The Truth About ‘Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child’

A person who identified as “Wondering in Arizona” wrote Dear Abby to ask what she thought were the three most important things parents should instill in their children in their formative years. Abby’s answer: “DEAR WONDERING:  In my opinion, the three most important things would be empathy, that they are loved and curiosity.”

My brother-in-law had said the answer was discipline. Without the firm hand of discipline, he’d said, quoting the biblical “spare the rod and spoil the child,” our toddler was destined to grow up a spoiled only-child, implying that spoiled kids have trouble with relationships. Our son wouldn’t have friends because my wife and I didn’t believe in spanking.

I was surprised at the time that Shelley didn’t strike Jesse’s uncle with a rod. It was risky telling a woman who’s had surgeries for endometriosis, two ectopic pregnancies, and a C-section birth, that she was remiss in having only one child and was raising him the wrong way.

I researched “sparing the rod” and discovered the Biblical rod is a shepherding reference and that sheepherders guided their sheep with it but didn’t whack them.  In our counseling experience,” according to one pastoral counselor, “we find that these people [spankers] are devoted parents who love God and love their children, but they misunderstand the concept of the rod.” Other parts of the Bible suggest that respect, authority, and compassion should be the prevailing attitudes toward children.

Later I read that a psychologist, John Valusek, who is a crusader against spanking, said any use of force against children is unnecessary and damaging. “We wonder where violence comes from. What I’m saying is, even with the best of intentions, with the best parents, once you use spanking, whether you’re doing it in God’s name or whatever, you’re saying it’s okay to use pain to accomplish certain purposes.”

When Jesse broke the rules or seemed temporarily insane, Shelley and I had various consequences, the worst being an isolation time-out (he hated even short separations). But on those occasions when one of us had to carry this crying child to his room, it was not without broken hearts. Once he’d even cried and banged on the bathroom door when Shelley locked herself inside for her own time-out. Although unconfirmed, I believe there was crying on both sides of the door, and I don’t remember if Shelley said what the meltdown was all about. I understood only that it was one of those volatile periods in a child’s life, a time that needed to be experienced with deep breaths and no swearing.

In their book Your Three-Year-Old, Friend or Enemy, Louise Bates Ames and Frances Ilg say, “Three is a conforming age. Three-and-a-half is just the opposite.” Better understanding of his turbulent cycles gave Shelley and me insight into normal periods of turmoil, making us feel less like failures. But often I had to suppress shouting the F-word.

So what happens to a rambunctious boy who was never spanked? As it turned out, Jesse loved to jump BMX bike over makeshift ramps, snowboard over jumps, and eventually a dirt bike over huge mounds of dirt. Shelley and I agreed to support his new passion if he continued to achieve high marks in school and found a summer job to help pay for maintaining the race machine. At local race tracks, he added new friends who shared the racer camaraderie. His high school English teacher, who brought her husband and small children to one of his races, e-mailed us after his graduation her startling opinion of the man-child who was averse to school: “Jesse is a rare breed that mixes unassuming charisma with unassuming raw intelligence. I’ve met very few people of his caliber, and his acquaintance reaffirms why I teach.” What had she seen that we had not?

What we did see was a boy who made friends easily and had empathy to help those in need. His six cousins seemed to love and respect him. For that outcome alone, Shelley and I believed love and reasonable discipline had resulted in a better outcome than the harshness of smacking a child.

On one visit to my sister and her family, Jesse’s uncle volunteered that he’d been wrong in his prediction about how sparing the rod would ruin Jesse’s future. Regrettably, I still felt like giving the righteous prognosticator a few whacks with a rod. 

In November 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics released a policy statement that said “corporal punishment is associated with increased aggression in preschool and school-aged children.” Moreover, “experiencing corporal punishment makes it more, not less, likely that children will be defiant in the future.”