The Proper Understanding of ‘Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child’

As is received from our Heavenly Father, parents are to extend an abundance of intention, grace, and mercy. Keeping in mind, effective discipline can only come by way of godly inspired discipleship, bound in love. Contributing Writer
Updated Nov 08, 2023
The Proper Understanding of ‘Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child’

“Spare the rod, spoil the child,” is an aphorism commonly used to support the practice of physical discipline towards children. At one time, this may have been done with a literal rod. Today, it would more accurately be carried out through spanking by hand or using a paddle of sorts.

The reason behind such a practice is that one wouldn’t want to “spoil” the child, so to speak. Which also holds a different connotation than it used to. What we know as “overindulging,” in this sense, means to impair or destroy.

It appears this quote implies that not hitting your children would certainly ruin them. But is this concept one Christians should hold to? If so, where in the Bible is this controversial verse found? And does it really mean what we think it means?

Origin of "Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child"

Commonly claimed to have come from the King James Version of the Bible, Book of Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

Due to the associated “spoil" concept, which is not in the Bible, it more likely came from a 17th-century poem by Samuel Butler called Hudibras. In the poem, a love affair is likened to a child, and spanking is mockingly commended as a way to make the love grow stronger. The actual verse reads:

“What medicine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets styled
Then spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Somehow, this particular quote stuck. And while the saying itself isn’t biblical, it doesn't necessarily contradict what the Bible says, either. This is because three Hebrew proverbs do speak to parents, not “sparing the rod.” It’s the “spoil the child” that Butler added for his own purposes.

What the Bible Says about ‘Sparing the Rod’

Likely, Butler loosely referenced the book of Proverbs, even if only to mock them.

Whoever spares the rod hates their children (Proverbs 13:24a).

If you punish (children) with the rod, they will not die (Proverbs 23:13b).

A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom (Proverbs 29:15a).

For some Christians, these are verses that have become “proof-text” for their own use and support of corporal punishment. For others, they are reason enough to dismiss the Bible’s teaching altogether. However, these are only partial verses and we’d do a great disservice to their application by ignoring the context as we make the assumption that sparing the rod spoils the child.

Understanding the Meaning of Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child

As with any verse, we need to consider the original context, along with how it fits into the greater biblical picture. One way to do this is by taking the chapter whenever given a verse. Reading the surrounding paragraphs, or in this case, even the second half of the sentences, one can gain a better perspective.

One should also note the unique design of Proverbs, in general. Scholars Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart explain in their book, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth, that the Hebrew Proverbs were poetic in nature, written in such a way to stimulate mental pictures, while including sounds that are pleasing to the ear. These nuances get lost in translation, making it hard to recognize them as worded to be memorable or catchy while not necessarily meant to be literal or absolute.

With this in mind, we can look back to the complete verses that reference using a rod on children:

Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them (Proverbs 13:24). 

Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die (Proverbs 23:13).

A rod and a reprimand impart wisdom, but a child left undisciplined disgraces its mother (Proverbs 29:15).

There are three repeated themes here that we can now define through the lens of Scripture. This will help us understand the original message — both implied by the author and received by the audience, because these verses can never mean to us what they never meant to them.

Using the Bible to Understand Parenting

Scripture often interprets Scripture, and according to Scripture, the role of any godly parent is to:

1. Train children (Proverbs 22:6); Teach children (Deuteronomy 6:7; Deuteronomy 11:19).

2. Live by example (Deuteronomy 6:8-9; Deuteronomy 11:18).

3. Make known what God has done (Joel 1:3; Isaiah 38:19).

4. Discipline by word and deed (Proverbs 29:15; Proverbs 29:17; Proverbs 13:24; Proverbs 23:13; Hebrews 12:7).

5. Maintain proper attitudes (Colossians 3:21; Ephesians 6:4; 1 Corinthians 13:4-7; 1 Peter 5:3; Ephesians 4:29; Proverbs 29:22).

We can see here a much broader aspect to parenting at work alongside the suggestion of physical discipline. The bigger picture highlights a more prevalent call, that of discipleship and character.

Using the Bible to Understand Discipline

There’s a connection here we don’t want to miss. Our word “discipline” is indeed a derivative of the word “disciple.” A correlation made apparent all throughout the Bible and one that the original authors and audience of these proverbs would have recognized.

By looking at the original language, we even see that the Hebrew word translated to “discipline,” is the very same word that is translated into “instruction,” elsewhere. The root word being “mū·sar,” and by observing how it’s used throughout the Bible, we begin to see a controlled range of applications. It swings from teaching, training, and modeling (discipleship), to verbal correction and even consequence (discipline).

Most notably, “mū·sar” is a noun used, outside of the proverbs to reference God’s instruction and discipline. This makes sense because according to biblical culture and belief, both instruction and discipline were expected to come through the father, in the family setting, by the actual father (to which the Proverbs are addressing,) and in the broader sense of God’s family, through God as Father (to which the biblical narrative addresses.) In both instances, and in both uses of the word, this was done primarily orally, audibly, and visibly, well before physically.

Proverbs 13 Quotes on Instruction

Notice all the warnings and commands on the importance of verbal instruction and active listening in Proverbs chapter 13 alone.

A wise son heeds his father’s instruction* but a mocker does not respond to rebukes (Proverbs 13:1).

Wisdom is found in those who take advice (Proverbs 13:10).

Whoever scorns instruction* will pay for it, but whoever respects a command is rewarded (Proverbs 13:13).

The teaching of the wise is a fountain of life, turning a person from the snares of death (Proverbs 13:14).

A wicked messenger falls into trouble (Proverbs 13:17).

Whoever disregards discipline* comes to poverty and shame, but whoever heeds correction is honored (Proverbs 13:18).

The one who loves their children is careful to discipline* them (Proverbs 13:24).

Repeated again, we get verses like Proverbs 23:12, Proverbs 23:19, Proverbs 23:22, and Proverbs 23:26.

And again, in chapter 29, where the third reference is made to use a rod upon the child, Proverbs 29:1 repeats, “He who is often reproved, yet stiffens his neck, will suddenly be broken beyond healing (Proverbs 29:1, ESV).

When we understand the intent and purpose of these Proverbs, we can recognize each would have been easy to remember and fun to say, even part of the teaching parents would pass along to their children.

If anything, there is more to be said in these chapters about the discipleship of children (from the parent’s perspective) and the importance of obedience (from the child’s perspective).

Using the Bible to Understand the Rod

According to the language used, a rod can represent many different things. A tool for discipline (Proverbs 22:15; Exodus 20:21), for herding sheep (Leviticus 27:32), for cultivating herbs (Isaiah 28:27), but also when referencing the tribes of Israel (Psalm 74:2), and/or when used as a symbol of authority (Judges 5:14).

As a nomadic people, the Hebrew rod would most commonly have been seen as the tool held and used for everything from guidance (of flocks or families), to protecting or even clearing the way.

It held a symbol of authority to it, and yes, it could also be used as a weapon or tool for discipline.

This would be what it represented in the three verses we are exploring: an extension of the Father’s role and authority to be used wisely and appropriately.

What Does This Mean?

As the Bible strongly encourages the obedience of children to their parents, we can also say it’s within the scope of parenting to uphold such expectations. God does this with us, and we’re to do it with them. This isn’t done with a rod of iron, however.

As is received from our Heavenly Father, parents are to extend an abundance of intention, grace, and mercy. Keeping in mind, effective discipline can only come by way of godly inspired discipleship, bound in love.

At the end of the day, consequences are good and should be set in place. But the moment a hand is raised in anger, or one’s “rod” becomes the preliminary or primary source of teaching, we’ve missed the mark, entirely.

Photo Credit: ©iStock/Getty Images Plus/Choreograph authorAmy Swanson resides in Connecticut where she has recently discovered a passion for Bible study and writing. By God's continued grace, she now enjoys helping others better understand their Bibles, while also being an advocate for biblical church integrity. As a mother of three and a wife of 13 years, she blogs less than she'd like to but shares Scriptural insights, encouraging truth, resources, and musings more regularly at Beloved Warrior.


Christianity / Life / Christian Life / The Proper Understanding of ‘Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child’