It may be a surprise to some that the old adage “spare the rod, spoil the child” is not in the scriptures. It is actually part of a poem from the 17th century by a man named Samuel Butler, called Hudibras:
“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.”
(Part II, Canto I, ll. 839-44).
However the Hebrew Scriptures (especially proverbs) do equate discipline with “rod” on multiple occasions: “On the lips of the discerning, wisdom is found, But a rod is for the back of him who lacks understanding” Prov. 10:13; “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” Prov. 13:24; “In the speech of a fool is a rod for his back, but the words of the wise protect them” Prov. 14:3.
Contrary to some child rearing books and opinions of “authorities” on the subject, there is more here than mere disobedience = beating. The Hebrew word is shebet, and it is used multiple ways.
1) It is used as a scepter in the hand of a king (representing authority in leadership: Gen. 49:10; Num. 24:17; Ezek. 19:14; Amos 1:5, 8; Mic. 7:14; Zech. 10:11), as seen in the Messianic chapter 2:9 (cf. 45:6) of Psalms where of the “anointed son” it is proclaimed, “You shall break them with a rod of iron, You shall shatter them like earthenware.”
2) It is also used in passages (like the proverbs) such as Job 37:13 (cf. Job 9:34; 21:9) where it is variously translated as “rod”, “correction”, “punish”, “punishment” or “scourge”: “Whether for correction, or for His world, Or for lovingkindness, He causes it to happen” and 2 Sam 7:13-14 when God says of Solomon, “He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be a father to him and he will be a son to Me; when he commits iniquity, I will correct him with the rod of men and the strokes of the sons of men” (cf. Lam. 3:1).
3) It is also used of punishment for the people of Israel as a whole when departing from God’s statutes, “If they violate My statutes And do not keep My commandments, Then I will punish their transgression with the rod And their iniquity with stripes. But I will not break off My lovingkindness from him, Nor deal falsely in My faithfulness. My covenant I will not violate, Nor will I alter the utterance of My lips” Psa. 89:31-34. God is leading them along, and the result is not breaking the deal, but using his rod as a tool for guidance (His hand of correction is also upon other nations - Isa. 10:5; 11:4; 30:31; Ezek. 20:37).
4) This word is also used as a weapon for brutality as seen in Egypt where the staff of Pharaoh (representing his divine authority and right of rule) was brutal against all who opposed him. “Therefore thus says the Lord GOD of hosts, "O My people who dwell in Zion, do not fear the Assyrian who strikes you with the rod and lifts up his staff against you, the way Egypt did” Isa. 10:24 (Ex. 21:20; Isa. 14:5-6, 29; Mic. 5:1).
It is just as important to stress the other side of “rod” as well. In Ps. 23 we find the writer saying, “your rod and staff comfort me”. Rod here is the same word, but as the secure and trusted shepherd’s staff (which is also a symbol of authority, guidance and leadership), it communicates a leadership which is both comforting and reassuring of the shepherds goodness to the writer.
In the multiple uses of this word, there is no sense of a command saying: “thou shalt beat and whip thy children lest thou burn in the fiery chasm of hell.” Rather, it is general wisdom that a child must be guided and led in a direction that will save him from his undoing. That is just it, the stress is not about “beating” but leadership and directing. These are Proverbs, timeless bits of wisdom, not promises or God-given commandments.
To illustrate this further, consider this other Proverb: “Do not withhold discipline from a child; even if you strike him with the rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod, you will deliver him from death” Prov. 23:13-14 (cf. Prov. 26:3; 29:15). “You will deliver him from death”. What does this mean? Is the author speaking in terms of spirituality, i.e. that he will love God and then be “saved” rather than suffer spiritual destruction and death in hell? Not likely, because at the time this was written, such ideas as “hell” and “spiritual life” did not exist in the same way we have been accustomed to think. It actually is far more practical than that. It has to do with much simpler obedience, coming from the Torah: “If a person has a stubborn, rebellious son who pays no attention to his father or mother, and they discipline him to no avail, his father and mother must seize him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his city. They must declare to the elders of his city, ‘Our son is stubborn and rebellious and pays no attention to what we say– he is a glutton and drunkard.’ Then all the men of his city must stone him to death. In this way you will purge out wickedness from among you, and all Israel will hear about it and be afraid” Deut. 21:18-21.
A rebellious son, who was unable to be controlled by his parents was “cut off” (from the land of the living). There is no question historically speaking that discipline has more than not involved use of the “rod”. To say this is a biblical mandate is (in my opinion) to stretch what is actually being stated. The rod is more about directing and leadership than “punishment”. And as a symbol of leadership and authority, it is not always a comforting and pleasant experience (e.g. Israel experienced the gentle, reassuring and even comforting rod/scepter of God when following in His ways, but experienced that same symbol of leadership in a foul and painful manner when departing from His rule). Punishment is a tool utilized in leading and directing for betterment, not abuse. Shepherding is a good analogy. Sheep are never beaten, but led. Do we desire to “drive” our children, or lead them? What are our motives in the manner? Are we authoritarians who love to reign with a powerful right arm and in strong dominance because we rule by “divine right”, or do we lead by example and serve with humility? Are there times for physical implementations? Yes, I believe so. Is it the answer for every child in every situation, no. Systematization can fail when mercy is appropriate. Every child is different, and there are times when mercy will speak, guide and lead the heart of a child far more than the “woodshed”. Breaking a heart is far more deadly to the growth of a child than breaking their booty. Perhaps too many have been schooled in the philosophy of “I have to whip them because the Bible says so.” This approach is not only a pitiful relationship to the Scriptures, but also does a disservice to our children and should not be like this.
The proverb “train-up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it”, is perhaps the most cited verse in child rearing, but probably the most misunderstood, misinterpreted and misapplied. “Train up”, is the Hebrew hanakh, which means “to dedicate” or “consecrate.” “In the way he should go” is quite literally “in accordance with his/her way”, or “in his/her own way.”
I have heard it used more often than not that “there is only one way for a child to go, so we as parents must force them to conform into that mold by whatever means necessary to that end.” We tend towards wanting to make this about stuffing them full of “God” so that maybe, probably they will stick with it and then go to “heaven.” Again, this later “spiritualized” concept is not what is being communicated here. What has happened (and is indeed still happening en masse) in many situations is parents are destroying their children and giving them a foul taste of what the God of Israel is like, so much so that many are throwing it all off as soon as they have the chance to do so. What this passage communicates is that each child literally has his or her own “way” or “manner”. They have God given characteristics and strengths. We as parents need to help them in that area, push them in the direction that we see God taking them. We are sculptures in some senses, helping mold these malleable little lumps of clay into vessels of honor, fit for service of the Most High. This does not happen through systematized parenting, but relational parenting.
Children are not robots, there is not a one size fits all guidebook that tells you A+B=C, you are going to have to study each one and find their way. Children are intelligent little creatures; they can spot a hypocrite a mile away. As a youngster I remember knowing who the genuine adults were. It formed my opinions of them (and those like them) right into my adulthood. Children (especially our own) know if we are the real deal or not. There is a rabbinical saying, “the key to disciple making is not to proclaim the message, but to be the message…” We need to teach our children verbally, instruct them in the ways of the Lord, but if we are not being what we are saying, we are speaking louder with our actions than with our words, and they are the first ones to pick it up. When we start to see patterns in our children that we feel are uncomely or unbefitting, we don’t have to search far to find out the origin of those traits. There is no doubt, the biggest teaching happens non-verbally with what we do and more importantly who we are, but that does not start with the rod of men, that starts with the rod, rule and scepter of God.