I sniff my newborn's little bald head. My youngest is getting so big. I’d like to maintain this memory of his unique newborn smell. He is the perfect age – a cute little, chubby baby with a round face and round belly. As a mom of five, I can attest that the heart of my parenting is to serve out of love. I prepare my kids in the ways that I know how.
We all want our kids to grow into mature and capable adults. But if you get a group of moms together, they may each be very adamant that the means to getting their kids to become mature, capable adults is through a certain method. This method can look very different from mom to mom, whether it's sleep training or co-sleeping, bottle feeding or breastfeeding. Strict bedtimes or no bedtime. Screen time or no screen time. Whatever works for one family might not work for another. Yet, the chasmic divide gets even more significant when it comes to discipline.
As a parent, it feels hard to discern the correct course of discipline when there are endless tantrums. Fatigue sets in, and sometimes you find yourself barking orders without leaving the couch, and you realize that you might need a little help to know what's best. Then maybe you venture online, and it feels like the intense opinions and parenting methods of the masses will make you combust. Parenting is hard enough without constantly feeling like you need to do something differently. We are bombarded with messages on how to parent, and it can leave us feeling paralyzed and insecure. I have had to come to grips with the fact that TikTok and Instagram are not my Holy Spirit. The steady stream of information has me constantly feeling like I am doing something wrong. Sometimes it's excellent information, and we realize it is an area for growth; other times, it just makes us question what we are doing.
One significant movement that has been sweeping the internet is a method called “Gentle Parenting.” The idea of gentle parenting is that with empathy and a focus on feelings, a child can be encouraged to understand themselves better. Recently we have seen people on both sides of this movement. Some argue that the era of spanking and harsh discipline damaged children. Others argue that children only need gentle talking when it comes to discipline. Let's not forget there is one resource that we can count on to give us the truth on discipline. Let's open our Bible to talk about what the Bible says about spanking or other forms of discipline. What would the Bible's response to the gentle parenting movement be?
Many people use this verse when talking about discipline/spanking:
"He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him" (Prov. 13:24); other verses in Proverbs also focus on the word rod, "Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away" (Prov. 22:15).
I have read articles that have explained the rod exactly as you would picture it to be: a stick of sorts used in discipline. Afterwards I read other articles explaining the rod as more of a shepherd's staff. Which is right? Well, both interpretations are correct. You see, there are many times that this word for rod—pronounced shave-it—is used in Scripture. The tricky part is the meaning varies depending on context. But from what I have gathered, it is mostly used as a symbol of authority. Here are just a few examples:
I found a good definition of this word (rod) used in these passages by one commentator: שֵׁבֶט (šēbeṭ). n. masc. rod, staff, club, scepter. A staff or rod was a key piece of shepherding equipment. This word literally refers to a staff or rod. It could refer to a shepherd's staff (e.g., Lev 27:32), to a rod used to strike someone as punishment (e.g., Prov 23:13), or to a scepter as a symbol of kingship (e.g., Gen 49:10). Biblical writers refer to God's rod (šēbeṭ), likewise, as an instrument of comfort (e.g., Psa 23:4),discipline (e.g., Isa 30:31), and just kingship (e.g., Psa 45:6). The word is also used in more explicit shepherding imagery that describes God using רָעָה (rāʿâ, "to shepherd"; e.g., Psa 23:1, 4; Mic 7:14)” Wayne Baxter, "Shepherding," ed. Douglas Mangum et al., Lexham Theological Wordbook, Lexham Bible Reference Series (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014).
It seems the word rod is used in several ways in the Bible. Here is another great explanation by another commentator on how the word "rod" would have been used in the book of Proverbs: The most common understanding of שֵׁבֶט in the poetic literature of the OT is that of a rod of discipline employed by one in authority, as in the case of a father for remedial punishment (Prov 13:24; 22:15; 23:13, 14; 29:15), civil authorities for penal use (10:13), or God (Job 21:9; 37:13). This is perhaps the idea of Ps 2:9 as well, where God's Messiah wields a rod (שֵׁבֶט) of iron over opposing nations, suggesting both authority and discipline. The concept of a righteous scepter derives from the royal Ps 45, where in v. 6  the psalmist avows that the scepter (שֵׁבֶט) of God's kingdom will be a scepter (שֵׁבֶט) of justice. He will rule in righteousness
(New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis VanGemeren, Willem A).
The bottom line is that there seems to be many uses or understandings of the word “rod.” However, one takeaway is that discipline and correction, in general, are indeed biblical principles. The Bible shows us that children are born sinful, as they have a sinful nature that comes from birth, inherited fromAdam and Eve. It says in one verse that he who spares the rod actually "hates" his son and equates love with discipline. We know this to be true with God, as the entirety of scripture points to the fact that we all (yes! including our kids) are sinners in need of a Savior.
Romans 3:23 says, "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." We also know, "For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Romans 6:23). Hebrews 12:6 tells us that the Lord disciplines his children, "because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son" (Hebrews 12:6). God is the ultimate parent and loves his children, and therefore disciplines them. This means we, too, need to discipline our children.
Now let's go back to this specific verse that is often used to either promote or go against spanking. I love what one commentary had to say about this, “The focus is on the value of discipline much more than it is on the means used (in ancient Israel, corporal punishment, the rod)” (Lindsay Wilson, Proverbs: An Introduction andCommentary, ed. David G. Firth, vol. 17, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (London: Inter-VarsityPress, 2017), 173.)
Regarding spanking, specifically, I don't know the correct answer. But what I do know is that it is not biblical to withhold discipline in general. However, I am not vouching for a specific type of discipline. Each family will decide what works best for their family. Often something that works best for one family might not work at all for another. But I will argue that the gentle and permissive parenting movement is dangerous to the child. Why? Eli in the Bible is a great illustrative example of a parent that did not discipline and later paid the consequences for his lack of discipline, "Eli's sons were evil men who did not care about the LORD. They did not care about how priests were supposed to treat people" (1 Samuel 2:12).
What is most important is balance. We need parents willing to get to the root of a child's emotions while still using their best judgment to discipline them. We need parents to point to the truth of the Gospel. I have observed many "gentle parents" who do not follow through with discipline but do a great job of affirming their child's emotions or affirming where their child is at. This still leads a child to be unsure and feel unsafe. On the other side of the coin, I have seen many authoritative parents who punish without dealing with the root or emotion or listening to their child—this can lead to rebellion and a lack of relationship.
Lastly, I have also seen and experienced parents who discipline out of reaction or frustration. Ephesians also warns us, "Fathers do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord" (Ephesians 6:4). We need parents willing to help their children sift through their complicated emotions and help them give words to their feelings, but also give them consequences for their sins. A child must understand that their behavior is a sin when it is a sin. It is of utmost importance that we do not spare the child from the consequences that sin brings. We must administer discipline in response to sin, and a child must learn that wrong is wrong to grow into healthy/mature adults. The gentle parenting movement goes against the Gospel because it does not point to the need of the Gospel. The child is good as is, and there is no need for a Savior because the child does not need correction