In this post, I want to talk about recovering the biblical mandate for proper discipline of children. Having 3 children of my own, I see a lot of parents interacting with children. Some of what I see is great, some isn't. In my own parenting, I see some that is good and some not so good. Too many children, it seems to me, are very much lacking in discipline.
The phrase "Spare the rod, spoil the child" is often thought to be a proverb from the Bible, but it actually comes from a guy named Samuel Butler in a 1662 poem. However, it is clearly built upon Proverbs 13:24: "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him." A number of other Proverbs are cited when talking about this issue as well. See Proverbs 19:18, Proverbs 22:15, Proverbs 29:15, and especially Proverbs 23:13-14 (though this one is better translated as "servant" or "young man," not child).
The Biblical Rod
To gain a clear perspective on what the Bible teaches, it is necessary to take a look at the word "rod" in the Hebrew, šēbeṭ (kind of pronounced like shave it). It occurs 190 times in the Old Testament, and depending on the context can mean numerous things:
Most frequently it actually means "tribe." This usage is wholly different from the "rod" scenario encountered in Proverbs.
The next most numerous is a "(thin) rod" typically made of metal or wood and was a small instrument used for beating seed, and also at times as an instrument to hit (see Exodus 21:20). This rod was something many would carry around as a tool to do many things.
The word could be used more specifically to mean a weapon of some sort, like "javelin," "club," or "mace." In these instances, it was often still translated as rod.
The word could also mean "scepter." This was more ornamental and ceremonial. It was a sign of authority and rulership.
The final usage is "shepherd staff" or "shepherd crook."
Removing "tribe" from the discussion, we can break down the way the word was used based upon the contexts it was used:
Rod — In the case of some sort of work being done Eg. Isaiah 28:27. In the particular case of Exodus 21:20, it was used to punish a slave (considered a person's property).
Scepter — In the case of ceremony or ruling. Eg. Genesis 49:10.
Club/Mace — In the context of battle, war, or fighting (typically still translated as "Rod" in the Old Testament). Eg. Proverbs 22:8, Isaiah 30:31, Isaiah 11:4.
Shepherd Staff/Crook — In the context of shepherding. Eg. Leviticus 27:32, Micah 7:14.
The question that remains, then, is under what circumstances a verse like Proverbs 13:24 is using the word "rod." The two most viable options in my opinion is: 1) the rod used as an instrument of work, with common rods often used for beating slaves, or 2) the shepherd's rod (i.e. a crook). Although obviously parents who use spanking as discipline wouldn't consider it "beating," understanding "rod" in this manner from a context like Proverbs 13:24 would best equate to the usage of the common rod for hitting a slave. However, I believe the better understanding is that of the shepherd's rod.
The Traditional Understanding
This is where I diverge from what has been the common understanding in the church for a long while. This Proverb (and the later version of it by Samuel Butler) has been the base upon which we have justified the physical punishment of children (typically spanking). In fact, I will be up front with you that this was my view up until only 2 or 3 years ago. But I know longer think that is the correct way to view this verse, nor does it jive with the whole of scripture (see below). There is a growing body of literature on the subject of physical correction that says that spanking and hitting are not nearly as effective in disciplining children as boundaries and logical consequences (just Google it, there is lots). Furthermore, it often ends up hard for parents to NOT spank when emotions are running high. This ends up sending the wrong message too and can end up being emotionally scarring for children.
My own change of opinion on this subject came from this type of research, from the biblical view of shepherding (see below), and from my increasing recognition that too many children today (including my own) are growing up both feeling entitled and not actually given logical consequences. But life is largely about the consequences to our actions (good and bad). If my goal is not to raise great kids, but to raise kids to be great adults, then that means I need to prepare them for life. Unless they grow up to be in some sort of dangerous profession, being physically hit is never going to be a logical consequence that they will face in life. So why, during this time of preparing and molding them to be great adults, would I choose such an unrealistic consequence that isn't even that effective? Perhaps some of the reasons parents spank are: 1) tradition [like being taught that it is biblical), 2) it is the only way they know to discipline, or 3) it happened to them and they turned out okay. But I've hopefully shown that this is not actually the best understanding of the Bible. And logical consequences is a much better teacher. Finally, for those to whom spanking was the norm and they turned out okay, I don't think that it was actually the spanking that made you okay (if you are indeed okay). It was, rather, the character of your parents and the myriad of other things they did to prepare you for life. Think long and hard — if you were to pull spanking out of your past (replacing it with some other discipline) would you be a lesser person than you are today? I doubt it.
Parents as Shepherds
So if you're still not convinced, indulge me for a moment to consider if the shepherding motif is the better option for parents today. Shepherding was/is about the care, supervision, and leading of the flock from one place to another. The Bible uses numerous metaphors to describe the relationship between God and his people: parent/child, shepherd/sheep, husband/wife, master/slave. Of these metaphors, the first two are by far the most dominant. This does not change in the New Testament, as Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd too, and the master/slave motif is largely confined to Paul, who often uses it to juxtapose the reality of being slaves to sin and to the law. Shepherding imagery was a very natural thing for the Biblical authors to use given the society of the early Israelites. The Bible also uses this imagery to describe the religious leaders of the Israelite nation. Given the dominance of this metaphor, and given the Christian desire to be image-bearers of Christ, it would seem logical that we model our parenting upon the model of God/Jesus himself, the good shepherd.
To reiterate, we should not spare the rod from our children. But in proper biblical context, this now looks much different than has been traditionally assumed:
The rod was constantly in the shepherd's hand as he walked in front of the sheep and led the way. Sheep have a wide field of vision that is better on the periphery than directly ahead (part of the reason they wander off). The shepherd stayed close. And when the sheep started to follow the other sheep around them, this usually led to trouble.
The rod corrected the course for the sheep. Because the sheep were distracted by the things they saw in their periphery, they quite often wandered from the pack, or could very casually veer from the group. The shepherd's rod was used to push and guide them back into the way they were supposed to go. Striking the sheep would actually be counter-intuitive, as it may slow down the animal, or make it wary of the shepherd.
To remove from harm or corral stubborn sheep. The nicer shepherd's crook would have the circular hook around the top. This was used in the case of extreme danger to hook around the head and pull, or in the case of a stubborn sheep, to get them where they needed to go. This was the more extreme kind of course correction.
As a weapon against predators. The rod did indeed become a weapon, but it was not to hit the sheep, but rather to hit the wolves and mountain lions that threatened the sheep.
As an extension of the hand. The reason rod's were carried so often was as a general instrument and extension of the hand. In the case of the shepherd, it was sometimes used to lift and carry a sheep, or to push back the wool to examine the skin for injury.
I'm hoping that by now you see how wonderfully this imagery that the Bible uses can apply to parents and can provide us with a biblical model for not sparing the rod:
We lead our children by teaching and modeling the behaviors and values we expect. If you want to see or change an attitude, action, or behavior in your child, change it in yourself. Explain the expectations you have of them, telling them why. And, like the sheep in the front of the pack who gets to the feeding trough first, catch your kids doing right and affirm it. Furthermore, the parents as the primary care-givers need to also be the primary influencers. We have made the mistake that thinking kids need more time with friends, to the point that we think teens "need their space." But it is adults, those who have become wise with age and experience, who should be the primary influencers through the entire journey to adulthood.
We correct the course. Stay firm with your kids and stick to the boundaries you set. The phenomena of parents giving empty threats, not following through, and not actually meaning what they say seems to be an epidemic. Children have learned to get just what they want via whining, tantrums, crying, or just ignoring. Parents are supposed to be the ones in charge. But real life is filled with consequences, both good and bad. Your children's bosses and teachers will all keep their word. Instead of physical correction, we discipline by giving natural consequences — just like life.
We keep a watchful eye. Parents watch and encourage and teach their children how not to stray. The shepherd couldn't form a permanent moving fence around the sheep as they walked in order to always keep them safe, but neither did they leave them alone for long, especially in places of potential danger. Parents shouldn't shield their children from everything, that doesn't prepare them for life. But there are places and situations that need your direct intervention and clear boundaries, otherwise children will be going in the wrong direction, perhaps following along behind the other strays. The most practical example today, I think, is the amount of online and screen time kids have today. Kids are losing their imagination and their ability to interact with live people because of over-consumption.
We protect. Every situation is different, but it is a universal that children need protection from something. Sometimes it is protection from a bully. Sometimes it is protection from bad friends. Sometimes it is protection from their own poor choices. Sometimes it is protection from garbage on the internet. Whatever it is, have your rod in hand, ready to protect.
We make parenting an everything and everyday process. Jesus' 12 disciples learned what he taught and eventually learned to be like him by hanging out with him for 3 years. They ate with him, ministered with him, traveled with him. To discipline a child is to mold a disciple. Your children are to be your disciples, learning from your everyday walk how to live, how to act, how to treat others, how to treat themselves. It is both a blessing and a curse that the majority of what my kids learn from me is not from the lectures I give but the everyday simple choices I live out. "Do as I say but not as I do" is a command that children simply cannot and will not follow — and they shouldn't have to.
I want to end by echoing the mantra of pro-spankers — spared the rod, spoil the child. Unfortunately, what it means to spare the rod has been misunderstood, and I hope this post has helped to recover the biblical understanding of disciplining our children. A (very) paraphrased translation of Proverbs 13:24 would be "to withhold your leadership and any consequences would be spoiling your child." It was not about physical punishment. The use of the shepherd's rod actually represented much MORE responsibility of the rod-bearer. Parents have actually let themselves off the hook by assuming it was just about physical punishment. As you aim to raise kids to be great adults, do not spare the shepherd's rod.
photo credit: Young Shepherd via photopin (license)