Derek!" I yelled as my young son trotted into the street. I prayed that if my little boy didn't stop, the oncoming car would.
As parents, we all know how important it is to have obedient children. At times, their lives will depend on it. But as Christian parents, we also understand that discipline is about much more than shaping a child's behavior, it's about shaping a child's heart. And that's why we decided to stop spanking our son.
When Derek was born, we put a lot of thought into how we wanted to discipline our children. I turned to the stack of books I'd gathered, read several manuals on discipline, and even attended a Sunday school class demonstrating the appropriate grip and hold to use while spanking. By the time my baby became a toddler in need of correction, I felt fully convinced that spanking was the most effective means of discipline.
Whenever we spanked Derek, we'd follow the spanking with a time of hugging and assurances of our love for him. We didn't spank in anger or as an impulsive reaction. We always surrounded a spanking with instruction and follow up to make sure that Derek understood why he'd been spanked. Over the course of a few months, Derek became an obedient, well-mannered toddler.
One day I was talking to my mother and telling her something about Derek when she suddenly said, "I don't think you should be spanking him." I couldn't believe my ears! Couldn't she see how well it was working? Hadn't she spanked me as a child? But more importantly, didn't she know that the Bible commands it? I went to the Bible to copy down all the "rod" verses in Proverbs. I knew that would prove to her that I was following God's command. But in trying to prove my mother wrong I found instead God turning my heart around.
Rethinking the Rod
As I worked to construct my defense of spanking, I flipped through my copy of The Discipline Book (Little Brown & Co.) by Dr. William Sears to see what this Christian pediatrician had to say about spanking. I was stunned to find his suggestion that the "rod" in Proverbs refers to an idea of authority rather than a literal rod.
As I thought about this point, God brought to my mind Moses, who used his rod to demonstrate God's authority to the people. He used it to bring forth water from a rock (Ex. 17:5-6), to part the Red Sea (Ex. 14:16), and to show the power of God by changing the rod into a snake and back again (Ex. 4:1-5; 7:8-12). The rod was a sign of God's authority over his children; the same kind of authority God gives us over our own children.
Jesus also makes reference to the rod as a symbol of authority when he reveals himself to John. "To him who overcomes, and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations'He will rule over them with an iron scepter (The King James Version says "rod of iron"), he will dash them to pieces like pottery'just as I have received authority from my father" (Rev. 2:26-27).
Rick Creech, a Bible scholar and author of Should Christian Parents Spank Their Children? (1stBooks Library) says, "In order to interpret the Bible correctly, we must always remember that some passages are meant to be taken literally and others are meant to be taken symbolically." He makes the conclusion that "It is consistent with other parts of Scripture to say that a rod is symbolic when used in reference to correcting someone."
I did some further study to find out what other uses the word "rod" has in the Bible and I found that it can actually have several different meanings, depending on the original Greek or Hebrew word used.
The "rod" in Revelation comes from the Greek word rhabdos which means a figurative rod for chastisement. In Proverbs, the "rod" is commonly translated from the Hebrew words mattah or shebet. Mattah is a rod that demonstrates spiritual power, such as Moses' rod (Ex. 4:2), Aaron's rod (Ex. 7:9), the sorcerer's rod (Ex. 7:12), and rods that symbolize authority (Num. 17:7). Shebet is the rod used as a tool by a shepherd or a teacher. It is a symbol of authority in the hands of a ruler, whether it is a scepter or an instrument of warfare and oppression. Nowhere is the rod used as a tool for the physical punishment of people.
I read Phillip Keller's book, A Shepherd Looks At Psalm 23 (Zondervan), where he discusses all the ways shepherds use the rod in caring for their flocks. Shepherds use the rod for guiding their sheep in the right direction and gently prodding them along, getting them back on track when they stray. They also use the rod to comfort, to warn the sheep, to fend off predators, to hook their sheep back to safety, to check for disease. The rod is not used to hit the sheepif it were, they would run from it when the shepherd lifted it in an effort to protect them. It would be useless as a tool for guidance. The more I studied, the more it became obvious to me that using the rod meant using my authority over my children to protect, warn, comfort, guide, correct, and examine their hearts. And that authority didn't have to come through a spanking.
A Place for Grace
When I first spanked Derek, I felt bad, but I pushed my feelings aside. As time went on, I became numb to my initial feelings of guilt. One day when Derek disobeyed, I motioned to my husband that he needed to give him a spanking. Following all the rules we had set up to administer the spanking, my husband followed through. But I cringed as I saw Derek's fear for the first time. I was too busy spanking to notice it before.
When my second son, Jason, began to walk, spanking was backfiring big time. Derek decided that when Jason did something wrong he would help me by spanking him. I started out teaching him that it was Mommy's job not his job, and soon it just didn't make sense to me to tell him not to hit when I was hitting. I realized that my children could not differentiate terminology. In their minds, spanking is hitting.
Spanking also caused problems for Nancy, the mother of three. She discovered that it was stirring up a rage in her daughter. Jamie, the mother of two, spanked her daughter because she had hurt her little brother. Jamie says the look on her daughter's face was one of betrayal. "She looked at me like, 'How could you do that Mom?' I started to notice that whenever I spanked, my daughter's reaction to the spanking, her anger, fear, or sadness towards me, became the issue. Whatever it was that had brought on the spanking in the first place was lost."
I began to see that discipline for the sake of obedience was not enough. What I really wanted was to guide my son's spirit so that he would follow the ways of God. I thought about the verse, "If you love me, you will obey what I command" (John 14:15). God wants us to obey him out of love, not out of fear. God doesn't manipulate us into obeying him, and he doesn't scare us into following him. In fact, it is his grace and his kindness that brings us to repentance (Rom. 2:4). That's how I wanted to parent my children, with grace.
I found the perfect example of grace-filled discipline in Jesus. Creech notes that, "Some of the things of the Old Testament were done away with when the New Testament came into place. Take the adulterous woman in John 8:3-11 for example. The law of the Old Testament stated very clearly that if anyone committed adultery, they should be put to death. But Jesus did not allow the men to put her to death. Instead Jesus said to the men, 'If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.' Jesus did not change the moral principle that was in the law, because he still told the woman, 'Go now and leave your life of sin.' But Jesus did change the way that the requirement of the law was enforced. Jesus did away with the harsh physical punishment, but he still upheld the moral standard." I knew it was my job as a parent to do the same.
The Rod of God
Naturally, not spanking my children meant I needed to develop other discipline techniques. Thankfully, I found help in the Scriptures. It was evident to me that God uses his own form of authority to guide his children: His Word. It is through the Bible that God rebukes, comforts, corrects, teaches, trains, and spurs us to love, trust, and obey him.
In the same way, I decided to rely more on my words to discipline my children. I've been inspired by Alison, a woman born with shortened legs and no arms. As a single mother, she has no choice but to use words to train her 2-year-old son, Parys. She admits that it took time and a lot of hard work to help Parys learn to obey her, but the results are impressive. She says, "The way I do things is probably kinder because he never really gets shouted at, never gets hit. I just do it all by the tone of my voice and from that he knows where he stands."
The results of using my words as an alternative to spanking were obvious. Derek became less aggressive toward his brother. He became wiser and learned how to resolve conflict. Instead of hitting to get his way, he would talk to his brother and try to come up with solutions to the problem. As our family has grown, Derek has become a real peacemaker among his siblings.
Remember Nancy? She noticed that her children were much more receptive to correction and were a lot more co-operative when she stopped spanking. Jamie noticed that her daughter developed a spirit of true repentance and she was no longer afraid to admit when she did something wrong.
As we continue our journey in knowing and teaching our growing children, my husband and I pray earnestly for God to show us what kind of discipline is best for each of our children. As we make our choices, our desire is to promote an attitude of love, a will for self-discipline, and a heart of godliness in our children. For us, that is the real goal of discipline.
Grace P. Chou is the mother five and the author of Disciplining Children with Confidence (Essence).
Editor's Note: For many Christian parents, there may be no more contentious subject than spanking. Parents on both sides of the issue find themselves constantly needing to defend their choice to other parents. To make matters more confusing, Christian parenting experts have come down on each side of the conversation, often using the same passages of Scripture to make opposite points. But in the end, every family must prayerfully seek God's leading as they decide which discipline methods are most effective in
shaping the character of each of their children.
The following article reflects one couple's decision to stop using spanking as a method of discipline. We recognize that other families will have other experiences.
Copyright © 2003 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian Parenting Today magazine.
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