The phrase, “Spare the rod, spoil the child” is well-known in western culture but believe it or not it’s not directly from the Bible. It refers to the discipline of children, which is an important topic for parents.
Every family has a choice with how to raise children and this results in a variety of opinions and results.
Psychologists, authors, teachers, doctors, government all have an impact in the actions and opinions of parents, so the topic of discipline and raising children is complicated. Frequently it all comes down to how a person was raised or one’s own justification for parenting decisions.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child” is 1) easy to say, 2) easy to do and 3) associated with the Bible. All three together commend it.
But this can lead to less thinking on the part of parents and naturally, more spanking.
What Does Spare The Rod and Spoil The Child Mean
While the familiar saying of “spare the rod, spoil the child” is not exactly in the Bible as quoted, there are a few Bible verses that refer to the “rod”. These verses are primarily in the Book of Proverbs.
- Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. Proverbs 13:24
- Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him. Proverbs 22:15
- Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. Proverbs 23:13
- The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother. Proverbs 29:15
Solomon is credited with writing Proverbs. He was a very wise man. So, it can be assumed that using a “rod” to “discipline” a child is a good idea; even preferred to not using a rod.
Let’s figure out what a rod might refer to. Obviously, the verses seem to encourage some form of physical consequence for behavior.
A “rod” might be a long stick of some kind. I remember my father describing times when he had to go into the back yard and break off a slender branch for his mother to use on him.
Some individuals have been disciplined with belts used by their parents. As a child in my home, there was a paddle hanging on the porch.
I’ve heard of some parents using wooden spoons. These are all forms of physical punishment.
But I would submit that in the verses above, because the word is “discipline” and not “punishment”, there is more to “applying the rod” than just hitting a child.
The purpose being to demonstrate that the parent is in charge and is to be obeyed. A parent does not have to hit a child to make the point.
Is Spare The Rod and Spoil The Child Literal or Figurative (Or Both)
Few people enjoy the company of a spoiled child. But is hitting a child with a switch, a belt, a paddle, or anything else going to be instructive?
According to Solomon, if you love your child you must be diligent with discipline. But here is the catch. Punishment and discipline are two different things.
In Proverbs 13:24, the Hebrew word discipline means chastisement, training, exhortation, and warning. While physical pain may be included in the mix and the “rod” might be part of that, it cannot and should not be the only method of correction.
In this case, only the most extreme of cases might a “rod” need to be applied.
According to this wisdom, before being punished for misbehaving, children must be instructed in the correct way. Communication should be clear and open, so consequences for disobedience are clear.
It must be tempered with appropriate measures and to focus for consequences should not be on physical pain (also read How to teach a child the trinity).
Just telling a child to “behave” is expecting a lot. When a child is small, they should first be taught the definition of behave.
- Does “behave” mean not talking?
- Does it mean not running in the street or house?
- Does it mean helping others and being truthful?
- How about behavior in regards to being polite?
Each situation is unique, so be considerate of the child and talk to them about what behavior is expected at the park, opposed to at a friend’s house or behavior with grandma, as opposed to in a restaurant.
At some point in each of our lives, we have been in a grocery store and seen a parent exasperated with their small child. Sometimes we hear threats of punishment “once back at the car” or maybe we’ve seen a child be grabbed tightly around the arm by an upset parent.
This is the type of situation that calls for instruction before entering the grocery store. Were the behavior expectations for the child clear before leaving the house? Were the consequences also clear?
If a child is in public with the parent, there should be very clear guidelines about their behavior. In other words, make it clear that when visiting the grocery store with other people:
- You expect them to remain close to the shopping cart
- You expect them to help you locate a few groceries
- Be a cheerful customer and shopping partner (no whining)
If the parent is feeling generous, the child may get to pick out one thing when they get to the checkout as a reward.
Note: this is different than a bribe which is common when a child is screaming (”please stop crying and I’ll buy you candy” ). In this case they are being rewarded for screaming by being bribed to stop and they are learning their bad behavior results in a reward.
If the child doesn’t cooperate it’s time to leave the grocery store immediately. This is one of the rare cases where the trip to the store may be more for training purposes than actual groceries. But these difficult lessons can really pay off in the future.
Keep in mind the background of the word “discipline”. It shares its root with disciple; to teach or guide. Rather than raise a spoiled child, it is desirable to guide a child that will be a thoughtful, well-mannered, moral and self-controlled adult.
So how can we discipline a child in ways besides hitting? And under what circumstances might “spanking” be appropriate. As I said at the beginning, there has always been controversy about this.
To spank or not to spank?
Might I add, there has never been a controversy regarding “beating” a child and never under any circumstances should an adult hit a child in anger or rage against a helpless human being. That’s child abuse.
Spare The Rod, Spoil The Child Examples
I personally believe most discipline problems are better solved without the “rod”. However, Solomon assures us in Proverbs 23:13 that using the rod will not kill your child.
This is reassuring but it also takes great restraint from a parent to do all things in moderation with the health (mental and physical) of your child in mind.
Two things are important to remember:
- Be in physical proximity
- Never yell
Being close to the misbehaving child is critically important. Disciplining from across the room by yelling is inappropriate and teaches a child to also yell when they are unhappy.
Behavior can also get worse, especially if the child knows the parent will yell but not get up. Once the parent is yelling it is the parent or teacher who has lost control.
If a parent sees something from a distance it is important to be close to their child immediately. When a child understands that his parent cares enough to get up and move towards him the behavior is usually corrected immediately.
The parent only has to do this a few times. After that from across any space the child will make eye contact and stop whatever it is that he knows not to be doing.
Many discipline problems are requests for attention and a personal touch. Being close and correcting a child personally while hugging them might be just what is needed for both parent and child.
My background as a teacher has made me creative in my disciplinary attempts (ready my article on Bible Verses for Teachers). Spanking became illegal in schools (which I never did anyway) but just trying to figure out a multitude of discipline issues in a classroom helped with child behavior issues at home.
As a parent of three in the 1980s, I was inundated with books, radio programs and of course university courses in child development. Because I am also a Christian who wishes to follow Biblical standards, sparing the rod was never even considered.
I thought it my duty to train my children by spanking them. After all that’s how I was raised. Fortunately that didn’t last long because I got some good teaching myself. It seems that spanking too frequently and for any or all reasons creates nervous, fearful children.
Learning this caused me to be much more creative in my parenting endeavors and to focus on instruction first.
Two special circumstances that may call for a quick pat (or a bit more) on the bottom.
Rule #1 Direct defiance
When a child is old enough to understand you and intentionally defies you face to face, the first time should be instructive. It’s time for reproof and correction.
But a parent must get down at eye level and explain in no uncertain terms why obedience is necessary. Then physically remove the child to another location. Repeated defiance calls for increasingly serious consequences.
This type of behavior usually begins around ages 2 or 3 (also read my baby dedication guide). It is a test. Children want parents to be in charge.
When a child is this age, showing them that you mean business can be done easily just because the parent is bigger and stronger. It may come to tapping them on the bottom, but usually it has more to do with picking them up and placing them in a different situation.
Thus, they were defiant but they didn’t get their way. No one was hurt but they understood they need to do what mom said the first time or lose out on whatever it was they wanted.
Rule #2 If use of the “rod” is less painful than the results of not using it
For example, life or death situations like running into the road or sticking a fork into an electric socket. When a child is standing on a corner and has been told to stay with the parent and not run into the road, but they do anyway – it’s time to feel a bit of pain. You are serious.
Cars and trucks are serious. A small swat on the bottom will not kill the child but a car can and a child can associate a brief spanking with a potentially greater pain of running in the road.
Spare The Rod and Spoil The Child Alternatives
Good parenting requires good teaching. Teaching can happen directly as in one-on-one explanations of things like good manners, sharing, showing respect etc.
Stories are particularly good for teaching. Parents should spend time searching for quality literature to read to the kids.
There is so much of low quality now that I recommend depending on the classics like Aesops Fables, Hans Christian Anderson, or collections like Book of Virtues 1 and 2.
Spare the rod, spoil the child is a well-known proverb that’s not a direct quote of a biblical proverb. Close, but not quite.
Solomon was a wise man but he wasn’t necessarily saying the only way to discipline a child was by hitting him. And while the focus of Proverbs verses is a rod, the rest of Proverbs is full of encouragement to teach, instruct, and impart wisdom.
There are over 100 references to wisdom in Proverbs all based on the knowledge and fear of God. A wise parent will heed the instructions given by Solomon, by spending more time imparting wisdom and knowledge to their children and less time yelling and hitting them!