Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child?

Michael and Debi Pearl’s parenting book, To Train Up a Child, is very popular among American fundamentalists. Michael has given great thought to his ideas on child-training and expresses them well. He also shares some good insights on child-parent relationships, but I have difficulty with his methods.

Michael Pearl’s Excellent Advice in Parenting

As I pointed out last time, I like what Michael says about not yelling at children or engaging in anger:

If you raise your voice when giving a command to your child, he will learn to associate your tone and sound level with your intention. If you have trained him to respond to a bellow, don’t blame him if he ignores your first thirteen calm “suggestions”. (P. 4)

He also says that parents should not have an adversarial relationship with their children. I totally agree! He says further that if you are having problems with your children, then they are certainly having problems with you.

Michael cringes when parents use God to intimidate their children into obedience by saying ‘God doesn’t like that’ or ‘God is going to get you for that’. I have no doubt that Michael is a tender and loving father.

He writes that the strongest cord of disciple is not the whip but in developing mutual love, respect, honor, loyalty, admiration, and caring. That is relationship! I wish more parents understood this. However, Michael does not discount the whip and devotes several chapters to discussing the ‘rod’.

Using the Rod

he that spareth the rod

Michael brings several passage from the book of Proverbs (KJV) to bear on the issue:

Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying (19:18)

He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes (13:24)

Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him (22:15)

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with a rod he will not die (23:13)

The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame (29:15)

What do all these quotes have in common? They are PROVERBS—like the famous proverbs of Benjamin Franklin, they are cultural words of wisdom; but they are NOT God’s authoritative word. So Michael’s statement that ‘God would not have commanded parents to use the rod if it were not good for the child’ (P. 47) is misguided, as is his observation that ‘Use of the rod is not optional with a Bible believer’ (P. 54).

Michael’s theories on using the rod are built on his (and others’) mistaken assumption of biblical inerrancy.

Application Techniques of the Rod

As to the application of the rod, Michael says:

Spanking, to effectively reinforce instruction, must cause pain. It is most effective to strike a light rod against bare skin, where nerves are located at the surface. (P. 50)

By ‘rod’ Michael means any of a variety of actual implements. He suggests:

For the under one-year-old child, a small ten-to twelve-inch-long willowy branch…about one-eighth inch in diameter is sufficient…A one-foot ruler, or its equivalent in a paddle, is a suitable substitute. For the larger child, a belt or a three-foot cutting off of a shrub is effective.

He calls these tools ‘instruments of love’, and I have no doubt he believes that. In addition:

If you have to sit on him to spank him, then do not hesitate. And hold him there until he has surrendered. Prove that you are bigger, tougher, more patiently enduring and are unmoved by his wailing. Hold the resisting child in a helpless position for several minutes, or until he is totally surrendered…I have found five to ten licks are usually sufficient. As the child gets older, the licks must become more forceful. (P. 49)

Homeschooling And Patriarchy

Among fundamentalists, homeschooling, patriarchy, and use of the ‘rod’ are often found together, and they are integral to Michael’s thought. Beginning on page 101:

Never consider sending your child to private Christian school, much less the public, automaton factories…classroom education for the young is a real pit…Young men need a father who teaches them to work, not a father too busy working to teach them…The best schooling for children is a good home life, not a home that is all school.

And on page 114:

As your boys get older, make sure they are not confined to studies too much. By the time they are twelve or thirteen, they should be finished with structured school and be involved in an occupation with you.

The flavor of patriarchy is evident throughout.

My Response to Michael’s Theories

The author states that these techniques are ‘effective’, and they well may be for his objectives, but in my opinion such violence against a child is not appropriate—it is simple assault. And it is likely to create a repeating cycle of violence as the children become parents.

His objective is to avoid out-of-control children. My objective is the same, but I don’t think his method of child-training is the best way to accomplish that—there are better ways.

He promotes training children to respond to the absolute authority of their parents without question. He sometimes compares his techniques to military techniques, and his training and discipline might be perfect in preparing children for military or similar environments, but I prefer developing the mind and character of children rather than training them to respond consistently to authority figures.

Michael is also interested in developing children to embrace his fundamentalist religious beliefs, while I believe it is more important to develop children who are able to question and think critically. I don’t see anything in this book about training children to question or think critically.

While To Train Up A Child is consistent and well-intentioned, I think it is terribly misguided.

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21 Responses to Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child?

  1. I’m absolutely astounded that ANYONE should be allowed to publish a book instructing parents how to spank their children, let alone a so-called Christian. In any case, how could any child grow up to respect a parent that resorted to beating them into submission….and then calling it LOVE??!! The methods I used with my three children were loving consistency and integrity, pure and simple. They quickly learned about acceptable and`respectful behaviour and have never caused me any shame, embarrassment or regret. I believe that children often display bad behaviour because of bad quality parenting (especially lack of consistency) or inappropriate discipline. Children are clever – they recognise when parenting is unfair or inappropriate and will try to rebel against this. Rant over!

    Liked by 4 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Susan, I like the way you think! And I agree that children recognize when parenting is unfair or inappropriate.

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      • Indeed they do! They may not be able to process WHY something is wrong but they sure know that it IS wrong. They possess an innate sense of what is fair. I had a very good upbringing but even I remember times when I felt that my parents were bang out of order in expecting me to be perfect when they clearly weren’t.

        Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          Susan, I clearly recall as a child when adults treated me or others unfairly. And it had a big impact on me.

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  2. Perry says:

    A pastor once told me he thinks the “rod” mentioned in the Bible recalls a shepherd’s rod, as in Psalm 23: “Your rod and your staff comfort me.” Shepherds use their rods & staffs to guide the sheep by gently touching them. They are not used to hit or beat the sheep.

    Liked by 4 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Perry, I agree that a good shepherd knows how to put a rod to good use! It is a comfort to the sheep–not a weapon. This book, however, speaks of a different rod, or at least a different use for a rod, based on his list of passages from Proverbs.

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    • Chas says:

      It is possible that shepherds in some countries guide their sheep in that way, but from my experience (and my Dad was a shepherd for a number of years) they do not do so, other than quite forcibly to deflect them from going somewhere the shepherd doesn’t want them to go. I don’t think comforting comes into it!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Anthony Paul says:

    Michael is also interested in developing children to embrace his fundamentalist religious beliefs, while I believe it is more important to develop children who are able to question and think critically. I don’t see anything in this book about training children to question or think critically.

    Tim, critical thinking and fundamentalism are a total contradiction in terms… I can say that without reservation, having just come off my own personal encounter with one of these Christians. Critical thinking requires a widening scope of knowledge and understanding; this must come from prayer and meditation but also from an exposure to the free thinking and ideas of others… we grow in community. The fundamentalist is locked into an almost cult-like world of Bible only and like-minded individuals. Is it any wonder that their god is indeed as small as they are.

    Liked by 4 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Anthony, I think you are right. Fundamentalists do NOT welcome critical thinking. They prefer unthinking acceptance of their beliefs.

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  4. Chas says:

    Tim, the most striking thing is that Michael thinks that public schools are automaton factories, when it is he who creates automatons, who will respond to him like a Pavlovian dog, and that the military uses similar tactics to create unquestioning cannon-fodder.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Chas, I think you are right on target! I love your observation: “Michael thinks that public schools are automaton factories, when it is he who creates automatons, who will respond to him like a Pavlovian dog.”

      Great insight and well said!

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  5. newtonfinn says:

    “As your boys get older, make sure they are not confined to studies too much. By the time they are twelve or thirteen, they should be finished with structured school and be involved in an occupation with you.” It’s hard for me to believe that anyone would make a statement like this today. What are these parents afraid of, that their adolescent children might learn to think for themselves despite some good raps on the knuckles or behind? Here is where it leads to, this pernicious mindset that you’ll spend eternity in hell if you don’t think in a certain way. Once upon a time, people were tortured into consenting to “right beliefs” for precisely the same horrific reason. Tim, your review was gracious, but too much so IMHO.

    Liked by 4 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Newton, I agree. I almost couldn’t believe it when I read that–but then I thought that this just goes along with the other harmful beliefs: patriarchy, women staying home to cook, and raise kids; having as many kids as possible (quiverfull), girls leaning only home skills, boys going into ‘trades’ like farming, building, and so forth.

      Nothing to prepare for involvement in the larger world. Future options for the children are severely limited by their fathers.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Paz says:

    I think one of the pressures on modern living families also includes cyberbullying / online bullying as an increasing and complex issue challenging many parents and becoming a common problem especially among teenagers today. When children are developing and are most vulnerable, it is also when they are most in need to understand the importance of Discipline and Love as a way(s) to guide/teach, protect them but also to inspire them in their uniqueness and individuality so that they may continue to feel truly loved for who they are.

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Paz, I never experienced cyber-bullying–even with my son. There was no ‘cyber’ at that time. But I know that it happens and sometimes even leads to self-harming or suicide. I like your connection of teaching qualities of personal discipline, love, and strength in the face of these negative trials.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. tonycutty says:

    I like your balanced account here, Tim. I have to say also that the descriptions of sitting on the child and the various recommended weaponry actually made me feel physically sick. It’s a long time since I’ve seen similar descriptions of what some people do to their kids, and I found it quite shocking. And I think that’s right; it should be felt as shocking, because it is! Glad you wrote this article; this sort of thing needs to be exposed to the light. Well done 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Thanks, Tony. I think it is shocking as well. And horrid. This is no way to treat a child or develop a mature mind.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Chas says:

      Tony, this brings to mind that well within living memory, schools in Scotland had a special strap, known as the Tawse, that was used to make painful hits on the hands of offenders. In England, the cane (a thin cane rod) was still in use in the 1960s for the same purpose.

      Liked by 3 people

  8. tonycutty says:

    I’ve had another thought about this. I wonder if the ‘rod’ refers to a rod of authority? In other words, if you don’t instil in your child a sense of your authority as a parent, you’re doing him short?

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tony, that could be but that is not how the book understand’s it. And one of the proverbs the author uses seems quite specific, “Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with a rod he will not die (23:13)” However, sometimes children DO die from use of the rod.

      Another thought I had was that all the proverbs listed in the book assume the child being punished is male. I good inerrantist might conclude that such punishment is only for boys and not girls. But the author of this book does not make that assumption.

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