The saying Spare the rod and spoil the child is deeply rooted in some cultures as saving discipline. Where does this idea come from and is it true that using the rod is next to godliness?
When we go back to the biblical history of the first disciplinary act, in God’s method of approaching disobedience and solving Lucifer’s overt rebellion, we find a lesson worth our close study, one we should adopt as a parental, didactic and, especially, disciplinary method.
In Adam and Eve’s history in Eden we also discover that, in Heaven, the punishment for disobedience and breaking the law, together with the consequences it brings, also provides for a context to remedy the situation. It includes a divine promise and the assurance that God Himself will oversee the correction and rehabilitation process of the wrongdoer.
Although He could have struck with vengeance the one who proved to be the first model of infatuated beauty and arrogant wisdom—the initiator of the rebellion in heaven—though He could have destroyed our first parents by the same word that brought them to life, God chose to act differently. In a later incident, contrary to the somewhat distorted picture we have today, king David describes himself as one suffering the punishment for breaking God’s commandments in very paradoxical terms: “your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalms 23:4). Despite all this, neither in the first case nor in the second, nor in the subsequent heavenly disciplinary acts mentioned in the Bible, is the idea of consequence or punishment excluded from the disciplinary process.
If, according to the dictionary, discipline means order, to discipline means bringing order to one’s attitude and behaviour, with the purpose of educating. It means to correct, beyond punishing, and this has a positive meaning and purpose rather than a negative connotation.
To enforce discipline is perhaps the most difficult task and responsibility of a parent, mentor, or teacher. Which disciplinary methods we adopt are all the more important as they determine the traits the child will have later on. This is why it’s important that the methods used establish or re-establish order and discipline, and don’t generate chaos and confusion.
What do studies say?
One of the many APA studies shows that punishing a child is effective if done correctly. Some children need to bear the consequences in order to succeed in life. Assertive techniques, if applied correctly, are effective. L.R. Kost, editor-in-chief of the Holistic Parenting magazine, founder and director of the children’s rights advocacy and family consulting group, Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, and acclaimed Christian author, says: “Discipline means helping the child solve a problem. Punishment means making him suffer because he has that problem”.
Disciplining children was and remains to this day a thorny, controversial subject.
Techniques and methods differ from case to case, in the same way that children’s behaviour and reactions differ from one temperament and from one situation to the other. One thing is sure and remains generally valid, regardless of the time and space: discipline without love is abuse, and parental love without discipline encourages wrong choices. To make wise choices, the child needs both encouragement and correction.
There are a few situations in which both experts and experienced parents recommend a correctional intervention of the children’s behaviour or attitude:
1. Defying authority – up to a certain age, the child needs to understand the “hierarchy” of authority and perceive their parents as an authority. Studies say that children who haven’t learned to respect authority in their relationship with their parents until the age of 3 will later face difficulties in school, work, relationships with their superiors and even spiritually, in recognizing God’s authority.
2. Lack of respect – respect is one of the principles which when broken must be dealt with wisely and promptly. “Effective parenting centers around love: love that is not permissive, love that doesn’t tolerate disrespect, but also love that is powerful enough to allow kids to make mistakes and permit them to live with the consequences of those mistakes”.
3. Willingly breaking the rules – “All normal, healthy children will sometimes break the rules, either because they are too captivated by the moment itself to remember the rule…or because they want to test whether last week’s rules are still valid. Now is the time for them to learn about consequences, forgiveness, and reconciliation.”
How not to do it: dysfunctional disciplinary methods
Without prescribing a personalized disciplinary method, we can make a list of a few problematic types of “disciplinary approach” which researchers and experienced persons believe should be avoided.
Ellen White, mother and devoted educational writer, who wrote a lot for and about children and young people, recommends avoiding “negative discipline”: “Into your discipline bring not a particle of harshness. Lay no rigid injunctions on the youth. It is these ironclad rules and commands that sometimes lead them to feel that they must and will do the thing they are charged not to do. When giving caution or reproof to the youth, do it as one who has a special interest in them.” Do not provoke them to anger, don’t treat them harshly or unjustly, Ellen White says.
Physical punishments carry a high risk for the child’s academic performance, and for their physical and mental health.
Recent research underlines the danger of physical punishment. Professor Alan Kazdin, Sterling Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry at Yale University and an expert with over 700 works and 49 books published in the field, believes that physical punishment does not improve child behaviour in the long run, but rather encourages aggression, and the deficient behaviour comes back. “In the long run it has side effects and negative consequences.”
Physical punishments carry a high risk for the child’s academic performance, and for their physical and mental health.
Weakening the immune system, stopping or slowing down the growth process, enuresis (urinary incontinence), heart disease, chronic respiratory disease, and cancer predisposition as a result of early stress have been directly correlated with physical punishment.
An aspect which deserves all our attention is the one regarding using one’s hands and palms as a corrective measure. Palms and hands were given to us to caress our children, a place they would perceive as a love nest, in which they constantly find refuge when they make mistakes or fail. Each time children see our hands and palms, they should look at them as a Christian looks at the Saviour’s marked palms, to know that these palms carry the mark of His salvation.
Another problematic disciplinary method is punishment by work. If given a certain thing to do as a punishment for what they did wrong, children will learn to perceive work as a punishment. Imagine how a teenager who has been punished through work would react when told that he has to work 8 hours a day, 5 days a week until his retirement! Work should always be a relaxing time with the parents, a motivation or a principle in the educational process, never a punishment.
How to do it: healthy disciplinary methods
Probably no one can draw a single, generally valid method of discipline. This is precisely what should make us responsible, especially since the education and future of children also depends on the choices that parents make in this area.
We can list some principles and methods of correct, effective, saving discipline, which keep in mind the long-term and eternal correction of children.
Ellen White underlined the importance of enforcing discipline in a spirit of love, focusing on appreciation as a corrective method: “Do not pass by any slighted work unnoticed; but do not blame or scold them. In the most kindly way tell them that the neglect of the past must be remedied.” “A mechanical obedience”, the author says, “may hide the smoldering fire of rebellion, but it is ready to break out at any time.”
For younger children, experts recommend methods like: distracting the attention (if they really want to play with the phone they can be offered a toy as an alternative, while the phone is removed from their visual range); calling to memory responsibility and rules (these can be written on a piece of paper or drawn in a space which is visible in the house); establishing a set of rules together (when children are offered the opportunity to establish their own rules, most of the time parents are surprised by their sense of justice); a method of surveillance and control; a system of reward, losing privileges, consequences, etc.
The time out method (the isolation or ignoring method) is one recommended by most experts, especially for pre-schoolers or during the first years of life. This method implies that, for short periods of time, the child is deprived of certain advantages: their toy or their right to see friends or to receive their visit is taken away; they are sent to take time to think about what they did with the purpose of becoming aware of what they have done wrong.
When dealing with teenagers the following is recommended: negotiation (they are given the possibility to choose between two punishments with the same restrictive degree) and the positive approach (they are given a constructive opportunity to mend the mistake, while we consistently show them acceptance and love throughout this process, establishing once again the system of negotiable/non-negotiable rules).
The saving discipline
The most important thing in the disciplinary process is not forgetting that the saving discipline is the result of joining love with authority. Each time they are punished, the method used must help the child understand that they are loved and they are corrected out of love. Discipline’s goal is correcting wrong habits. If we take the Bible as a morally-educational handbook we will find clear guidelines when it comes to discipline: “In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus…I give you this charge…correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction”, the apostle Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:1-2. The Bible repeatedly mentions rebuke as a method of discipline: “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but whoever hates correction is stupid” (Proverbs 12:1); “Those who disregard discipline despise themselves, but the one who heeds correction gains understanding” (Proverbs 15:32); “…because the Lord disciplines those he loves, as a father the son he delights in” (Proverbs 3:12).
Physical punishment, apparently justified by the verse, “Whoever spares the rod hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them” (Proverbs 13:24), is more clearly exemplified by defining the rod from the same source: “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away” (Proverbs 22:15). Regarding the way to express and manifest anger, the book of Solomon’s wisdom leaves no room for interpretation: “Discipline your children, and they will give you peace; they will bring you the delights you desire” (Proverbs 29:17). Reconciliation and the feeling of peace of mind and delight of the soul that come after the disciplinary act cannot be correlated with the anger that erupts through violence.
Discipline is not something we do to the child, but what we do for them.
In the disciplinary process, I discover the supreme example in the model of the Saviour: “He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice” (Isaiah 42:2-3). If, as a Christian who does not always conform to God’s rules, I need this approach, surely I must appeal to it when I partake in the development process of little ones who are also His.
As parents, educators, and mentors, we have the unique and special opportunity to mould another human being. Discipline is not something we do to the child, but what we do for them.