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Spare the Rod Spoil the Child: Does the Bible Promote Child Abuse?

I'm a dad, husband, and Christian first. Second, I'm an educator & organizational development professional.

How do you discipline your children?

How do you discipline your children?

Does the bible condone child abuse? That seems a fair parenting question to ask any Christian. Several people have asked this several times and at first I was oblivious of the proper response. However, the familiar adage: spare the rod, spoil the child is not in the bible. The line that we erroneously attribute to the Book of Proverbs is actually from the poem Hudibras by Samuel Butler. The passage in Proverbs 13:24 states: Whoever spares the rod hates the child, but whoever loves will apply discipline. But still, even in the Bible verse, it seems that child discipline involves hitting the child. Are we asked to hit our children? Before you take a swing at your child, allow me to answer my own question. The short answer is no, we’re not asked to hit our children to discipline them. OK, you can put your baseball bat down now.

The shepherd's rod or shebet is used to guide and protect and not to hurt the sheep.

The shepherd's rod or shebet is used to guide and protect and not to hurt the sheep.

Disciplining Like a Shepherd

The Book of Proverbs is in the Old Testament and scholars believe that it was Solomon, son of David who wrote most of it. Moreover, we should consider and understand the context surrounding the verse. In Hebrew, the word rod is “shebet”. It can mean anything from walking stick to a stick for protecting livestock. In the context of the verses, rod refers to the staff of shepherds back in that time. And the rod was not for inflicting pain their sheep to bend their will. Instead, shepherds use it to guide their sheep towards the right direction. Likewise, shepherds use the shebet to protect their flock from predators. So it was both for guiding and defending their flock. And if you’ve read the Bible long enough, you’ll recognize that numerous stories, imagery and contexts are related to shepherds and how they lived back then.

The Book of Proverbs is a collection of wise statements written in a poetic manner. It stimulates the imagination and helps us take its wisdom and use them in different situations across generations. Unfortunately, our interpretations may vary greatly and these differences can cause confusions to say the least. As an educator, I look at it in the context of the time when it was written while considering other parts of the verses related to it. Moreover, as a Catholic, I look at it in the context of what the Catholic faith preaches - and that is love.

When I look at Proverbs 13:24, I do not see a parent striking a child in the guise of discipline. Rather, I see a compassionate parent guiding the child towards the righteous way. Likewise, I see parents protecting their children from “predators” that may lure them towards the wickedness. We are the shepherds of our children.

Just to reiterate, no, I do not believe that the Bible mandates spanking our children. Ours is a faith built on love and compassion. And it would be ironic to hurt someone to show your love. Although I hear people say “I’m doing this because I love you.” It actually sends mixed signals and when we give the inappropriate message, children might misconstrue it as the right manner of showing our love for others. It is both lamentable and disturbing should this happen.

I give you a new commandment:*Love one another as I have loved you so, you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

I give you a new commandment:*Love one another as I have loved you so, you also should love one another. This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

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A Different Kind of Discipline

There are more verses that uses the imagery of “rod” in disciplining their children. Unfortunately, a considerable number see this as a justification for corporeal punishment. I’ve been at the end of a belt, slippers, rolled up new paper and other creative “tools of discipline” and this is never a pleasant experience. People use these Bible verses to justify spanking their children:

  • Proverbs 22:15 - Folly is bound to the heart of a youth, but the rod of discipline will drive it out.
  • Proverbs 23:13 - 14 - Do not withhold discipline from youths; if you beat them with the rod, they will not die. Beat them with the rod, and you will save them from Sheol.
  • Proverbs 29: 15 - The rod of correction gives wisdom, but uncontrolled youths disgrace their mothers

If you read these verses with hitting or spanking in mind, then they truly seem grim. However, when we read with a deeper understanding of God’s love, we will realize that this “rod” is not about physically hurting our children. Rather, it is establishing our roles as parent as the shepherds of our children.

We all want what is best for our children.

We all want what is best for our children.

I Got Spanked and I Turned Out Well

I hear people who condone spanking say “I got spanked and I turned out well”. First of all, I do not wish to judge you or judge how you were raised. And it is wonderful to know that you see yourself turning out well in spite of the corporeal punishments. However, as a person who endured the occasional belt on the buttocks, I know firsthand that it’s undoubtedly unpleasant. I have no ill-feelings for my father as this is what he believed was necessary. But now that I am a father myself, I make it a point that my daughter does not endure such an experience. Moreover, my views on parenting as well as the interpretation of the Holy Bible is arguably different now than before.

I suppose what I am saying is that as I grow to understand children better, I choose to discipline my child differently. Also, the more I learn about the Bible, I realize my role not just as a father or a husband, but my role as a Catholic and to act with God’s love in my heart.

When Jesus was asked which law is the greatest, Jesus responded “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: you shall love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30-31). The closest neighbor we have is our family and we treat them with love. Remember that we discipline our children because we want them to grow up with the right mindset and values. We become their shepherds and use the rod to guide and protect them.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 JP Carlos

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