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  What Does Spare the Rod and Spoil the Child Really Mean?

This week we hear again from psychologists Drs. David and Donna Lane who ask, "What's the meaning behind the proverbial saying, 'Spare the rod and spoil the child,' and does this Bible verse really advocate the beating of children?"

To begin with, this "verse," as quoted, isn't in the Bible. The closest verse like it is Proverbs 13:24 which reads, "Those who spare the rod, hate their children, but the one who loves their child disciplines them diligently." The question is, what was the use of the rod, and is it a directive or a metaphor?

The use of the word rod in this passage is the same one used in the 23rd Psalm where we read, "Your rod and your staff comfort me." We may rightfully assume that the rod of a shepherd is at least similar in type and use to that in the proverb.

I'll be the first to admit that I've heard variations of this proverb used by both clergy and laity alike to justify corporal punishment, but the use of the rod by shepherds did not generally include beating the sheep. The fact is, the rod and staff were the two implements utilized by professional shepherds of the day. The staff, which we are most familiar with, has a "crook" or "hook" on the end which was used to stop running sheep, help pull sheep up from rocky places when they'd fallen over, and so on. The rod was used when corralling the sheep to insure they went in the direction they were supposed to go. It wasn't used to prod or poke, but to direct along the length of the shaft.

Now, sheep were a valuable asset for the shepherd; indeed, without the sheep there would be no shepherd, so the flocks were well taken care of. In fact, a damaged or maimed sheep was a liability, since it was considered tamé, Hebrew for polluted or impure. This being the case, the shepherd who owned their sheep took good care of them and used the tools of their trade as they were meant to be used--to guide, to direct, and to teach (the literal meaning of discipline). However, there were scoundrels who were simply hired to look after the sheep. They had little concern over the welfare of the animals, so they would use their tools in whatever way suited them. These were the ones who might lose their tempers and beat a lamb with a rod just to demonstrate they were more powerful and could force their will upon it.

Children are no less valuable than sheep, and they learn better too! If a sheep is consistency directed, that is limited and taught, they will learn what is expected and generally conform. However, if they are beaten and broken they not only stop responding, but they look for every opportunity to escape--even when escape may mean grave danger.

To "spare the rod" is indicative of a parent who does not discipline their child, that is, to teach, guide, and direct. This is the parent who "hates their child." To spare the rod doesn't mean a parent should beat down their children into submission, rather they are to be like shepherds who value and care for their charges and keep them from danger by using the tools of good parenting to teach responsible behavior and appropriate morality.

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