Maybe We Should Switch

238239125_2c8dd01772_oOne of the consequences of failing to take the Old Testament seriously is the loss of the valuable guidance of the Proverbs. One of the Proverbs’ themes is the discipline of children, and corporal punishment (not abuse) is vividly portrayed and encouraged. If you have ever wondered whether the Bible stands on the pro-spanking side of debates over child-rearing, consider these passages:

  • Proverbs 13:24. Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.
  • Proverbs 19:18. Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death.
  • Proverbs 22:15. Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.
  • Proverbs 23:13-14. 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 (cf. Hebrews 12:5-11).
  • Proverbs 29:15. The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.

Solomon’s references to the “rod” denote a wooden stick or limb, probably what is often called a “switch” today.1

Amazingly it has been suggested that, since Solomon wrote these verses, and his son Rehoboam turned out poorly (e.g., 2 Chronicles 12:1), then the Proverbs are wrong about corporal punishment; perhaps the Bible is actually against spanking.2 The simplest response is that Solomon did not follow his own Proverbs very well. Solomon’s sins were far more widespread than failure to discipline properly.3 Had he lived a better life, then Rehoboam undoubtedly would have turned out better. Spanking alone, when not combined with “reproof” (Proverbs 29:15) and a godly example, will produce wrath and not righteousness (Ephesians 6:4).

I have done a quick review of scholarly psychological literature on the subject, and it is practically unanimous in its conclusion that spanking harms children, producing negative outcomes in behavior later in life. However, it is impossible for researchers to control all of the many factors (of which corporal punishment may be one) that help to determine how children turn out. We surely can see a decline in behavior even as spanking becomes less popular and discipline in general becomes less strict.

A recent article from CNN presents a more balanced view:

We reached out to CNN.com commenter Dr. David Safir, a California-based pediatrician, father of five and grandfather of five, and asked him to talk to us about his views on spanking. He said he was spanked as a child, spanked his own children when necessary and believes the occasional use of physical punishment — not abuse — can be an effective tool for parents. . . .

[Dr. Safir:] “I think a lot of pediatricians are simply intimidated. They might even agree with me, but they’re scared to death to be seen in public as seen as espousing physical authority. . . .

“If someone can teach … limits without physical authority, more power to them. . . .

“Here’s the problem: During my career, every 10 years, I see the level of contempt for authority increase,” Safir said, attributing children’s attitudes to what he describes as a child-centered culture that puts children in charge instead of parents.

“If children don’t learn that society has rules of conduct and consequences for bad behavior, they grow up into a culture in which they’re often useless. They can’t work, they can’t get a job, they have no respect for people above them.”4


  1. See Dave Miller, “Children and the Rod of Correction,” Apologetics Press, http://www.apologeticspress.org/APContent.aspx?category=7&article=1255&topic=37 (2003). 

  2. E.g., B.A. Robinson, “What the Bible Says about Spanking Children,” http://www.religioustolerance.org/spankin8.htm (2007); Amanda McMahon, “Spare the Rod and Your Child Will Turn Against You, Says the Bible,” http://voices.yahoo.com/spare-rod-child-will-turn-against-you-8655391.html (2011). 

  3. Compare Deuteronomy 17:14-20 with 1 Kings 10-11. 

  4. Sari Zeidler, “To spank or not to spank, where do you draw the line?,” http://www.cnn.com/2012/07/07/health/spanking-mental-illness-reaction/index.html (2012). 

- 2017