“Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Proverbs 13:24). This verse seems to tell parents that spanking their children is a biblical expectation, but is that what the Proverb writer means to say?
Should Christian parents spank their children, especially in an age where “spanking” is regarded as, at best, old-fashioned and, at worst, abusive?
A Breakdown of Proverbs 13
Proverbs 13 includes some instructions for parents and children:
A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke (v.1).
A good man leaves an inheritance to his children's children, but the sinner's wealth is laid up for the righteous (v.22).
And, of course, “spare the rod, spoil the child” is a paraphrase of verse 24.
Overall, Proverbs 13 offers wise advice to people in general, not just parents and children but every person. It is sensible to take care of what we say, lies and gossip bring “shame and disgrace” (v.4), and sin will be the undoing of evil people (v.6). Insolence will lead to trouble, as will greed and bad company.
Each verse suggests the benefits of following this advice and the likely consequences of ignoring it. One who is slow to speak “preserves his life” (v.3).
Lazy people get nothing, but a hard-working person “is richly supplied” (v.4). A righteous life is a kind of safeguard against evil, and one who listens to wise counsel has discovered “a fountain of life” (v.14).
Editors of the English Standard Version explain that Proverbs “is addressed to a young man [and] the situations he will face while he is young,” although the situations of this young man’s life are ones “from which all readers can apply lessons to their own lives.”
Some advice makes no connection to worshiping God — general guidelines which could be observed from within any religion or society.
As with every other part of the Bible, however, this is the inspired Word of God, highlighting how practical He is and how his Word applies to all areas of life.
Proverbs are also known as “wisdom literature,” but Proverbs 9:10 insists that this wisdom starts with the Lord. The Proverbs, overall, teach that the way to living a happy and useful life is “to purposely live by God’s will.”
A Closer Look at Proverbs 13:24
The writers at Bible Ref insist that Proverbs 13:24 is about discipline overall, not just corporal punishment. “The primary purpose of this statement is to endorse loving discipline.”
If a parent does not discipline a child, he is missing a chance to correct ungodly behavior to the benefit of his child. “A person who truly loves a child will provide discipline [...] to keep the child from developing evil habits.”
Without discipline, something much worse awaits children than the discomfort of a spanking: “lack of discipline also leads to life-destroying habits such as laziness and dishonesty.”
But take a close look at verse 2. “From the fruit of his mouth a man eats what is good, but the desire of the treacherous is for violence.” It is not sensible to interact with others out of anger.
In particular, “Christian discipline, physical or otherwise, must not be administered in anger, nor should it be given without just provocation” (Ibid.). The verse neither promotes nor discourages spanking but encourages reasoned discipline.
New Testament Backup
In Ephesians 4:26, Paul wrote, “Be angry and do not sin.” Do not act while you are still angry because you are likely to sin.
There is such a thing as righteous anger, but Jonathan Parnell asserted that often our anger “is our response to whatever endangers something we love,” and our love is frequently misdirected.
Parnell agrees that we might be angry with a driver who speeds down the street where our children play because that driver puts our children in danger.
But frequently, anger actually starts with defending our pride. We need to ask, “What is this big thing that’s so important to me that I get this defensive?” (Ibid.)
So, while it might seem as though spanking a child at the moment is appropriate in order to make a concrete connection between action and consequence, Paul’s advice is fitting. Is spanking a loving form of discipline or a reaction to feeling disrespected and frustrated?
Every situation is different, so it is worthwhile to take a moment and think it through before spanking — do not react; think about what you want to do and why.
A Christian Parenting Expert on Spanking
Danny Huerta asserts that “part of discipline is establishing boundaries,” which are “especially comforting to children who are trying to figure out the world and testing limits and authority.” Children need their parents to establish limits and to enforce them.
Huerta suggests that spanking is appropriate when a child is “in an extremely unsafe situation, [or being] deliberately defiant and disobedient [or] severely disrespectful.”
He also suggests that parents use spanking as a last resort, in private and calmly. Consider other methods of discipline and approach discipline with purpose, not out of resentment and fatigue.
Is the child merely exploring something new, and his curiosity leads to an accident? Or has the child deliberately ignored the father’s or mother’s direct instruction or purposely caused harm or damage?
And always, spanking must not turn into a beating. Where is that line drawn? One or two sharp smacks on a child’s clothed bum are one thing but should not involve a belt or a ruler or any other instrument, nor should the parent use a closed fist or smack a bare bum.
Moreover, a spanking must not inflict injury. “Scripture makes it clear that discipline is done as loving guidance, correction, and teaching, not punishment.” (Ibid.)
Consider the Shepherds
Huerta highlights the word “rod” in Proverbs 13:24, suggestive of the shepherd’s staff. “A shepherd uses his staff to provide small corrections [...] to keep his sheep on the path. That model applies to parenting as well.”
Huerta asks the reader to consider whether he or she has pushed down frustration for a long time before exploding: spanking from this state of mind would be a poor choice. All parents may “want to take a cue from the shepherds.”
In fact, as parents, we must always keep our eyes on the Shepherd. How does he guide us? Jesus guided his disciples and followers from a posture of obedience to the Father. If we keep our eyes on Jesus and submit to the Father’s will, he will be faithful to guide us by his Word and by his Spirit. Parenting is a tough job, and mothers and fathers will make mistakes.
Remember that you are God’s child, too, and if you have made mistakes as a parent, there is forgiveness for all of God’s children. Remembering this fact can help parents lovingly promote and affirm boundaries for their children.
For further reading:
What Does the Bible Say about Parenting?
What Responsibility Do Parents Have in Raising Children?
How Are Children Gifts from God?
Is the Phrase ‘Spare the Rod Spoil the Child’ in the Bible?
6 Things My 1st Year of Parenthood Taught Me about God
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Candice Lucey is a freelance writer from British Columbia, Canada, where she lives with her family. Find out more about her here.