By Kyle Blevins

There is often confusion between this phrase and a biblical Proverb regarding “sparing the rod.” This phrase was actually coined by a 17th-century poet and satirist by the name of Samuel Butler in his poem “Hudibras.” The poems’ main characters, Hudibras and the widow he longs for, are planning to start a love affair, but before the widow commits to it, she asks Hudibras to prove his love for her by committing to twisted acts. The widow then states:

If matrimony and hanging go
By dest’ny, why not whipping too?
What med’cine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets stil’d;
Then spare the rod, and spoil the child.

This is night and day compared to the biblical verse containing the phrase “spare the rod.” The term “spoil the child” is not actually in the Bible. What “spare the rod, spoil the child” actually means in reference to biblical guidance is to guide our children in the way they should go. Let’s explore this phrase further in the Bible.

Where is “spare the rod, spoil the child” mentioned in the Bible?

This phrase is most closely associated with Proverbs 13:24. We start to understand the context more as we read in various translations. The King James translation states “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: But he who loves him chasteneth him betimes.” While the New Living Translation reads “Those who spare the rod of discipline hate their children. Those who love their children care enough to discipline them.” In any translation, the intent is disciplining our children in the sense of guiding them in the way they should go. To put it simply, it is to instill in our children right from wrong.

In the time scripture was written, and even still today, shepherds used various tools to guide their sheep. They use a staff, or a crook, and a rod. The crook is the curved stick you see in cartoon depictions of shepherds. When sheep fall into a pit or lose sight of their flock, they look down. The curved end of the crook is used to pull the sheep’s head back up and guide it in the way it should go. In the same way, the rod is used to guide sheep who begin to splinter away from the flock back together. It can also be used defensively to keep the sheep safe from predators.

This Proverb, as with many proverbs and teachings of Jesus, teaches using a parable. It does not intend for children to be physically punished as the only means of correction. It refers to teaching them through guidance and appropriate discipline. Discipline, according to this PMC article, is about positively influencing behavior in children, not about punishing them. It says, “Discipline allows children to develop self-discipline, and helps them become emotionally and socially mature, secure adults.” It goes on to explain that effective discipline is that which is self-enhancing for the child. Leading children to self-discipline is congruent with Proverbs 22:6, which says, “Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.”

How can Proverbs 13:24 be misinterpreted?

The most common misinterpretation about this scripture relates to “the rod of discipline.” Many view this as direction to physically punish children as the best, or only, form of discipline. “The rod” is the inspiration for other disciplinary tools like switches or belts. According to psychologist and Parenting by The Book author John Rosemond, “this misinterpretation is understandable, but reflects a wrongful application of the principles of Biblical interpretation.” There is often debate around this verse along with two others, but notice the trend in all of these is not a rod, but the rod:

Proverbs 13:24 – “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.”

Proverbs 22:15 – “Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.”

Proverbs 23:13 – “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish him with the rod, he will not die.”

Per this resource from Rosemond, there is a big difference between a rod, a physical object, and the rod, which is used metaphorically. In each scripture that describes disciplining a child, the rod is used, nota rod. He goes on to present the importance of understanding the different usage in Exodus 21:20, which states, “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished.” Though the severity is obviously different in this example, it points out the varying context. Without seeing the subtle difference in the usage of the rod here, we miss the purpose of these scriptures.

How should parents apply the verse today?

With the developments in research surrounding the importance of family bonds and emotional development, a current application of this verse might focus more on development rather than discipline alone. Consequences are necessary, but understanding why there are consequences is what ties it into development. Development encompasses more than just correcting bad behavior. It includes that, but the development mindset would incorporate other important factors such as how our children learn, and what is in them to cultivate.

The World Economic Forum states emotional intelligence will be a top 10 skill necessary for career advancement by 2020. To use “the rod” in this time is to cultivate awareness in our children. Awareness of their own feelings, as well as what might happen in others given certain situations. You may be thinking this is such a “soft” thing to say, or that kids these days need a “backbone.” While I don’t disagree with that, consider that the Holy Spirit is a spirit of gentleness and kindness, but also one of directness and purpose. The aim here is not to guide our children to “softness” but to a holy spirit-driven conscience, a higher awareness of self and others.

Lori Wildenberg gives a great guide to the foundational emotional needs of children, and people in general, in her 2016 Crosswalk article How to Grow Your Child’s Conscience. Through six stages leading up to maturity, she states it starts with us as the example. Our home is the place where empathy can be fostered and empathy is a big component of conscience development. It is the key that makes us consider how actions, whether our own or something we witness, impact those around us. Skills in empathy and emotional intelligence not only help us in our careers but more importantly, they help us in our purpose to love God and love others that Jesus charged us with, in Matthew 22:36-40.

Is there a “right” way to discipline your child?

Discipline is ok. I think it is important to start off by saying that. Sometimes as people we tend to commit 100% one direction or the other if we don’t have our own understanding of something. The aim is not to avoid discipline altogether. What we do want to avoid is ineffective discipline. Per the PMC article referenced above, the purpose of effective discipline is to “help children organize themselves, internalize rules, and acquire appropriate behavior patterns.” Biblically, this is in accordance to Proverbs 22:6 that we should “raise a child up in the way they should go.” The key to this effective discipline must be perceived as “fair” for the child and be self-enhancing.

You may also consider other proven alternatives to spanking depending on the child’s age. Some of these alternatives including redirection (infants, early toddlers), timeout (early toddlers, Kindergarten to school-age), withdrawal of privileges, or reasoning (school-age to adolescents). While I understand the above may be a bit vague, the “right way” to discipline your child is known no better than by the parents. The key is having the right intention and motivation as described in this section and referenced article.

In summary, “spare the rod, spoil the child” is Biblically supported through means of effective discipline, but is not directly quoted in scripture. Though the phrase is actually found in a satirical article, there are scriptures that support that discipline is an exercise of love. Discipline is a vital piece of our emotional and social development, and when used with the proper intention, helps children prosper in life. Effective discipline is a result of a healthy home environment where children feel safe and share mutual respect.

Effective discipline starts with us being healthy ourselves. If you had a rough childhood with questionable punishments, you hold the power to change the environment for your children. You are in charge of them having a different future. To be healthy ourselves, we must be connected to the vine as Jesus describes in John 15:5. He says, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in me, and I in them, will produce much fruit.” Our purpose, direction, and emotional health come from spiritual principles and the good news is that even if you were not provided a healthy environment growing up yourself, you have the same access to the vine. You can get healthy now. This health translates into healthy parenting and healthy relationships for everyone you encounter.