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Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?


I knew when I first read last quarter’s Sabbath School Lesson 8 on parenting, the big “it” was going to become THE TOPIC of the study. The “it” is, of course, the phrase “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” At the time, I must admit I thought “Spare the rod and spoil the child” was in the Bible. It was pointed out to me that it is not. But, there are several verses, alluding to its validity (sort of). Although, Proverbs 23:13 is patently false. Solomon states “If you punish him with the rod he will not die.” There are numerous cases of a parent killing a child through this process. This advice is coming from the “smartest man on earth,” so how dare we question his advice? No intelligent man would have several hundred wives. As for parental advice, I would wager that Solomon didn’t even know half of his children’s names, and I am almost positive that he never disciplined any of them. He had a palace full of people for that purpose. It’s kind of like taking a course in marine navigation from a dirt farmer in Kansas. Just having children does not a parent make.

The SS discussion went as expected. I pointed out that Ellen White was not a big proponent of spanking a child and had much the same advice as Haim G. Ginott, a world-famous parenting expert in the 1960s and 70s who was most effective in non-corporal parenting. Ellen White pointed out that there were other, more effective, ways of restructuring a child. Seldom did it include beatings. One of the class members, a child therapist, told of how one of her patients had used the paddle on their child over a period of several years of the child’s young life, only to now face the fact that the child had developed small fractures in his young spine which had left him in a wheelchair, with his young body unable to support itself. A very hard lesson learned by at least one parent.

Corporal parental discipline has taken its toll on the lives of so many of our young. Much of it at the hands of an angry parent who has lost control. Most of us, unfortunately, have firsthand knowledge of some child that was either badly injured or even killed at the hands of an enraged parent. Probably not what Solomon had in mind? The class was very receptive to the notion that you must never discipline a child when you are angry or out of control.

Ok, there is a line that must not be crossed, even for someone who is a believer in corporal punishment. But, what message does physical punishment send? Even though it is effective, and in many cases stops the bad behavior, what has been instilled in the psyche of the child? Unless I’ve missed some breakthrough in human behavior, it instills fear of painful punishment. Is fear the way to “train the child in the way he should go”? How do you associate the fear with the needed behavioral modification? Isn’t the goal to instill appropriate behavior because the child understands “the right from the wrong,” and not simply because they don’t want to be beaten again? A classic example of this is when you have a child over your knee and are spanking the child because they have physically hurt another child. How do you, in good conscience, tell the child that they must not hit someone while you’re hitting them on the behind? At best, it’s ironic, at worst it is abuse. Just because this is how it’s been done for thousands of years doesn’t make it the best means of discipline.

It was only after I came home from church and tried to digest the various comments that I realized I had let the class down. Although there is little doubt that most minds would never change on the matter, I still had the responsibility of providing another, hopefully better, way. Some in the class pointed out that their parents had used the paddle on them and, of course, they turned out just fine. Why would I question that? What I would question is whether that form of discipline was the reason they became the well-adjusted people sitting before me. We will never know, nor will they. I do feel that we tend to evolve into the adults we are regardless of what method of parenting was practiced in our childhood. This is not to suggest that we are not affected by the methods of childhood structuring, but also, on whether our parents exhibited love and caring for us, regardless of how they chose to punish us. I feel that loving parents are more important than any method of discipline utilized.

I began to focus on how civilized nations deal with those who violate their rules. I find it interesting that in most nations even the worst offenders are not physically punished. It has been said that if you want to examine the morality of a society, the best way is to observe how they treat those whom they have incarcerated. Our society goes to great lengths to see that even those receiving the death penalty do not suffer in the process.

Discipline is not something that is simple. It shouldn’t be a reactionary process. It requires thought. Could it be that spanking is chosen because it is the quickest and easiest method of punishment? Or, perhaps it is an instinctive response. It is much easier to grab the paddle than it is to confine the child who is being antisocial. It is much easier to get out the belt than it is to remove cherished items from the child for a period of time while they are instructed as to why their bad behavior has isolated them and their prized possessions removed. It is much harder to deal with a child isolated in their room because they cannot play nicely with others.

If discipline is to be a teaching tool, then it should be instructional in helping the child understand why the behavior was hurtful, selfish, dangerous, and antisocial or another inappropriate behavior. It is going to take some thought as to what will instruct the child as well as discipline the child in a direction which will cause a mind change, and not simply fear of being beaten again. A parent must not look at any given incident as an end, but rather a part of a process in instilling proper values. This is why Solomon said “Teach a child”…not frighten a child. It might explain why our prison systems are so ineffectual. I live near a prison and I have to chuckle every time I go by the sign pointing to the prison which reads “Correctional Facility.” There is little correction, and most of the education taking place is between the criminals in the institution. It explains why our recidivism is so great.

Most parents have tried the “time out” process. This isn’t the only alternative to corporal discipline. It might entail a trip to a hospital where the child can observe what happens when someone runs in the street. Perhaps, exposing the child to children who have little to eat, might give them a sense of how fortunate they are to have food on the table and help them learn to share. You don’t have to look too hard to find examples of people’s lives that have gone very wrong from bad choices. But, nothing will be more indelible in your child’s mind than hearing from someone who expresses regrets for the bad choices they have made.

The punishment must fit the crime, but the punishment should also instill a desire to change the behavior, and not simply because of retribution. In circumstances where it isn’t a danger to the child, simply allowing the consequences of a poor choice can often be one of the most effective forms of punishment. Most of us learn our most valuable lessons from mistakes.

Leading by example is also essential. No parent has ever been effective in telling their child not to do what they themselves are doing. Where do we differentiate between what is a positive motivator and what primarily instills fear in the child? Is stopping the bad behavior the only reason for discipline, or is this process to be a teaching moment, whose intent is to help them develop an understanding of why that behavior is not acceptable? Shouldn’t our goal be to develop in the child a desire to correct the misbehavior in a positive way? It would seem to me that the correction should bear some resemblance to the misdeed and that the correction should instill not only the fear of repeating that misdeed but also a desire to modify that behavior so that the misdeed is no longer the option they are seeking. That will actually take some parental thought.

This is where parenting must no longer be a reactionary process. If you take nothing else from this, that previous sentence should be the one you retain in your mind. We must take on an intelligent, well thought-out plan, not simply stopping the offense, but helping the child structure a desire to find another way of expression. Effecting an understanding, even in a young child, that the behavior they have exhibited is hurtful, unkind, antisocial, or any one of a number of bad behaviors, is modification that could be built upon to ultimately achieve a well-adjusted adult. We shouldn’t be focused on short-term goals.

We all come ill-equipped at being “good” parents. Just being children, even of very good parents, does not give us the tools to make us parental experts. I doubt that many parents take the time to actually address, in our minds, the process which will most effectively restructure the child’s thinking so that they will develop the skills and understanding to handle the circumstances when the misbehavior rears its ugly head. Will we simply grab the old paddle or will we approach it from a process in order to restructure the thinking of this young gift we’ve been entrusted with? Will we continue to redden the rear of a child while saying “this is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you”? Or, are we going to give the child the skills to find alternative ways of venting their anger, helping them be more thoughtful, more careful, or whatever the bad behavior dictates?

I have not provided much in the way of alternative methods of discipline. It is with some intention. The offenses and the offenders are so varied and responses so different as to the discipline, that I am hesitant to suggest that “you simply do this, or that.” Only you know your children and what they will respond to. And if you don’t, then that is where you need to start. My only suggestion is that you need to put as much thought into it as you do planning your vacation or an addition to your house, or even the meal you will place on the table at Thanksgiving. In a word, parenting takes thought. It takes planning, and most importantly, it takes a great deal of prayer. Solutions will come when we seek them. The process should be dealt with when there isn’t the urgency to solve a present situation that demands immediate attention. Solutions won’t come in the spare of the moment when we are enraged with a childhood offense.


Lynden Williams is a 74-year-old retired broadcast engineer who lives in Tehachapi, California. He has been a Sabbath School teacher for more than 25 years—currently as one of the adult Sabbath School leaders at the Lancaster California Seventh-day Adventist Church.

Photo by Japheth Mast on Unsplash


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