Spare the Rod


 “Violence is the intentional use of physical force or power (threatened or actual) against another person, that either results in—or has a high likelihood of resulting in—injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation.”

—World Health Organization


“What do you do,” another mother asked me at a playground about twenty years ago, “when your children hit you?”

“Well… they don’t,” I told her. “We have a rule in our family that we don’t hit. So my husband and I don’t hit our children, and they don’t hit each other, and they don’t hit me or their dad.”

“Oh, my husband and I don’t hit our children,” she said. “We do spank them. But we don’t hit them.”

As I walked home with my two children, I wondered: what’s the difference?

The main difference, people say, is that spanking is done to teach. When children behave badly, we spank them. Whereas when we’re angry with each other, we hit.

Also, spanking is often a particular kind of hitting:

  • on the buttocks or the back of the thighs, not in the face or stomach
  • done with an open hand, or with an implement (wooden paddle, hair brush, belt, switch, spatula, etc.). Not a punch with a closed fist.
  • Spankings are often considered “light” punishment. More severe punishments can be similar in how they’re carried out, but they may be called whippings or beatings.

There are other forms of corporal punishment considered appropriate to use on children:

  • Smacking the hands with a ruler, either on the knuckles or on the palms.
  • Boxing the ears or smacking upside the head
  • A quick slap, sometimes on the arm or in the face or on the backside

Some punishments are painful in other ways:

  • Being told to hold uncomfortable positions, such as kneeling on beans
  • Eating disgusting things or hot sauce, or having your mouth washed out with soap
  • No food, no water.
  • Being left outside in bad weather or forced to take ice baths

Some punishments are psychological:

  • Locked in a dark closet or in the basement.
  • Verbal abuse or the silent treatment
  • Shaming and ridiculing, sometimes within the family, sometimes in public
  • Destroying something precious to the child
  • Deliberately neglecting a child

These are some of the punishments traditionally used on children. They can vary in intensity, from mild to severe. When mild, in this country they’re generally considered acceptable ways of teaching children and getting them to behave.

When the punishment is severe, it can cause permanent injury or death. And we label that “child abuse”, which is against the law. Emotional and sexual abuse are included in that. In Kentucky, severe cases of child abuse are considered felonies. We are all required—by law—to report suspected cases.

This is a big change from how we used to view “family discipline.” It was obviously a family matter, a private matter—just like hitting your spouse was a private matter, or beating your horse, or flogging your slaves—and the police wouldn’t get involved. Because corporal punishment—even to the point of abuse—wasn’t against the law. The head of the household had authority over everyone in it, and could do pretty much what he wanted. That’s still true in a lot of countries.

To some extent and in some ways, it’s still true in this country, and in our homes. The head of the house, the person in authority, has power over everybody else. The parents have authority over the children. And older siblings may feel they have authority over younger siblings. Everyone may feel they have authority over the pets.

And it’s that authority, that “power over another person” that is the fundamental difference between hitting and spanking, or the various other forms of corporal punishment.

Because when we punish someone physically or emotionally, it’s different than fighting with them. In a fight, you can fight back. You can choose to defend yourself. You can choose to hit the other person. Or you can choose to walk away. Or run.

But when we’re being punished, we have no choices. We’re not allowed to fight back. And we can’t run away. If we try, we’re punished even more. No, we have to stand there and take it. We have to endure it. We have to accept it.

Because the punished are powerless, and the punishers have the power. That’s the other lesson. That’s what punishment teaches. Not just how to behave.

Now, it is reasonable for parents to have power over their children. It would not be wise to let a toddler have the power to set his own bedtime or to decide how many marshmallows to eat, because they’re likely to eat the whole bag. And it’s reasonable for teachers to have power over students. It would be not wise to let fifth graders decide how to run the school. Children need rules. They need guidance. They need discipline.

But discipline means teaching. Jesus had disciples. He taught them. He didn’t punish them.

Ideally, discipline leads eventually to self-discipline, so that children learn to control their own behavior and don’t need watching over all the time. As they get older, we give them more autonomy—more power–and if they’re well disciplined—if they’re well taught—they use that power and freedom wisely and make good decisions.

It is possible to discipline children without punishing them. Many families—and more than 20 countries (1979: Sweden; 1983: Finland; 1987: Norway; 1989: Austria; 1994: Cyprus; 1997: Denmark; 1998: Latvia; 1999: Croatia, Israel; 2000: Germany, Bulgaria; 2003: Iceland; 2004: Romania, Ukraine, Hungary; 2006: Greece; 2007: Chile, Netherlands, New Zealand, Portugal, Spain, Uruguay, Venezuela)—don’t spank children or use corporal punishment. These countries have explicitly recognized children’s rights to protection under the law–the same rights that adults take for granted.

As adults, we don’t allow other people to hit us, even when we behave badly. Even if we take someone else’s food from the office refrigerator or don’t finish our work assignment, our coworkers and our boss are not allowed to hit us. Even if we steal money from a friend or cheat on a romantic partner, they’re not allowed to hit us. If they do, we can charge them with assault.

Our laws affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of adults. Our laws say we have a right to our bodily integrity. Our person is inviolate. But our laws don’t afford the same full protections to children. And not so long ago, the laws didn’t protect servants or women or people of color or animals, or basically, anyone without status.

Anyone without power. We grew up in a society that accepts corporal punishment, and so we have learned from a very early age that people with power have the right to use the bodies of people who don’t have power. Parents have power over children. Husbands have power over wives. People have power over animals. Police have power over criminals and suspects.

Those with power and authority can hit others. They can permanently injure them. They can force them to work. They can use them sexually. They can even kill them, and though it’s frowned upon, it’s often not considered a serious offense. Not really even a crime.

Because when you have that much authority over a person, when their body belongs to you, that means you own them. They’re not fully human.

Also, as we all know, the person who is being punished is a bad person. That is why they’re being punished, after all.

We need punishing, so we’re told, to make us good. We are supposed to suffer for our sins. Suffering makes us holy, makes us more like Jesus, who suffered and died for our sins.

But we’re still sinful. Punishment is what we need to make us good. Pain is what makes us good. Pain is good for us.

We should be grateful for the pain. We should thank the person who hits us. After all, it hurts them more than it hurts us. That’s what they say. They’re doing it for our own good. And they wouldn’t do it unless they loved us. They’re hitting us because they love us.

Pain is love. Love is pain.

When we punish our children, we are trying to teach them to obey us, and to behave properly. And they do learn that.

But they also learn that their body is not really theirs. So if an adult sexually abuses them, they’re not likely to feel they have any right to protest.

And they learn that love means pain. So when they grow up and their partner abuses them, they may very well stay in that relationship. As a Russian proverb says: “If he beats you, it means he loves you.”

In January 2017, the Russian parliament voted 380 to 3 to decriminalize domestic violence unless it resulted in “substantial bodily harm.” In this country, we’ve been moving away from accepting violence within the family, but it’s still considered normal by quite a few. Also in January 2017, an elected legislator in New Mexico wrote on his Facebook page telling women to they had a right to cook and clean but to “stop your b!tch!ng/protesting … because you also have a right to get slapped!”

By which he means he believes he has the right—the power and the authority—to slap women.

Why would he think such a thing? Why would anyone think such a thing?

That right to violate another person’s body is deeply embedded in our culture: Punch and Judy shows were called punch for a reason. In the TV Show The Honeymooners, Ralph Kramden kept telling his wife: “One of these days, Alice. POW! Right in the kisser.”

There’s violence in our nursery rhymes. There was an old woman who lived in a shoe, who had so many children she didn’t know what to do. So she gave them some broth without any bread, whipped them all soundly and sent them to bed.

There’s violence from our child-rearing experts. Dr. James Dobson, who is a well-known author in evangelical and home-schooling circles, writes that: “Pain is a marvelous purifier… It is not necessary to beat the child into submission; a little bit of pain goes a long way for a young child. However, the spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause the child to cry genuinely.”

There’s violence in our religions. The Russian Orthodox Church says that scripture and Russian tradition regard “the reasonable and loving use of physical punishment as an essential part of the rights given to parents by God himself”. And God himself is said to have punished his children.

And though the Bible does tell us “Love is patient, love is kind,” the Bible also tells us that “love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” Sometimes that verse is used to convince people to endure pain and stay in an abusive relationship.

Violence is in our proverbs. You may be familiar with: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” The Bible does reference rods, but this saying is actually a line from the satirical poem “Hudibras,” which was written by the Englishman Samuel Butler around 1670 or so. In the poem, Butler is using a metaphor, saying that a love affair is like a child, which needs frequent care and attention, and so if the rod is not used frequently, the love affair will fade. One interpretation says a different rod is being referenced, and that the poem is more about pleasure than pain.

The rod that is mentioned in Bible proverbs is often interpreted as a shepherd’s rod, which is a tool for guiding, not hitting. But Proverbs (23:13-14) says “Do not hold back discipline from the child, Although you strike him with the rod, he will not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell.Many parents use the Bible to justify corporal punishment of children, and there is a lot of violence in the scriptures.

Our police use violence frequently. Governments often use violence against groups that defy it and aren’t “behaving properly”. Our country uses violence against other countries.

And there is often violence in our homes, in our lives and in the lives of our children, from a very early age.

But does it work? Does corporal punishment make our children better citizens and well functioning adults?

Severe spanking seems to have the opposite effect. Dr. Ralph Welsh, who has given psychological exams to more than 2,000 delinquents has said: “As the severity of corporal punishment in the delinquent’s developmental history increases, so does the probability that he will engage in a violent act…. I have yet to see a repeat male delinquent that wasn’t raised on a belt, board, cord, or fist.”

How about mild spanking? According to researchers Goldstein, Glick and Gibbs, “Aggression is primarily learned behavior, learned by observation, imitation, direct experience, and rehearsal.” Spanking provides all of those. One interviewee said: “Spanking … teaches the victims that might makes right, and that problems can be solved through the use of violence by the strong against the weak. Spanking is terrorism.”

We can use spanking to teach our children. It does work. Lots of us were raised with it. But other ways work, too. We can use logical consequences, discuss the issues, and set good examples. Lots of people were raised that way. As Unitarian Universalists, we affirm and promote inherent worth and dignity of all people, no matter their age.

Nearly one hundred years ago, Boris Sidis wrote in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology: “As long as the child will be trained not by love, but by fear, so long will humanity live not by justice, but by force. As long as the child will be ruled by the educator’s threat and by the father’s rod, so long will mankind be dominated by the policeman’s club, by fear of jail, and by panic of invasion by armies and navies.

What kind of world do we want to live in?

What kind of world do we want our children to live in?


Closing Reading

You are the bows
from which your children,
as living arrows, are sent forth.

The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and bends you with might
that the arrows may go swift and far.

Let your bending in the Archer’s hand
be for gladness.

-Kahlil Gibran

Delivered at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green, 29 January 2017

(c)2017 Janeen Grohsmeyer


References and more reading

  • Aggression Replacement Training: A Comprehensive Intervention for Aggressive Youth by Barry Glick, John C. Gibbs,
  • “Don’t Spare the Rod! Recovering The Biblical Perspective on Disciplining Your Children”
  • Boris Sidis, The Journal of Abnormal Psychology – Volume 14 – Page 339 (1920)
  • “Severe Parental Punishment and Aggression: The Link between Corporal Punishment and Delinquency ,” Ralph S. Welsh, Ph.D.
  • “Delinquency, Corporal Punishment, and the Schools” by Ralph S. Welsh, Ph.D.. SOURCE: CRIME & DELINQUENCY, 1978, pp. 336 – 354.

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