Punishment. American Sociological Review 58: 131-144.
* This article examines the degree and source of support for corporal punishment among evangelical Protestants.
Ellison, Christopher G., and Darren E. Sherkat. 1993. "Obedience and Autonomy: Religion and Parental Values Reconsidered." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32: 313-329.
* This study compares the child-rearing values embraced by evangelical parents and other caregivers.
Wilcox, W. Bradford (1998). Conservative Protestant Parenting: Authoritarian or Authoritative? American Sociological Review 63: 796-809.
* This article examines the ways in which evangelical parents demonstrate emotional support for their children, thereby challenging depictions that define evangelical child-rearing as authoritarian.
Wilcox, W. Bradford. 1999. "Emerging Attitudes about Gender Roles and Fatherhood." Pp. 219-239 in The Faith Factor in Fatherhood, edited by Don Eberly. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
* This book chapter explores the relationship between religious affiliation, gender attitudes, and paternal involvement.
Wilcox, W. Bradford, and John P. Bartkowski. 1999. "The Evangelical Family Paradox: Conservative Rhetoric, Progressive Practice." The Responsive Community 9: 34-39.
* This essay discusses the ways in which conservative Protestant families meld traditional and progressive elements of child-rearing.