How often have you heard the phrase, “Spare the rod; spoil the child”? For so many Christian families, this phrase is the beginning point for conversations including discipline. Poll a variety of families from different generations and there’s a good chance there will be a scattershot of answers to the question: Is spanking biblical? If you listen long enough, it won’t be long before you hear a reference to the common six word phrase.
However, the truth is, that’s not in the Bible anywhere. It’s a misquote of Proverbs 13:24 which states “whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.”
Notice the emphasis on “diligent to discipline.” Discipline is not a synonym for spanking, but rather a reference to the parents’ role to teach, guide, correct and love their children. And that is accomplished through a comprehensive set of discipline tools.
Biblical Origin of “Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child”
In ancient Hebrew culture, sheep were an important part of the agricultural landscape within the Bible’s historical accounts. Shepherds had an important role in guiding the sheep along the path and protecting them from predators. Like all of the Bible, while the words are ancient, the application is very relevant in contemporary society.
The shepherds’ tools were a staff to guide the sheep and a rod to redirect them. The concept of spanking comes from the rod. But the other side of discipline—the staff—brings us the most tools in an effective discipline toolkit. In their jobs, shepherds used staffs far more frequently than their rods. We should do likewise.
Your Rod and Your Staff, They Comfort Me?
In Psalms 23, the rod and staff are considered comforting. Let’s unpack that.
Part of discipline is establishing boundaries, and boundaries are comforting for everyone. They’re especially comforting to children who are trying to figure out the world and testing limits and authority. It’s helpful to think of your parenting role as that of a shepherd, guiding your children’s paths and protecting them.
A shepherd uses his staff to provide small corrections along the way, allowing him to keep his sheep on the path. That model applies to parenting as well. Think about your discipline style. Do you guide and redirect along the way or do you tolerate, tolerate, tolerate and explode? If it’s the latter, you may want to take a cue from the shepherds.
Providing that comforting correction and encouragement along the way takes time and intentionality, but the payoff is huge. When you provide that correction often and early in life, your children will very likely need much less correction as they mature.
Rarely, a shepherd needs to use his rod to correct or protect his sheep. It’s not punishment out of anger, but rather a protective mechanism to keep the sheep from danger. It’s correction out of concern and love.
Common Concerns with Biblical Discipline
One of the strongest statements about discipline is in Proverbs 23:13-14, which states, “Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die. If you strike him with the rod you will save his soul from Sheol.”
Many people get stuck on the “rod” in this passage but the focus here should be on discipline. Scripture makes it clear that discipline is done as loving guidance, correction and teaching, not punishment.
Personally, discipline teaches us to avoid sinful behavior, its dangers, its emptiness and its natural consequences. Instead, we’re to pursue true fulfillment and satisfaction through a relationship with Christ. Corporately, discipline keeps ours from being a selfish, lawless, dysfunctional society.
Keep in mind, we’re all—children and parents—highly imperfect beings. Our goal in parenting isn’t raising perfect children but rather to develop kids who know how to make good decisions driven by Godly wisdom as emphasized in Proverbs and throughout Scripture
. With those things in mind there are some circumstances when spanking makes sense, and others where spanking is not fitting.
Navigate family life with grace and love!
A Helpful Guide to the Question: Is Spanking Biblical?
Is Spanking Biblical? – Spanking may be appropriate when a child is:
- In an extremely unsafe situation
- Deliberately defiant and disobedient
- Severely disrespectful
Is Spanking Biblical? – Spanking is NOT appropriate when a child is:
- Simply being childish
- Had an accident
Five Biblical Principles for Spanking
If spanking is to become a part of your parenting toolkit, it should be done with the Fruit of the Spirit as the foundation:
1. Focus on Love
Within a loving parenting relationship believe it or not, spanking can be an important time of connection when it’s done with calmness, explanation and immediate reconnection. Effective spanking involves responding in love, not reacting in fear—the fear that you’ve lost control of this human you are raising. Spanking outside of a loving relationship only produces angry kids—kids who are more likely to rebel than participate in a relationship with their parents. Throughout the Psalms, especially Psalm 119, David provides the visual representation of a God who is trustworthy and loving in His correction even though it’s sometimes uncomfortable.
2. Look for Other Discipline Options before Choosing to Spank
When there’s imminent danger and you need to get the child’s attention so he doesn’t repeat the behavior, or when the other tools in your discipline toolkit haven’t been productive for a particular circumstance, a spank may be appropriate.
3. Maintain Self-Control and Avoid Anger
This is hard! Kids know how to push our buttons, which can seemingly shut down our brains and our self-control. A time-out will help you get back on your mental game and avoid an impulsive, ineffective correction. Instead, see #1 above.
Some of the biggest parenting mistakes stem from our own anxiety about losing control or feeling inadequate. Self-control, on the other hand, requires seeing the big picture of our role as a teacher and mentor, guiding our kids to live out God’s intended purpose for their lives. (Ephesians 2:10).
4. Whatever is Good, Whatever is Noble
In our modern culture, spanking has an expiration date in terms of discipline. At Focus, we recommend that spanking only be used as a discipline measure for a short period of time and early in your child’s life. The Bible doesn’t address specific age ranges for this type of discipline, but developmentally, spanking is appropriate only between the ages of 18 months and 6 or 7 years of age. Beyond that, it can breed disconnection and passive-aggressive behaviors.
5. Only Spank Privately, If Possible
This is when life has to pause for a very important time of teaching, so you want to take whatever time necessary. Of course there are those rare times when a spanking is appropriate immediately, for example, when your young child runs out into the street. Obviously that’s a safety hazard your child needs to avoid in the future, and a spank will help him remember.
Parenting is full of uncertainties, but one thing is for sure: your investment in teaching and guidance pays off eventually in grown kids you want to be around—and who want to be around you.