Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

March 10, 2004 | 15 comments

Some think ‘Spare the Rood, Spoil the Child.’ Others say ‘Spare the Iron-Rod-is-the-Word-of-God, Spoil the Child.’ Me, what I have in mind is a supple willow switch. It was good enough for my father and my grandfather and all the school-of-hard-knocks Scotch-Irish rest of us. We may be brutes, but at least we’re mannerly, respectable brutes. :)

Ah, well. Enough of these fond reminisces. Discipline, that’s our theme. I’ve been reading a Protestant father on discipline. He’s articulate and thoughtful and has helped at least this reader see that the Rod and the Rod and the Rood are intertwined.

the book of Proverbs yields the following admonition: “He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him.” [KJV version here] Read that again, notice the word “hate.” It is no coincidence that modern Americans have transmogrified this passage into “spare the rod, spoil the child.” Spoiling children, after all, is something cute that grandparents are supposed to do. . . .

The parent who does not provide steady discipline for his child is unwilling to endure the pain and hardship required to do so. It is far easier to let poor behavior slide, to give the little darling what he wants, to make him happy today, if only so he’ll smile and shut his yap and let us watch the football game. The fact that this happiness is fleeting, and that one purchases it at the cost of future selfishness, is easily overlooked. It is only the parent who truly loves his child and has a vision for the child’s future who foregoes short-term pleasure today in order to stem bad behavior. The selfish parent who chooses immediate satisfaction for his child (and, let’s not forget, in so doing chooses immediate satisfaction for himself), creates an adult who will be perpetually unsatisfied, incapable of giving sustained effort toward achievement, and profoundly unhappy.

In short, he who spares the rod behaves, in the long run, no differently than someone who hates his child.

Of course there is that question of what one means by “the rod.” The problem with corporal punishment is that, like having children, any idiot can do it. Large numbers do it incorrectly, giving the whole enterprise a bad name. Many parents provide inconsistent discipline, and spank out of frustration and anger. Their children simply learn that consequences for their behavior are undependable, sometimes yielding a payoff (i.e., the parent yields, in order to achieve peace), occasionally yielding a beating. They learn that violence is the proper response when one is angry. They learn that the representatives to them of God and law, their parents, are unpredictable and fickle. They do not learn what a good parent should teach them, which is that sin has negative consequences.

The purpose of corporal punishment is not to physically hurt the child. It is to teach him that punishment follows sin.

I found a lot of wisdom in the idea that I stand as a representative to my children of God and the law. It gives point and purpose to the aweful power that I wield as a parent. My parenting, my discipline, gives them a model to understand and avoid the consequences of the divine law. It creates for them on a small scale the framework of 2 Nephi 2–the punishments which make the law a law and which make the atonement merciful.

I note that both I and the writer assume that punishment includes physical punishment. I can think of no reason why it must be so. In fact, I can think of no real reason to distinguish one kind of punishment from another. Some kinds of punishment use psychological means to cause psychological pain–parents express disappointment or speak sternly. Others use physical force to cause psychological pain–time outs, deprivation of privileges, etc. Others use physical force to cause physical pain–spanking, e.g. Are there any moral differences between these different types of punishment? If not, is there that in the makeup of children that make them more amenable to one kind of punishment over another, or that in the makeup of adults which makes them unlikely to do one kind of punishment right?

I’ve been thinking about discipline lately, and praying about it. I’ve felt the Spirit approve my thinking and my praying, but i haven’t reached any answers yet.


15 Responses to Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

  1. ronin on March 10, 2004 at 2:05 pm

    Great topic, Adam, but one I have a queasy feeling about. Reason being, there is a very fine line between punishment dished out to teach discipline abd physical and psychological abuse. I was raised in India, by a set of parents who were obsessed with being disciplined and being successful ( which, in their case meant getting into medical school – they lived up to the stereotype). things got bad enough, that had our family been US residents, both mom and dad would have been sent to jail, and they’d both have been declared unfit parents.
    While i understand the need to discipline kids if necessary, I think we ought to seek Heavenly Father’s guidance, because, it is real easy to cross the line, and mess up your kid’s lives.

  2. Brent on March 10, 2004 at 2:23 pm

    D&C 121:41-45 contain what I think is a perfect guide to discipline that I think if followed avoids problems. Abuse and excessive discipline is clearly inappropriate. There is a problem, however, in our day and age with many parents who simply avoid discipline, of any kind, altogether. Instead they opt to be their child’s “friend” or to simply avoid conflict as Adam points out. I have seem this with so many of my daughter’s friends and even at church with primary and young men and young women leaders. We seem so afraid of offending, that we don’t train up the children in the way they should go. It really is a matter of teaching children the correct way to exercise their moral agency. There must be consequences for incorrect choices and discpline, which connotes teaching, to avoid such wrong choices in the future. Of course, alll of this must be done, as I initially noted, the Lord’s way.

  3. cooper on March 10, 2004 at 2:32 pm

    How long can a comment be?

    We began as parents polar opposites. I grew up in a home that hand smacking, spanking and above all yelling at the top of your lungs was the course of the day. My husband lived with pacifists who never yelled, rarely spanked and by the time reached he teen age years he was self disciplined: not responsibile, yet under no parental guidance per se.

    So where did we start? Spanking of course. The Lord made it clear this was unacceptable. First daughter was terribly stubborn (like unto myself) and no amount of spanking would ever do either of us any good. I was always amazed in public by the mom who would grab a childs hand slap it hard all the while saying “don’t hit!” Do we wonder why children are so confused?

    Enter second and third daughters. We decided after trying the spanking routine with #1 we needed to do something better. After a lengthy discussion and prayer we decided to try this new thing called time-out. (it was in the early 80s) We knew we were responsible for these daughters of ours and would answer to the Lord for the influence we brought on them. They we small humans expecting us to guide them through this maze. Trust needed to be at the top. Also the ability to make good and correct small choices that could lead to bigger ones in the future was key to their development.

    Time out isn’t standing a child in a corner. It’s not sending a child to their room (talk about fun!). What is it then? It is teaching someone how to interact in the world and society around them. Society has rules and expectations. When you did not follow the rules you took yourself out of “society”. So time-out was within the room of family activity. However, not being able to interact. Say we were in the family room playing a game: child in time out was in the time out chair with her back to the group. She was able to listen to the fun but not participate. Same with tv. Back turned away from the action, no matter what room we were all in. It is to teach them that they cannot be a free person in society without staying within the boundaries. Time-out also began when you were quiet. If you talked or tried to interact with the group – time-out started over. It worked in the car, out at the store, at restaurants – everywhere. We also told the girls what we expected of them, especially when we were going out. If they didn’t meet expectations, then they had time-out. Disneyland was real fun once – due to time out.

    Our daughters are all grown. Each of them can tell you that time out was effective. That there is no punishment worse than to be “set-outside” of society. Each grew up following the rules, not to say they were perfect. But we did come through unscathed.

    It took a lot of discipline on our part to stay committed to the well-being of our daughters. We couldn’t allow ourselves to let an offense slide – no matter how small. Rules were rules. The responsibility to teach was ours. We had to own it. My husband has been an LCSW for years. We are still amazed at how many parents still don’t want to do their part. “It’s too hard”, “They won’t mind” and a myriad of other excuses that tell the world their children aren’t worth it. It really is unfortunate.

    Our interpretation of “Spare the Rod” is that the “Rod” is the word of God. If you spare the scriptures and don’t study them with your family, you will lose your family to the world. All of us need to be taught who we really are and who we can become. That is taught only through the scriptures and gospel study.

  4. Julie in Austin on March 10, 2004 at 2:43 pm

    I think that viewing the rod as something (anything) used for physical punishment is a perversion of this scripture. What is a rod? A thing a shepherd uses. What is it for? _Not for hitting the sheep_. It is used to guide, coax, and provide a path for the sheep.

    And that is what genuine discipine does: provide a path, guide, coax. It is not physical. There’s 30 years of research showing that physical punishment causes greater problems than it solves.

  5. Adam Greenwood on March 10, 2004 at 4:23 pm

    I’m not sure about your exegesis, Julie. Put me down as tentatively sceptical that the rod referred to is a shepherd’s crook. If it is a shepherd’s crook, well, I don’t have a lot of experience with sheep, but I have had to drive cattle. Once they get going in a direction they’ll usually stay going, but if you want to get them started or if you need to drive one by itself you’ve got to lay about a little with your stick.

    This research you’re talking about, that’s a different story. Are you at all familiar enough with the body of research to be able to say
    (1) whether or not the researchers had the revulsion to violence characteristic of our intellectuals?
    (2) What the respective benefits and harms were? (Not everyone’s idea of a harm/benefit is my own)
    (3) How nuanced the studies were–were some kinds and frequencies of physical punishment worse than others?

    I wish I had the time to wade into these studies and into a thousand other questions, but God had made me and you creatures of time.

  6. Julie in Austin on March 10, 2004 at 4:53 pm


    Think about Psalm 23. Which use of the rod do you think would be described by the sheep as comforting?

    I agree with you that as non-professionals busy with real life, arguing the social science research is probably not productive. I will just say that as the parent of an extremely well-behaved 5 yo who has never, ever been physically punished, I strongly believe based on my personal experience that physical punishment is simply not necessary and I can’t imagine why someone would want to risk the negative outcomes of spanking (such as: teaching the child to obey out of fear of pain rather than internalization of values, the risk that the parents will cross the line to abuse–note here that I am saying that I don’t think all spanking qualifies as abusee–, or the child deciding to use their own physical superiority to get others to behave) when there are so many other discipine tools available without the baggage (we’re big time-out fans in this house, and I don’t know of any research showing negative outcomes for time-outs).


  7. Adam Greenwood on March 10, 2004 at 5:15 pm

    Well, Julie,
    I guess I’ll wait until my own kids are 5 before i start battling back with my own tales of good behavior (or slink away with my tales of bad behavior).

    Instead, I’ll just return to my original quandary–what about physical punishment makes it different from other sorts of punishment? It seems to me that time-outs, which are the use of ostracism as a way of causing psychological pain, risk “teaching the child to obey out of fear of [loneliness] rather than internalization of values, the risk that the parents will cross the line to [emotional] abuse, or the child deciding to use their own superior popularity to get others to behave”

    Is it that something about the corporeality of physical punishment makes it more likely to encourage abuse, on some notion that our bodies and our emotions are closely tied and more likely to be inflamed by a positive act (a spanking) than a negative one (refusing to acknowledge someone)?
    Is it that our society is generally less tolerant of physical force than of other forms of pressure and so using it on our children makes their adjustment to the outside world harder?

  8. cooper on March 10, 2004 at 5:59 pm


    You say “It seems to me that time-outs, which are the use of ostracism as a way of causing psychological pain, risk ‘teaching the child to obey out of fear of [loneliness] rather than internalization of values, the risk that the parents will cross the line to [emotional] abuse, or the child deciding to use their own superior popularity to get others to behave’”.

    The choice to use time-out was never used as a way to inflict psychological pain. It was a time given for the child to evaluate their behavior (remember, we’re here to teach, not beat into submission). A child has to be taught reasoning skills. They are not stimulus/response animals to be manipulated by the threat of physical harm. (My response to the corporal way of life was to shut down emotionally – you could not get me to cry – ever.)

    There should always be an opportunity after time-out to talk about why the choice they made was wrong. There were times when, after a discussion, you still won’t see eye to eye. I think your idea of psychological pain is a stretch. There are those parents that, no matter what kind of punishment is chosen, it will be abused whether physical or corporal.

  9. Adam Greenwood on March 10, 2004 at 6:20 pm

    I guess I’m skeptical that it’s really the chance for reflection that’s doing the work instead of the ostracism and implied reproof.

  10. Matt Evans on March 10, 2004 at 6:48 pm

    I think it’s good public policy to discourage parents from hitting, because it’s better to err on the side of no hitting than excessive hitting.

    Nevertheless, I’m skeptical of the social research that attributes psychological harms to corporal punishment. I haven’t read any of the specific research, just third-hand reporting in parenting magazines in waiting rooms. My guess is that the researchers don’t distinguish corporal discipline that is itself “disciplined” from “undisciplined discipline”. Scott Peck, in The Road Less Traveled, was the first to point out this disctinction to me, and it’s always made intuitive sense. Discipline must be disciplined to be effective. President Hinckley implied the same theory when he said his father had “never hit me while he was angry”. There’s little chance any of the First Presidency or Twelve Apostles were raised in homes that refrained from corporal punishment, and I’d be happy if my kids grew up to be like them.

    I don’t know if this widely-repeated story is apocryphal, but the list of the biggest problems public school teachers faced in the 1940s, when most parents hit or spanked their kids, were talking in class and gum chewing. Now that we’ve had 30 years of research condemning physical punishment, public teachers deal with gangs, guns and classroom violence.

    That said, I don’t spank my kids. We use timeout, soap, and loss of privileges. I do sometimes flick our kids on their ear or forehead when conditions don’t work for the other options. Flicks and the administering of soap are both physical acts, but I haven’t seen any problems yet.

    If you’re interested in a recommendation, I like the theory in the book “How To Behave So Your Children Will, Too”.

  11. Brent on March 10, 2004 at 9:57 pm

    Matt, frankly I am shocked. Everyone knows that soap causes blindness in children. Now, years from now when your child comes home with a walking stick and dark glasses, you will only have yourself to blame. The nerve of some parents. I bet you won’t buy your child a Red Ryder BB Gun either.

  12. Kristine on March 11, 2004 at 1:19 pm

    This is something I used to feel very confident about–the link between poor parenting and poorly-behaved children seemed quite clear to me. Until I had my first child. If I had only my second two children, I would still be quite confident in my views, as most parenting techniques and discipline methods work more or less as described on these two.

    My firstborn, however, is an incredibly difficult child: unbelievably stubborn, borderline obsessive-compulsive, phenomenally self-motivated (read: uninterested in parental agendas of any sort), and extremely quick, competent, and active. Our first battles were over sleep. By the time he was a month old, we had taken down the cute patterned crib sheets, the mobile, and all the pictures near his crib, because if there was anything to look at, he would keep himself awake to look at it. By the time he was two months old, he would only fall asleep in the car. By the time he was six months old, he would only fall asleep in the car if we drove the same route every time, because driving down a new street would provide new and interesting scenery. When he was just a year old, I looked in the rearview mirror one day and saw him holding his eyelids open by the lashes to stay awake. NOTHING is easy or conflict-free with this boy.

    Physical punishment simply doesn’t work with this child because he is so stubborn that he would let me beat him unconscious before he would yield. I’m not firmly opposed to the theory of corporal punishment, but I don’t do it for practical reasons–it doesn’t work on my oldest child, and I don’t trust myself to administer it in a controlled way to my other two–I would only do it when I was close to losing it, and the line’s too thin for me. Time out is marginally effective, because he is a very contented loner, and has plenty of thoughts to keep himself busy, even if he is sitting still (or, when he was younger, if I was physically restraining him). Anyway, we have, slowly and painfully, discovered some methods of discipline that work some of the time. Mostly, he can be governed only on the D&C 121 model, with emphasis on the longsuffering part. He gets away with stuff that used to provoke all kinds of righteous indignation in me when I saw other people’s children doing it. He gets away with it because otherwise I would do literally nothing but battle him all day.

    Anyway, I wonder ALL THE TIME if I have somehow, somewhere along the line been too lenient with him and let him think he can rule me. I honestly don’t think I have, and my other two more or less well-behaved little children make me optimistic that my parenting instincts are not completely off. But I just cringe when I see/read/hear people who are convinced that kids are basically machines that turn parental input into behavioral output. I wonder if parents are too prone to attribute the good behavior of their children to the effectiveness of their parenting methods, when in fact they were simply blessed with children predisposed to compliance.

    (I hope it goes without saying that I adore all my children, even (especially?) the non-conformist!)

  13. Julie in Austin on March 11, 2004 at 3:24 pm


    You wrote:

    “But I just cringe when I see/read/hear people who are convinced that kids are basically machines that turn parental input into behavioral output. I wonder if parents are too prone to attribute the good behavior of their children to the effectiveness of their parenting methods, when in fact they were simply blessed with children predisposed to compliance.

    I’m not sure if this is directed at me, altho I suspect it was since I used my own well-behaved child as an example.

    I’m sorry if I made you cringe; my point was not to solicit credit for my amazing parenting techniques (the most effective of which is to announce to my husband that I have HAD ENOUGH and leave him to deal with the kids). My point was merely to suggest, contra to what I was gleaning from other posters, that it is possible to have a well-disciplined but not physcially disciplined child.

    Altho I wonder if your comment couldn’t lead to some nihilism: if my input has little/no effect on the child’s output, it would be very hard for me to be motivated to deal with the little boogers most of the time. Why bother?

    I guess this is all boiling down to a nature/nurture debate; those seem not to get very far.

  14. Kristine on March 11, 2004 at 4:25 pm

    Nah, Julie, it wasn’t directed at you–just sort of free-floating parental anxiety. There is certainly a temptation to nihilism about parental input, especially with a child as resistant to said input as my Peter (yeah, there’s a lesson in there about choosing names carefully!!). I think we have less input than we often wish, but there’s no question (in my mind, at least) that the nature/nurture dance goes on daily. I have to think that Peter would be worse off with some other parents (although I’m sure there are plenty of parents who would be more skillful, patient, etc. in dealing with him than I am). But there’s the rub–I HAVE to think that, or go crazy, so I’m not sure any parent is in a good position to evaluate the impact of parental nurturing!

  15. honey on December 9, 2005 at 6:38 am

    my sujjestion is that 2 not 2 spank thye childs it will made them rude with everyone even with the teachers or parents


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