Read the first five books of the Bible, which we call the Books of Law, the Pentateuch, or the Torah. This is the Law which God gave to Moses and which he intended the children of Israel to live by. What is mentioned in these five books about childrearing and discipline?
Deuteronomy 1:39 says "And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad--they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it."
From this we learn that young children do not know good from bad. Their actions are not intentionally defiant or disobedient. The reason these children could enter the land is that they were considered guiltless. They were not held accountable for the evil acts of their parents, nor for their own acts at such a young age. We must conclude from this passage that the now-popular doctrine of "original sin" was developed during modern times and was not a part of the understanding of God's people at the time of the writing of the Book of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 6:6-9 says "These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates."
This passage injoins the parent to give verbal instruction to their children, and to use every opportunity to impress God's commands upon them. He also encouraged us to give our children visible reminders of God's expectations and promises.
According to Jewish scholars, the Torah rejects both of the following extreme parenting ideas: the idea that children must be taught rules and punished when they fail to keep them, and the idea that all discipline is terrible for a child's self-esteem. The idea is that harsh words should be used in the beginning, to delineate for the child where the line is drawn, so to speak, so they know the boundaries they are expected to respect. Then, if the child does not respect those boundaries, gentle words should be used to win the child over (1). The Rabbi states that "The Talmud prohibits spanking an older child, b'no gadol, based on v'lifnei iver lo sitein michshol. The child may rebel and sin, and the parent is responsible for that sin." Rav Wolbe claims that today, striking a three-year old causes a michshol, a stumbling block, and is prohibited. "Even if a child is not bar mitzvah, if, because of his nature, there is a reasonable chance that he will rebel with words or deeds, and ultimately curse or strike his parent, it is prohibited to hit him. Rather, one must persuade him with words."
Deuteronomy 21:18-21 says "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, 'This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.' Then all the men of his town shall stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid."
This passage is instruction given to parents whose GROWN child has become a profligate and a drunkard. A profligate was someone who spent all his money on riotous living, like the Prodigal Son of Luke 15:11-32. The purpose of the stoning was not to change the behavior of this adult child, but to purge evil from the house of Israel. The parents said that their discipline had not changed his behavior, so now he had to be punished. That is the difference between discipline and punishment. A child is disciplined while there is still hope of him changing. Punishment is a final judgement of God against a person when there is no longer any hope of changing his heart. Punishment is not a form of discipline, and this stoning is not an example of discipline. In discipline, we show grace to the child. In punishment, God shows justice.
As parents, we are required to show to our child the same grace in discipline that God has shown us. Since we no longer live under the Old Law, punishment is something we cannot embrace. That does not mean we do not discipline at all, but simply that we do not punish as part of that discipline.
Think about this father and mother in the example above. They knew that stoning would end the life of their child. No matter what a child has done, a mother always loves her child and wants the best for him. Before taking their child to the elders of the city, they would have tried every possible loving method of discipline. They would not have taken their child there if there had been any hope that he would change. Knowing that children are often impetuous in their youth, but often grow out of this as they mature, they would have brought the child up until he was an adult, always hoping he would heed their discipline and change. Only when he was an adult would such an extreme measure be taken. This kind of treatment would never have been given a child.
These three passages constitute everything God said to the children of Israel specifically about parenting. You will notice that while they are told to discipline, spanking or the use of the "rod" is not mentioned anywhere in the books of Law. Parents were allowed to decide individually what kind of discipline was best for their special and unique child. The were NOT taught that spanking was required.
Christians who maintain that spanking is manditory discipline for children are applying a one-size-fits-all approach to parenting which is in contradiction to Proverbs 22:6. In this passage, the original text indicates that we are to parent children according to their God-given inborn design. We are to respect their individual differences and train them accordingly. Spanking is not necessary or desirable in most cases where discipline is required, and is certainly not manditory to good Christian parenting. Again, the Rabbi states:
"The essence of education, however, is planting, enabling a child to develop in his own way, to utilize his own strengths and character traits, to grow on his own. This is "chanoch lana'ar al pi darko," educate a child according to his own way. As the Vilna Ga'on comments, forcing a child against his nature, even if successful at first, is a recipe for unmitigated disaster." (1)
I include these comments by the Jewish Rabbi's so that we can see just how Judaism interprets these scriptures, perhaps differently than Christians do.
Many Christians point to Hebrews 12:5-6 which says "My son, do not make light of the Lord's discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he scourges everyone he accepts as a son." The writer of Hebrews was quoting Proverbs 3:11-12 which makes this same statement. They point to the word "scourges" (also translated disciplines, chastises) and say that this is the same kind of scourging Paul received when he was beaten, perhaps the same kind of scourging Jesus received before he was crucified.
There are two ways you can take this passage, literally and metaphorically. If you take the passage literally, you are saying that you believe that each child should be physically scourged and beaten in the same way Paul and Jesus were. These beatings often resulted in a bleeding and bruised body for the recipient. I don't believe that those who advocate spanking would say that children ought to receive this kind of scourging, which would be physically damaging to the child. So we are forced to conclude that this passage is used metaphorically.
God doesn't actually beat us up with a whip; he does use the circumstances of our lives to discipline us. This is what he expects us to do with our children as well. There are many creative and effective ways of guiding children toward right behavior without using spanking or any other form of discipline that would hurt them.
A Definition of "Discipline"
My way of defining discipline is simply that it is a framework which provides motivation for right behavior. Once the frame of a house is set upon the foundation, the builders are pretty much committed to a particular shape and style of house. While our foundation is, of course, Jesus Christ, the framework which we use to shape the house is called Attachment Parenting.
When a child is parented according to attachment parenting principles, he has learned to trust his parents because of their consistently sensitive care of him. He intuitively trusts what they say, and is easier to discipline. The discipline is based upon their intimate relationship, and his dependence upon it. When there is a "break" or disruption in the attachment relationship caused by the child's behavior, he is highly motivated to re-establish the security and intimacy of that relationship. He does not like the feeling of having physical or psychological space put between him and the parent. He will change his behavior in order to come back into a right relationship with the parent, which means he can once again enjoy the physical and emotional comfort and security that this relationship provides.
This is exactly what God does when we sin. He does not leave us in the sense that he stops caring for us, but he does break fellowship with us until we have repented. This is what we as parents should do. We still continue to care for the needs of our child, but we withdraw fellowship from him. This is so uncomfortable for him emotionally that he quickly seeks to change his behavior and repent.
Trust is based upon the meeting of physical needs. A child who does not trust his parents to take care of him will not respect their guidance and discipline either. By not using attachment parenting principles, parents are forced into a position where they must use more aggressive disciplinary techniques.
When a child misbehaves, the first question to ask is, "What need does my child need that I have ignored or overlooked?" or "What aspect of our shared relationship has been violated?
Some researchers believe that over 50% of the adults currently incarcerated in prisons are there as a direct result of disturbed attachment relationships or complete attachment breaks during childhood. Each person needs to be part of a healthy, shared attachment relationship to develop normally. Spanking is one avenue for introducing attachment breaks into the internal working model, though it is not the only avenue. When a child is spanked, even though the rest of his experiences with his parents are positive, an unknown element has been introduced into his world which causes him to question his parents. Spanking causes the child to feel disrespected on a very basic level. This effects different children in different ways, depending on their individual temperaments. You never know how it is going to effect your particular child.
In my opinion, with so many other effective disciplinary methods, spanking is undesirable and rarely needed. Also, since spanking was not specifically commanded in the Law of Moses, it was not something God expected them to do. Since the New Testament is based upon disciplining with grace, spanking would not be in harmony with New Testament teaching.
One final verse which often gives parents trouble is the verse "He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him" (Proverbs 13:24). The word "rod" is used in various ways in scripture, and in the original Hebrew there were eight to ten different meanings for the word. The pole that shepherds used to guide their sheep along the road was called a rod. It was not used to hit the sheep, but to guide them as they walked and keep them on the road. This would correspond to the framework we talked about earlier. It is simply a guide. The shepherd also had a large club called a rod which he used to drive away predators, but it never was used to hit the sheep. God also spoke of the "rod of my mouth" which he used for discipline also. In short, the rod was any article or method used to guide, teach, or discipline. It did not have to be a physical method, either, or God could not have used his mouth as a rod.
The verse is correct in that, if you do not provide discipline for your child, he will learn to behave badly. But the rod in this verse is not specifically referring to spanking, but to any disciplinary method which gets the job done.
Many parents prefer spanking because it's quick and easy, and gets the behavior stopped right away. But children learn through modeling, and though spanking does show the child that you disapprove of this behavior, it does not teach what is right behavior. We can find a similar analogy with the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Law, there was a standard, and people were expected to live by the standard. Just because people knew the Law and that they would be punished for disobeying it, that did not keep the people from disobeying. In the New Testament, we are given the Holy Spirit to empower us to live righteously. Yet, we expect our children to obey with only the threat of punishment to keep them from sinning. If it did not work in the Old Law, it will not work now. Indeed, we have been given a more excellent way. We need to teach them from the standpoint of an inner knowledge of rightness rather than an externally imposed law. We need to teach them to be Spirit-led believers, not Pharisaical lawkeepers. Most importantly, we need to model grace to them in every encounter we have.
I highly recommend Family Effectiveness Training as a way to learn how to get our children's cooperation through respect, and without punishment or rewards. We teach FET classes regularly at the Center for Unhindered Living.
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Copyright 2015 Judie C. McMath and The Center for Unhindered Living
1. Willig, Rabbi Mordechai. V'Higadta L'Vincha.