Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Pandora's Box

Proverbs 13:24: "Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him."

There it is: one of the most controversial statements in the Old Testament. (Right behind "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth".)

Interestingly, the OT is full of people who are successful in some way yet their kids run wild: King David and Eli are the first 2 that come to mind. But it certainly seems like the Hebrew Scriptures don't contain much good parenting material. But here it is: Don't spare the rod.

Of course there are scholarly debates about what this means exactly. Does he literally mean a 'rod', like something you would hit your son with? What were ancient rods like? Can I find one on Ebay? Are they in the toddler section? Do I have to upgrade to a preteen rod at some point? Or was that an idiom simply meaning 'discipline' (as suggested by the second half of the saying.)

Then there are a plethora of studies trying to link spanking children with violent behavior in later childhood all the way to adulthood. They are not, as a whole, completely convincing, mostly falling prey to the 'correlation vs. causation' distinction and/or the presence of numerous secondary factors. So what are we to make of this?

I thought about this yesterday when I was very angry at one of my children. My first two thoughts were: A: This is not entirely his fault, I could have been in a better mood to begin with; and B: if I were to hit him it would be simply to placate my own anger, rather than discipline him. (PS I was not seriously considering hitting him, but even in my frustrated state I took the time to reflect. I know, I'm weird like that. It's like a story I heard in a Brennan Manning book about a man being chased by people trying to kill him. The man jumps off a cliff and grabs onto a bush at the last second that happens to have strawberries on it. Hanging from the cliff with the potential killers above him he takes a bite of a strawberry and thinks: "That's the best strawberry I've ever tasted"...Yeah, I'm like that guy.)

I have in fact gotten into this argument with other believers before because I have never spanked my kids. I just don't see any Scriptural justification for it. This is besides raising the question I did earlier--at what point does it stop being about their discipline and start becoming about our anger? This is a classic threshold argument. What behaviors deserve spanking? When is my heart-rate too high for me to begin spanking my child? What criterion can we objectively employ to make this choice in a morally satisfying way? Additionally, it raises the question of my own sinfulness. If I were to spank in anger, would that not be rather sinful?

I could take it a step further and apply just war theories to spanking, but for the sake of my audience let's not go that far. Essentially, I believe that redemptive violence is a myth (the death penalty, for example, works insofar as it prevents a criminal from committing anymore crimes. But morally it is bankrupt--and it has not been shown to be a deterrent to other criminals. Notice how in Genesis God tries to stop this cycle of violence by PROTECTING Cain after he murders his brother...I don't have space to go into this here, but if you are interested read "The War of the Lamb" or "What Would You Do?" by John Howard Yoder.) So if redemptive violence is a myth on a large scale, why would it be effective on a small scale? Certainly it can work inasmuch as it can temporarily change behavior. But it does not help us make connections, and it leaves the door open for future bad behavior because at the concept of violence itself is not challenged. 

I've heard the phrase: "Violence is for a world that has lost its imagination". And I think the same is essentially true for spanking. Coming up with a punishment that fits the crime is psychologically effective and is morally defensible. For example, one day (some time ago) Natalie hit me with some toy she had. I simply took the toy and threw it in the trash. Lesson learned, and one fewer toy cluttering my house.

So my case is not that people who spank their children are evil or bad parents. I am also not making the case that kids who were spanked are more violent than those who weren't. Rather, I am simply explaining how I came to my decision not to spank my children. I believe it can be argued coherently from a Christian perspective. It also gives more integrity to my authority when I say: "Just because he hits you, it's NOT OK to hit him back!"

Peace and love,

PS> Please, if you are not convinced disagree gently...spare me the literal rod :)


  1. I really go back and forth on this one. I was totally on your side until about 2 years ago when nothing we were doing worked for Kaleah. Then, we tried spanking... and voila! She was a completely different kid. We only resort to it when absolutely necessary, but if done in love, not anger, I think it can be a very effective discipline for certain children. - Emily H.

  2. I am challenged by what you said Dave. Thanks for helping me think more about this. I definitely went through a "spank all the time" phase because of a parenting book that said that was what we should do for any infraction. But it does seem hypocritical, even when done in a calm state (unless an extreme situation calls for extreme action). We have done more "natural" consequences and "creative" discipline recently and I'm much more comfortable with that.

  3. Thanks for responding! Emily, your last sentence is interesting, where you point out it can be a useful discipline for certain children. That's much healthier than a parenting book that suggests a 'spank all the time' theory like Liz mentioned. I'm glad that you've found a way to do it responsibly.

    I like to draw connections with other topics, and one I can't help is with war. Just war theory (while usually abused or ignored) makes the same case you are--it is useful in certain circumstances. We have problems when we are so prepared for war that it is our automatic response (cf. the US defense budget). Likewise, one could probably make a case for spanking certain children when the consequence of their behavior is far worse than the pain they receive.

    I better stop before I hijack my own thread and start talking about means and ends and active pacifism...:)

    Liz, feel free to share an example of "creative discipline", I'd love to hear more ideas there!