Responding to a question about Christian parents smacking their children, on the grounds of the ‘Spare the rod, hate your child’ verse in Proverbs.
In Sendak’s classic 1963 story book, the young lad Max is disciplined, sent to bed without supper, for his behaviour. His creative, emotional, imaginative, disruptive behaviour. How would you parent Max? How would you discipline him. Does Max’s little emotionally complex world need ‘discipline’? Or something else?
The use of corporal punishment (deliberately hurting the body in order to motivate obedience) is understood by many Christians to be a parenting practice not only permitted in scripture, but actively promoted and even prescribed as a righteous and wise way of raising children.
There are many other motivations and philosophical rationalisations for using physical pain as a means of punishment. But in this space I want to specifically clarify why citing the verses in proverbs like these aren’t a straightforward command or recommendation for parenting our young children with physical punishments.
Prov. 13:24 Those who spare the rod hate their [sons], but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.
Prov. 22:15 Folly is bound up in the heart of a boy, but the rod of discipline drives it far away.
Prov. 23:13-14 Do not withhold discipline from your [sons]; if you beat them with a rod, they will not die. If you beat them with the rod, you will save their lives from Sheol.
Prov. 19:18 Discipline your [sons] while there is hope; do not set your heart on their destruction.
There are a few of really basic things to lock in first in reading these texts.
First of all, they are not general parenting advice texts.
These verses in Proverbs are from genre of literature which belongs to the schools of the elite, providing philosophical and rhetorical and moral education to the young men of the nation who would assume responsibilities in civic leadership and influence.
The context here is what we might term tertiary, or at least senior secondary education. However we end up interpreting these texts, none of them are providing us with a template for parenting our infants, our toddlers, or our children in the primary years.
Valuing and protecting young children
Rabbis in the centuries before the early Christian era discussed the obligations of men to father children by second and third wives. Although they argued about the exact number the law might righteously require of a man to sire, the discussion circled around the territory of requiring 5 or 6 children – in order that 2 might survive to become procreative adults themselves, thus sustaining the family line.
From this discussion we readily see that children were not taken for granted – their lives are understood to be precarious, and precious. High birthrates are met by high infant mortality rates, and high mortality rates full stop. The idea of physically harming young growing children is culturally out of step. Children are not ‘spoiled’ or indulged in such a culture – they often are hard working contributors to household economies from a young age accompanying older family members and siblings in the tasks of household (whether slave or free).
Nevertheless, young children are particularly referred to throughout the biblical literature, not as being smacked or hit, and definitely not hit with the rod (see below) but characteristically gathered in protective and affectionate arms. (Is 49:22, 23; Hosea 11:3)
Furthermore the young child, definitely at least to the age of seven (though some scholars would argue up to age twelve), is morally defined as without the knowledge of good and evil. In other words, young children are not recognised as capable of moral comprehension or culpability. Whether or not you agree with that in the light of modernist social science developmental stage theories, the important point to recognise in the biblical texts is that corporal punishment would be wasted on young children whose moral comprehension was not yet activated.
Children often appear in biblical material presented as an allegory for goodness of several kinds – the blessings of life, of prosperity, of moral innocence, of eternal hope.
Children, then are not primarily the object of the need for discipline, but for nurturing survival strategies.
This is not to claim that no one in the ancient communities represented in the scriptures ever smacked their child. What can be said is that use of physical punishment for children is not recommended, and definitely not mandated in the scriptures these ancients faithfully have left us.
The rod is the instrument of the teacher and the pedagogue (the supervisor or chaperon slave accompanying the youth to his lessons.). It is the teaching software of the ancient world and it has multiple applications: It is used for tracing out characters and shapes to be imitated by emerging scribes, it is used for tapping rhythm during recitation in rote learning, much like the ballet master’s rod, it is used for measurement – and it is used for retrieving the attention of a wandering mind or inflicting a motivational blow to a recalcitrant young man.
If we understand Proverbs 13:4 says something like ‘don’t hold back; make full use of the rod’ – we are to understand that not as a call to the limited application of the rod in physical punishment, but to utilising the full gamut of educational applications. I am a teacher – I was born to teach – and so I am an enthusiastic champion of education keeping a really well stocked tool box of many different pedagogies and learning facilitation methods. And so I am in robust agreement with this maxim – don’t spare the rod! If you’ve got a rod – that’s a multi-use versatile teaching aid right there – so don’t you dare limit it’s use to simple blunt violence. Don’t spare the rod – this is about educational technologies – we should hear this as ‘don’t spare the ipad and only use it for word processing.’
The rod, not the smack
Often this verse about the rod is used to support the practice of smacking, blatantly – or perhaps simply naively – disregarding that being hit with a rod, and being slapped with the hand, are two quite different cultural/symbolic actions. The open hand slap means something very different to the use of the rod in terms of status of the parties involved. In our modern parenting culture, the open hand smack means something different again – and it is an action about which Proverbs and the wisdom literature of the Bible is silent. We may not look to scripture to find direct support for this practice.
Young elite males
There are a handful of other verses in Proverbs that promote a robust discipline of sons. We note this – sons. And we remain mindful that the genre of literature isn’t the parenting section of an ancient Better Homes and Gardens – but the hand book of the elite training institution for the emerging (male) leadership of the city.
In this context, of strong, privileged youths, one well can understand the use of a rod for beating (although I’m not going to endorse it for my fine young adult sons), as a means for curbing the bounding egos even as they are being cultivated for claiming and occupying status and honour, ascending the social order with confidence and competence. Here, the use of the rod by the teacher or the pedagogue is wielded against an almost-peer, in fact for the pedagogue slave, the youth, son of the father will overtake the slave in status very soon.
Yes, I do mean males. Gender.
We specifically note that Proverbs consistently addresses the issue of training sons. Not children, but specifically the sons. This is not a case (as the use of adelphoi in the New Testament epistles is) of a masculine term standing in for the generic, inclusive male and female community. Here ‘sons’ means grown, almost adult, male offspring.
So if you have daughters, these texts are not for you. By the time your daughters are the parallel age of your sons in these texts, they will be well married and hopefully with child themselves.
I’m joking, of course. This is not the approach we take to the potential orientations of our sons and daughters lives. The dissimilarity from the world of Proverbs is alarming.
If you know me at all, you’ll know that, like many others of my generation and culture, I don’t support differentiated cultural treatment of male and females: not of any age.
I strongly assert that whatever the marks of respect are for one gender – being listened to, given agency, kept safe, offered help and hospitality when needed, their actual abilities and capacities being recognised, valued and employed – these must be the marks of respect for all.
So I and others will be confounded by the focus on sons, so exclusively, but the text er have received concerns itself particularly with that group. And if we know our history of the people of Israel, and their struggle to hold an identity in oppression, we will understand why Proverbs makes this group a priority.
The focus on sons here, connects to the cultural context into which this advice is written: it is urban, elite, powerful, privileged male focussed, patriarchal, philosophical, and seeking to fit in with the dominant culture of their oppressors. We ought be cautious in reworking this rarefied material for the basic task of raising our kids. You can see the hint of overkill here, if we attempt to use the methods of tertiary vocational training, simply to try and encourage our two year old to get into the carseat.
It is clear that the deployment of the rod in the ancient elite scholastic communities carried a cultural weight that authenticated the practice. It was uncontroversial for physical discipline to be linked with training the mind and body. In making the man. The education of young men, influenced by hellenic norms, was typically holistic, engaging mind, body, speech, culture, aesthetics, deportment, style and renowned for agonistic, physically competitive ethos, that deeply embedded the zero-sum system of honour and same into the lives of students.
A positive reading of these verses in Proverbs, recommending the incorporation of corporal discipline, is a fair reading, but it in no way crosses contexts and relational dynamics and cultural purposes into forming an ethic for contemporary parenting practices with young children. To put THIS into practice – the elitism, the age, the gender, the rod technology, for parenting the tender years, is anachronisitc on multiple levels.
I don’t know of many parents who, having negotiated the stages of autonomy, initiative, industry and identity with other kinds relational parenting skills not involving physical punishment, in the later years of adolescence embark on beating their sons.
When the book of Proverbs calls for the rod – it calls for it to be applied not to children but youths, not in the midst of domestic life but in the academy, not to the poor but the elite, not to girls but to young men, it calls for it to be used rhythmically, demonstratively, mathematically, and yes – sometimes – violently.
All of this doesn’t mean a parent must not smack their child. It has been a popular and respected practice in many societies over time. Though, we note, not all. Smacking is not universal. It is very possible to raise wonderful, ethical collaborative, other-oriented children without smacking. Personally, I have nailed my colours to this mast, and am content that my non-smacking parenting has gifted me two lovely young men who are well convinced that troubles can be solved without physical aggression, and understand respect and helpfulness.
While the texts of Proverbs doesn’t forbid the smacking of children, and it doesn’t endorse smacking children, it does mean that parents who choose to smack their children will need to admit to themselves that they are not using a biblically approved method. Christians do lots of things in non-biblical, or perhaps better to say abiblical, ways. Preaching and sitting in pews come to mind as easy examples of abiblical practices. That doesn’t mean they are are terrible (though they might be) but it does mean that we must work hard to uncover the real reasons we do them, because claiming they are the ‘biblical way’ is just not credible, responsible exegetical straight shooting.
Why do parents use physical punishment?