Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child?

On June 8th of this year Prosperity Preacher Creflo Dollar (yes, that’s his name) was arrested for assaulting (choking involved) his 15 year old daughter when she would not co-operate with his ban on her going to a party after midnight. In my life time, the issue of corporal punishment and whether it is acceptable or not an acceptable practice for parents to use with their children has become a contested and controversial one, whereas when I was a child, not only was it seen as an accepted means of dealing with a disobedient child, it was also seen as an accepted means of dealing with a disobedient student in school. Principals and vice principals had ‘boards of education’ that they were not afraid to use on the backsides of recalcitrant or rebellious students. Nowadays, our culture has other ideas about this matter, and some would even call the use of any physical discipline, including spanking, an example of child abuse or assault.

What should we think about these matters as Christians? Is there really no difference between physical discipline and assault or child abuse? And what does the Bible actually say on the matter? Well there is a famous verse in Proverbs used to justify physical discipline, and perhaps it would be useful to look closely at it first.

Proverbs 13.24 says the following— “those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” The axiom ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ appears to derive from paraphrasing the KJV 1611 mistranslation of the Hebrew text. Let’s first deal with the issue of how proverbs actually work. They are not one maxim fits all occasions teachings. They are generalizations and generalizations are by definition something that have been shown to be usually, often, or normally true under normal circumstances. They are not laws for they are not always applicable. Proverbs, in other words are not universally applicable laws. They admit of exceptions of various sorts. The Biblical book of Proverbs however does not try to deal with exceptional persons or situations. It presupposes a normal state of affairs, and gives advice into that normal or common situation. It is well to remind ourselves that what turns out to be true in a stable, settled, orderly society, and works well, might not be true at all in troubled or chaotic times or places or situations.

For example, Qoheleth in Ecclesiastes rightly makes clear that the teaching of Proverbs cannot be universalized, for example when Proverbs suggests that the righteous are rewarded with wealth, whereas the lazy end up poor and starving. No says Qoheleth, there are times and situations where the righteous end up destitute, persecuted, prosecuted, even executed whereas the wicked sometimes prosper. The question then becomes— under what circumstances and in what situations is the advice given in Proverbs appropriate and probably apt and helpful? Does this advice about children readily translate to our own dysfunctional cultural and family situations?

It is interesting that OT scholars who are experts in Wisdom literature have suggested the material like we find in Proverbs 13 is for more mature disciples of the sage, not for beginners. That is, it is advice given to those wise enough, and mature enough to know how to use and not abuse the advice. Think for a minute about times you were disciplined growing up (if you were). Was physical discipline applied to you when parents got angry and used it as an expression of their wrath?

If so, a good case can be made for that being an abuse of the privilege of disciplining your children, something which must be done dispassionately, fairly, in an appropriate measured way and not as outlet for one’s anger. Here the advice must be taken in the context of everything the NT says about anger. For example: 1) Ephes. 4.26– be angry but sin not; 2) ‘Father’s do not provoke your children to anger’ Ephes. 6.4 (a verse that seems apposite in the Creflo Dollar case); 3) James 1.19-20 says we must be slow to anger, and that the anger of human beings does not produce the righteousness of God.

A second regular feature of maxims, aphorisms, or proverbs is that their rhetoric is often sharp edged. By this I mean they use dramatic contrasts and even hyperbole to make a point. So here the language of ‘hate’ and ‘love’ cannot be taken literally in Prov. 13.24. We might say a person who never disciplines an unruly child is guilty of being a bad parent or a negligent parent, but in our context the word hate would be too strong a word if taken literally. Parents who fail to discipline their children often love their children but are unsure of how to discipline them properly or are afraid if they do so that they will harm the child or lose their love and affection. In other words, sometimes failing to discipline is an example of fear based thinking about one’s children. I can honestly say that the spankings I occasionally got when I was young did me no lasting harm at all, and indeed were a memorable reminder that a particular course of conduct or speech was out of bounds, inappropriate, indeed even sinful in some cases.

I would say that Prov. 13 assumes that physical discipline is an appropriate form of disciplining a child, but clearly it does not mandate that this is the only appropriate form of discipline or even that it should be the first resort. Time outs, taking away of privileges, extra home work or house work, and so on, should all be exhausted first before resorting to physical discipline, and again that sort of discipline must be limited, measured, and not an expression of a moment of anger or frustration.

In regard to the latter I would say Dollar definitely crossed the line into abuse and so into sin. He was angry and his anger led to abuse, such as choking, of his 15 year old. This was not appropriate at all and would never be appropriate conduct by a parent under any circumstances, no matter how frustrated one becomes.

So is Proverbs 13 providing us with justification for the regular exercise of physical discipline of our children whenever we may feel inclined to use it, or angry enough to use it? No. It does not, for it does not suggest it is the only means, or even the primary and first option means of disciplining of children. There are many other things that should be tried first. But what a saying like this does suggest is that there may come a day when a measured application of physical discipline is appropriate and does not constitute child abuse.

  • Sally D

    It is always safer to use other methods, and research has highlighted the role of regular painful physical punishment in the evolution of personalities that are aggressive, violent and lacking in empathy for others, even their own offspring. So there’s a cycle-of-violence effect.

    I’ve always found it interesting that the Jewish people, whose Scriptures are so often used to justify the beating of Christian children, seldom or never beat their children but instead nurture them with love and reason…whilst Jewish scientists and scholars have been responsible for many of the greatest insights available into child psychology – from Freud and Klein, to Haim Ginott, Alice Miller of “poisonous pedagogy” fame, and modern popular authors Faber & Mazlish.

    Moshe Feldenkrais looked at the issue from the other side, exploring the potential of mind and body working together in “awareness through movement”. When a child is beaten, the level of violence experienced by that child is hard for adults to imagine, especially if they themselves are heart-hardened from beatings and/or live behind the “wall of silence” that Miller described.

    I think most people would agree that to the extent that positive discipline and emotionally engaged child rearing has been a feature of Jewish culture, the results in terms of adult achievement in every sphere speak for themselves. Generalisations, admittedly, but not without some foundation…

    Having said that, the arrest of Creflo Dollar troubles me. Was it necessary to arrest him? Was this what his teenage daughter actually wanted to happen? If the emotional needs of the victim are being put first, some other way of dealing with the issue might be more appropriate. Now, what may have been an act of impulsive rage (calling the police) has become a major scandal, placing a young girl at the centre of what is likely to be a media storm, as well as stress and conflict in the family. It only compounds the trauma for everyone, including the adolescent.

  • Andrew Wilson

    This is very helpful, Ben, particularly in the way you talk about what proverbs are (and aren’t). Thanks. I’ll be linking to it soon :)

  • Karl Udy

    In large parts of the Western world there is currently a confusion or inability to distinguish violence and physical force.

    One of the negative outcomes of the removal of physical punishment is an increase in verbal punishment ie scolding (sometimes extreme). I wonder which is worse for a child’s emotional, etc development?

  • Sally D

    In my experience children are rather good at “tuning out” verbal scolding. Verbal (emotional) abuse is a different story – but it doesn’t “replace” physical abuse. More commonly, it accompanies and exacerbates physical abuse, or replaces it only at the point that it has become a more effective way to inflict suffering.

    Neither continual scolding nor continual beating are effective interventions for bad behaviour (and some other popular “punishments” such as grounding are also fairly useless as modifiers).

    The presence of verbal abuse e.g. humiliating, denigrating, and breaking down the other person is certainly more damaging than physical abuse on its own, leaving deeper and longer lasting emotional hurt.

    I don’t see any problem in distinguishing violence from “physical force”. If it’s intended to cause pain or damage, it’s violence, even if there’s a supposed longer term goal as in “this is for your own good”. If I’m diving to grab my kid from running into the road, it’s acceptable force, even if he ends up getting hurt. Intentionality makes the difference. Kids live in the moment so aren’t likely to appreciate the so called longer term good, though sometimes later will accept that there was at least no harm in the spankings they received – as Ben does in the article.

    I think that too often the issue isn’t about what actually works or actually helps, but what we as parents feel “entitled” to do. The Bible “entitles” parents to do all sorts of things to their children, some of them quite horrific. That’s the wrong approach, and as Ben points out we need to work out our parenting problems in the whole (some) light of Scripture, not based on thin justifications from a verse here or there.

  • Robert Rogers

    I am a father of three teens. My 16 year old son has special needs, so we have to correct him using other measures. However, there have been times when my two daughters (ages14 and 17) have expressed their thanks for the discipline that they’ve received over the years when they got out of line. This expression of gratitude usually takes place when they have seen other teens show disrespect to their parents and/or other adults. They are amazed by the lack of maturity they see in other teens. Our discipling of the children was not limited, but did include spankings–but we never did it in wrath. Of course the spanking “season” is over because of their age. Nevertheless, I count it a blessing when my daughters appreciate the spankings they received when they were younger, realizing it was done in love.

  • Ed Brenegar

    I learned from my children, as well as from serving the scoutmaster of my son’s Boy Scout troop that if punishment of this type is needed, it is usually not the child’s failure, but the adult’s.

    I know we are all sinners. That’s not at issue. But what I think we fail to understand is that the child is God’s child, created in his image, deserving dignity, respect and honor. If we look at children this way, then the way we discipline them will be different.

    If we recognize that their actions are statements to us, telling us something that we need to hear, then we will then listen, discern and then respond in a more redemptive, constructive way. I’m not saying this is easy or in the end totally effective. I am saying that this is how we can both love our children and maintain our own spiritual integrity.

  • Lauren Kelley

    I do think there is a lot of confusion on how to understand proverbs in the Bible.

    Loving your child is like loving any other person. You can’t allow them to cause harm to themselves and call it “love.” I think of it as being similar to how you think about loving an addict, since we are are all born addicts of sin. Enabling sin in anyone’s life is not “nice,” even if it feels that way; and it is the opposite of loving. To me, that’s a good way to explain the love / hate language to our culture. Failing to discipline your child by failing to teach him that he cannot run into the street is certainly un-loving. It’s failing to give him the tools he needs to live, it’s setting him up for death. I don’t think it’s too far fetched to categorize that as “hate.” In that case “love” feels unpleasant, but it is life-giving.

    Leonard Sax has written three books discussing gender differences in raising and educating children; and I’ve found them very helpful (The first one is called “Why Gender Matters”). They are well-documented and well argued. Part of his discussion includes his contention that studies show appropriate spanking is helpful for boys, but that it does appear to possibly have negative effects on girls. Where ever people fall on the issue, he gives great explanations of appropriate strategies based upon the different ways and sequences in which boys and girls develop neurologically.

    I worry that there is so much rhetoric against spanking that very little self-regulation is being instilled into children. This is so very harmful to them in every way. Also, Karl Udy makes another astute point, verbal abuse is also very harmful, and when parents believe they cannot physically punish their children, it is often their next resort.

  • bryant

    The point should be to awaken the moral compass within, so that the young mind will grasp the eternal truth of God’s word, redemption.
    A hierarchical order of achieving that desired result, understands the issue that has led to the discipline in the first place. This will reap rewards in heaven as it can be on earth should be the model. I believe I can see how Proverbs would echo this timeless truth. Though the nemesis to this is our culture screams for a utopic society that pivots on toleration at all levels, I think we call it self-centeredness and this leads to self-inflicting what is the appropriate measure and not what the imago dei would otherwise resemble.
    Perhaps Dr. Ben you should reach out to Mr. Dollar and provide the biblical guidance that is often lacking in leaders of congregations that impose human judgment instead of shining God’s glory in ALL that we do.

  • Tom Schuessler

    Good tips for understanding this particular kind of biblical literature. Those who don’t know the basics of how to read the Bible can cause much harm.

  • Ben Witherington

    Thanks Lauren for this. The other side of this issue is now we have a whole lot of young people growing up who are completely out of control, think they are entitled to everything without hard work, and have never been disciplined in any significant way because it might hurt the poor little darlings. I think there has to be balance in all this. I have grown tired of running into spoiled brats, and out of control teens.


  • Patrick

    That’s the problem, we have impirical evidence that our modern parenting style might lead to this unruly, rejection of authority mentality we observe.

    I whipped mine in diapers and didn’t need to again. Scared them, didn’t even hurt. That’s how my father did me and I for one am thankful.

    At the point they understood NO and went against our wishes, pop. Took about 2-3X and IMO, it set the stage for a great relationship forever between us and our 2 who are in their 30s now.

    Dollar lost his cool and it’s very easy to do with American teenagers. I had 2 that respected my authority and they still about drove us nuts.

  • Stu

    I would like to suggest that “out of control spoilt brats” is a bit of a red-herring. I think these are less the result of not enough spankings, and more about the lack of boundaries, or indifferent parents, or an increase in fractured families, or overwhelmingly distracted lifestyles.

    I have an 8 year old. I haven’t used any physical discipline and believe me when i say that he understands time out, loss of privileges etc. Sure he’s not a teenager but I’m convinced that if he’s a bit of a handful it will not be the result of lack of physical discipline.

    The BIG issue here for me was when I was living in a neighborhood that was full of people caught in the poverty cycle and in this case, child abuse stats in that demographic were sky high. It was important for me as the pastor in that neighborhood to make an internal stand against it. It was in fact my christian duty to NOT give an inch where others might be tempted to take a mile.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the comments that say corporal punishment, is a ‘last resort’. however even then, I’m choosing to stop before then—besides in my country is now illegal to use any corporal punishment.

  • Florida HOmesteader

    I have 3 biological children and 1 foster child. The biological children have been disciplined with a variety of methods including spaking. In fact, they are spanked as their first form of discipline, because that is all they can understand. It does not take “beatings”. A simple pop on the hand or butt corrects behavior that can be dangerous or otherwise unpleasant. We are not allowed to spank our foster child in any way. I agree with that as we don’t know what this child has seen before regarding physical discipline and abuse. BUT I must say, I feel like I’m seriously limited in what LOVE I can give him because of that. Case in point, he does something wrong, he’s sent to time out, he pitches a fit, he’s in time out longer, he beets himself on the ground, I hold him in time out at a distance so he can distinguish the difference between restraining his behavior and a hug. After 20-30 minutes he calms down enough to do the time out. We talk about what he was put in time out for which by then he’s forgotten. He gets a hug, but he’s furious with me so only wants to storm away. He immediately does it all again. A 3-minute time out became 30-40 minutes (has at times become a 2 hour ordeal). I lost 27-37 minutes of loving encouragement time and got to practice his hissy fit throwing. Now bio kids: they do something wrong. We discuss what they did and why it was wrong. They get a spanking. They cry because their butt hurts but I hug them while they’re crying. I’ve never had a single kid throw a hissy fit after a spanking. After a few minutes of snuggles they go back to playing and remember to not do that thing again. So in 3 minutes they learned a lesson AND got to be consoled, comforted, encouraged and reaffirmed of their place in my heart and got to quickly go back to practicing appropriate play. If I believed spanking were the end all be all in discipline we never would have become foster parents, but I can honestly say it is a far more effective measure of discipline. I believe that discipline is to change behavior. Whatever method that’s used is only abuse if it doesn’t change behavior. Having a child stand in the corner for hours of a day (separated in few minute increments) is abuse if its not changing their behavior. But again, I can understand the pastor’s comment saying in the community he’s a part of you can’t give an inch as they’d take a mile. I agree. I remember my father throwing a man out of his business establishment because the man brought a switch inside and beat his 2 year old son with it then claimed “Spare the rod spoil the child.” The boy was bored and curious not disobedient. All this to say, I can’t agree that it should always be the last resort. Maybe upon reaching an age of reasoning. I don’t remember the last time we spanked our 6 year old. But the 2 year old… no, spanking done appropriately is much more effective when there’s known to be no history of physical abuse.

  • Jeff M

    Sally D, I have to say you are creating an either/or fallacy that distorts the issue. Those of us who have used corporal punishment successfully over decades with multiple children who now manifest as well adjusted adults simply do not accept your mis-statements. “and research has highlighted the role of regular painful physical punishment in the evolution of personalities that are aggressive, violent and lacking in empathy for others, even their own offspring. So there’s a cycle-of-violence effect.” The “danger” you attempt to spread around is no more “dangerous” than the idea that cars are simply awful because sometimes there are accidents. That doesn’t make cars bad. It makes accidents bad. Abuse does not make corporal punishment bad. It makes abuse bad. Further, you ignore uncorrected egregious behavior as another form of abuse (i.e. neglect).

    To all of it, no thank you. All three of our grown children are rather proud of the fact that they were spanked at appropriate times and that they reflexively understand the difference between right and wrong. I call “enough” to the idea that spanking is intrinsically bad or risky. What goes beyond bad and risky and directly into abusive is the flavor of arrogance that imagines difficult or distasteful chores of parenting represent a value we should embrace. No. Children are work and self-sacrifice…and they are worth everything they cost us, emotionally, physically and spiritually.

  • Matty

    Great topic Dr Ben. I believe your right about the matured wise person being able to appropriately discern the Proverbs (I am still a learning or trying), as I find King Sol’s way alittle different to King JCs e.g. beating fools etc.

    I would say that those spoiled brats you meet are a product of a lack of discipline at home. That is the real issue. Whether hitting a child is an effective means of discipline can be discussed and I believe there has been quite a bit of research on this as well, but the discussion should not be “hitting children” versus “no discipline”.

    I agree with you Sally D, I find that people who have been ‘spanked’/hit by their parents as a child are more likely to believe that since it was okay for them to be hit, then it is okay to do the same to their children, hence the cycle continues. People will also use terms like ‘spank’ to avoid the implication that a physical assault was done, on a weaker person (the child). I remember being ‘spanked’ as a child and thinking along the lines “if I was bigger and stronger, I would hit you back”.

    Personally, I don’t hit my children though I am quite a stern with my discipline. I use other non-violent methods to discipline and create boundaries for my children, and I think Dr Phil and SuperNanny have some great tips as well in that area.

  • Max

    Lets see I cannot post anything because it says it is ‘spammy’ …

  • Max

    Spam spam wonderful spam!

  • Jeff M

    Bravo Florida Homesteader for taking on a true challenge in order to offer help to the defenseless. God bless you man. That is a beautiful thing.

    I want to say one more thing in response to other posts here that pay lip service to the value of spanking in the form of: “Well, it might be ok but there are other things that are better.” A hammer is a better tool for driving a nail than is a wrench. However, the wrench excels at tightening and releasing bolts whereas the hammer represents epic failure in this regard. Spanking is neither better nor worse than other things. It is appropriate and even desperately necessary in some cases. If you don’t have one of those cases, do not assume from your own limited experience they do not exist. Because you hammer nails and do not work on cars, do not assume that your hammer also works well on cars.

    A comment was made above to the effect of: “spanking teaches kids that it’s ok for them to be hit.” Please pay attention to what I am going to say here: That is absolutely one of the most important and valuable things spankings teaches to the extent it is expressed. However, the thought is only partially formed. It is more along the lines of “Spanking teaches children that if they’re hit they will not die…” That is a very important lesson.

    Many people here seem to assume that violence is always bad. That is simply not the case biblically. Violence in defense of innocence is given as virtue repeatedly. There are also cases in both old and new testaments where violence in defense of Godly virtue and value is also not just condoned but commanded or even undertaken by God against individual people. As a parent who cares desperately about his children and grand children growing up in a broken world, I very much want to do what I can to teach them in the context of other lessons about being human how to view, value, and when absolutely necessary participate in, violence. I would view it as a great tragedy if any of my family ran up against a circumstance in which they encountered violence and due to personal taste on my part, I had neglected their training in this regard causing them to suffer as result. And in case you think this idea is manufactured, we have one son who singlehandedly threw rival, violent gangs out of an eating establishment not through violence per se, but through his own confidence in his ability to inflict it (he has fought and trained MMA for 10 years) AND in his ability to incur physical injury and still execute effective battle. Everyone left peacefully in about 2 minutes because our son understands and is comfortable with violence. Our other son has had equally harrowing and heroic experiences in Afghanistan and Haiti in service of country. Those also were possible because he both understands and accepts the reality of violence, even unto death. In both cases, those lessons in the over-arching and controlling context of love were taught from the time our children were born. This was both through love and intention.

  • Tony

    Choking is not corporal punishment, it is abusive. Furthermore, corporal punishment on a teenager is not productive. Therefore, blaming the Bible for one person’s stupid actions just because he believes and may even claim to follow the scriptures is a silly point to make.

  • Florida HOmesteader

    Tony, I don’t think anyone is arguing that Creflo Dollar’s behavior was completely out of line. Its very disappointing to hear about. But this bigger question comes in… why was there so little respect for his authority that his daughter would push it that far for a party at midnight? Clearly, the issue in their home stems much further than a one-time instance of him losing his temper.

    A separate note to be made on the Proverb scripture: we have been “taught” from multiple pulpits that children should be spanked ONLY with a rod and never with the hand, and yes, spanking is the first and often only method used until children are quite old. The has resulted in children seriously acting out when the parent’s spoon or other “rod” was not at hand. The reasoning is that the parents’ hand should be a symbol of love and never of tyrrany. But what is swinging that spoon? And why aren’t children suddenly afraid of silverware? Sometimes we CHristians can really just wind ourselves up in a tizzy over something God meant to just be helpful.

  • Karl Udy

    Jeff M,
    you have perfectly illustrated my earlier comment on people’s inability to distinguish violence and physical force. Violence implies that someone or something is violated in some sense, and so I cannot see any way that we can condone violence. However I do believe that there are legitimate cases for the use of physical force, and to emphasise my point I think you actually meant physical force and not violence in your comment.

    I think that someone prepared to physically resist or intervene in a situation to protect other people, or a social good, or to prevent future harm from occurring is one application of the courage that the gospel calls us to. But I also firmly believe that as Christians this physical force should never descend into violence.

    What sort of actions would violence describe? Well, in the case in Ben’s original post, choking a teenager has definitely gone beyond the use of physical force for good to the point where the teenager’s dignity and safety are under threat and so would be described as violence. Likewise, I cannot see any way that any torture could not be classified as violence – even if it is not physical.

  • Matty

    I think this article/research I recently read might add some more information (or fuel) to this topic… Smacking linked to mental disorders

  • Graham I

    As a Dad of 3 and a teacher of 30 years, a couple of points that have not been made;
    1. Whenever this topic is spoken bout there are generally no framing of the topic. When we discuss ‘spanking’ are we discussing in the context of a 1 mth old, a 10 mth old, a 2 year old a 10 year old or a 15 year old? The topic takes on an entirely different tone depending on the frame of reference.
    2. ‘Spanking is the imposition of pain to a child. Pain is a natural part o the human body designed to protect us from harm, often before a child can reason out that an activity may be harmful to us. As such a sharp sting on the hand or back of the leg or bottom of a small child is in keeping with how the body operates. If an activity becomes associated with pain the we will avoid the activity. However as a child grows and is able to reason more and more then we need to vary the way in which we are giving the message, “this activity is potentially harmful to you”. The goal of parenting is to grow fully functioning adults who take responsibility for their lives and are able to conduct appropriate and long term relationships and impact their community for good. To do this our parenting should change with the growth of our children.
    3. This topic is often full of very emotive language, ‘beating’, ‘abuse’, and again we often fail to contextualise the use of these words.
    4. It seems to me that part of the problem is our families are so often disconnected with other family members or other families that new parent do not have a chance to see excellent parenting in use and so they only know 1 technique either excessive spanking or excessive verbal commanding. Both of these need to be seen as just 1 of the tools in the tool box of our parenting strategies. I think it is true that it takes a village to raise a child, the problem that we face is there are not many villages in modern western culture.

  • bhaga

    is spare the rod and spoil the child worst way