Societies with Western roots—the Hutterites, Amish and Tristan Islanders—tend to use corporal punishment on their children more than other peaceful societies, which are often much more permissive. However, some Hutterites are changing their approaches to child rearing, according to a recent journal article by Suzanne R. Smith and Bron Ingoldsby.

The authors describe the traditional, punishment-based, strategies which were laid down by a Hutterite leader of the mid-sixteenth century, Peter Riedemann. Riedemann wrote that children must be taught obedience, not ideas. Children are considered to be self-centered and weak—they must have constant discipline in order to overcome their selfish tendencies. Though corporal punishment has never been the sole, or even the primary, instrument of raising children in Hutterite society, young people have traditionally been required to conquer their selfish wants and to obey God, parents, and authority figures.

The Hutterites are a communal society, but they allow infants and toddlers to be cared for by their parents. In the traditional Hutterite home, discipline is firm, though loving. It is essential for parents to break their children’s wills. While Hutterites believe that children are born sinful, they feel they can be saved by being submissive to God. Corporal punishment may be frequent in some traditional homes.

Smith and Ingoldsby emphasize the Hutterite belief that it is much more important to teach children to behave correctly than it is for them to learn to think effectively. Children are not taught to grow intellectually or morally, and self-discipline is not important to them. It is not up to the child to figure out right from wrong. They must accept the given truths, without question.

Those beliefs, instructed in the homes, are also taught in the schools. Children start going to kindergarten at age three, which they attend all day, six days of the week, except during the summer. They are cared for in the kindergartens by several women of the colony, who continue to enforce control and discipline. Young children learn to be respectful and obedient while they eat, nap, sing, and memorize lessons together. They grow up identifying with their age groups.

Between ages six and fifteen, they attend the English school on the colony grounds, where they learn the English language and other subjects in a curriculum that provincial or state officials and the colony have approved. Children also attend classes in the German school at the colony each day, where they study the German language plus their own society and culture.

The authors base their impressions of Hutterite child raising—and the way it is gradually changing—on their decades of participant observations in numerous colonies. While corporal punishment is still common, it is being used less and less, particularly by younger parents. Parents may slap a child on the bottom with an open hand, a small strap, or a wooden switch. While children will cry when punished, they may wink at one another to communicate that it doesn’t really hurt all that much.

Use of the strap is particularly threatening, and Hutterite children are aware that certain types of behaviors, such as showing disrespect to adults, will inevitably result in a strapping. As a result, the authors claim, the strap is always a threat—a symbol of authority. While parents and teachers have the right to physically discipline children, older siblings, who often care for them, do not.

The authors argue that strapping, though often talked about, is really rare among the Hutterites. Spanking is more common, but probably no more so than outside the colonies. Hutterite adults are discriminating: they judge the appropriateness of different forms of discipline depending on the child. One mother told the authors that she has to spank her oldest child—nothing else seems to work—but she just sits down and talks with her youngest, since spanking would be too devastating for him.

Smith, who had the easier access to the women in the colonies she visited, frequently asked mothers how their discipline practices have been changing in recent decades. Most would admit that, while they themselves experienced frequent physical punishment as children, things are different today. Spanking is becoming rare. “We are much more creative in our discipline today,” one woman told the author (p.292). Another woman, a grandmother, also admitted that things were changing. “My daughter will try many things with her kids before strapping or spanking them, and just having the threat of the strap seems to be enough for these kids today (p.292).”

The change is usually related to the age of the parents—younger ones are much less inclined to use corporal punishment. Influenced by their own schooling and the trends in the broader society, they feel that there are more effective ways of raising kids. One young woman, a substitute teacher, told the authors that she would never strike a child—“we have kinder ways now (p.293).”

While the Hutterite parents still accept the basic beliefs of their society about raising children to be subject to the will of God, the methods they practice are clearly changing. Parents are much more likely to spoil their infants and toddlers than they would have done several decades ago. Overall, while people still trust the wisdom of the colony to make decisions about raising their children, individual parents may sometimes undermine community control by giving them more freedom than the colony itself might allow.

Hutterite parents are increasingly trying to strike a balance between fostering too permissive and too authoritarian an environment. Without question, the authors maintain, parents still are very generous and genuine in their love for their children, as they have always been. It is the need for physical discipline that seems to be diminishing.

Smith, Suzanne R. and Bron Ingoldsby. 2009. “The Role of Discipline in Hutterite Child Rearing.” Family and Consumer Sciences Research Journal 37: 284-297