Remember the phrase, “spare the rod and spoil the child”? Often paraphrased from the Bible, it gives the sense that spanking is the best way to raise a child, and if we don't, we risk living with a spoiled brat.
The phrase makes it sound as if there are only two choices in child-raising—physical punishment, or not-so-benign neglect. But there's a much better choice—one that doesn't involve hurting or scaring your child, or ignoring bad behavior. That choice: discipline.
When The Rod is Not Spared
I've seen what happens when parents attempt to apply the rod, and it can be horrific.
A few years ago, my shift as a patrol officer in Los Angeles started like so many others. I ping-ponged across town, responding to one erupting crisis after another like fireworks exploding randomly in the sky. Yet in all the chaos of human need, I couldn't afford to dwell on what might come next. There was always that one call per shift that made my stomach sick and my anger boil. That day was no different.
I responded to a call from the elementary school where a school nurse had discovered something that bothered her enough to notify the Sheriff’s Department. Walking into the school nurse’s office, I found the nurse and an eleven-year-old boy dressed in grey sweats. The boy frowned as I came in. His bowed head and stiff shoulders showed his discomfort with my arrival. "Well," the nurse prompted the boy condescendingly. "Show him what you showed me.”
I knew from the call that this young child had apparently been nothing but trouble for the teacher all day in class. He was disruptive. He wouldn't sit at his desk and stay focused. This “tug-of-war” between his teacher and him lasted for several hours before he was sent to the office, and then to the school nurse. Hardly a reason to call the Sheriff's Department, but my gut and the boy's fearful, ashamed behavior told me something else was going on. Now he looked up at me with tears welling in his eyes. He slowly turned around and hesitantly pulled his grey sweat pants down revealing last night’s punishment. The moment my eyes caught sight of the oozing deep wounds left on his buttocks by what could only be an electrical extension cord, my anger began to boil. His crime was eating cookies without permission before dinner.
Was “beating” a child the right way to parent? When we hear it stated like that, most of us would say “NO!” Why do we keep quoting the Bible's “Spare the rod, spoil the child” as if it justifies the use of violence against a child?
My parents adhered to the heavy-handed parenting principles of “spare the rod, spoil the child," and I have had plenty of experience with the line between discipline and abuse in my career. In twenty-four years as a law enforcement officer, I have taken many children away from their families and arrested parents for neglect and horrific abuse. And for the last fifteen years, I have professionally and privately worked with juvenile intervention, helping families find another way, a better way, to teach their children to be productive members of a family and community—without using violence to gain compliance.
The Case for Discipline
Let me make this very clear—there is a HUGE line between punishment and discipline. Punishment is not used to teach—it's used to vent anger and frustration in a way that hurts. There is no way to justify an adult punishing a child. When we allow anger to boil over and use violence as a veiled excuse for discipline, we've failed at our job. Not only is it wrong, it only teaches fear, resentment and rejection.
Our job as parents is to teach our children, which means to educate and redirect toward positive choices. We, as parents, need to use our brains, to have a conversation that above all else, communicates our love and acceptance of the child while still confronting the less than desirable behavior that they chose. Love the person, confront the behavior. Ask questions about their reasoning in a way not to find fault, but for you to learn what they understand, and what needs to be taught or redirected. Find out what the child thought their options were. Ask them, “Why did they choose this option?” Do they understand what a better choice may have been?
Does this mean that a child who makes a bad choice or doesn't listen gets off scot-free? No—there should be consequences for misbehavior, but violence from a parent shouldn't be one of them.
A parent should never discipline a child while in a state of emotional disequilibrium. If you cannot address the issue from a calm and collected place, you will never be able to teach. You will never be able to communicate love. And when your child only hears your anger, only feels your rage, they will never learn the lesson you so badly want to teach.
Of course there will be times when we are upset, angry, and disappointed with our children. We will be afraid of the paths they take, some of the decisions they make. But communicating that through anger will not reach them. Instead, take the time you need to calm down so you can instead focus on discipline, not punishment.
If we are so compelled to use the Bible as our source for parenting wisdom, then we should focus on the Bible’s message of love. After all, that is the Good Book's loudest message.