- Sammy Jo Diffendaffer, M.S., LMFT-A
"Spare the rod, spoil the child:" Maybe, or maybe not?
I often wonder how far "off" we land from what God (or any religious teaching) originally intended their words to mean.
Consider with me, what it REALLY means to spare the rod for a modern day child? Taken at it's most extreme or literal sense, these words might stand in complete contradiction to academic studies on parenting and child development, and also ethically/legally against the Texas Family Code outlining humane treatment of a child. However, taken metaphorically, I one hundred percent agree that if we "spare the rod" (over-protect, make excuses for, and refuse to discipline) we will absolutely "spoil" the necessary growth and learned behaviors that all typically developing (and some non-typically developing children) are capable of. What then, you might ask, does it look like to spare the rod for my child if I do not believe in corporal punishment in the first place?
Top 3 ways parents today are "sparing the rod" for their child.
1. Lacking consistent, consistent, consistent reinforcement. If you felt exhausted reading the redundant phrase above, you experienced my point exactly. This process is tiring. Reinforcement requires SO much more from a parent than a swift hard spanking (which likely WILL instill a deep-rooted, long-term behavior change in your child, but might also instill a deep-rooted, long-term wound in them as well). Sparing the rod in this case, is ignoring, distracting from, or avoiding a negative behavior in your child that requires your attention. If your child sees they can tire you out or challenge you enough to get their way, they have started the beginning of a snowball effect that you do not want to let build. This is one example of sparing the rod that won't result in favor of you or your child, as the day will come that you are faced with a much larger problem.
2. Allowing a child's adverse situations to dictate a change in the rules. This is often referred to as "guilt parenting" and it shows up most often amongst parents of children with complicated life situations, chronic illnesses, or children of divorce. While it is important to be able to empathize and connect with your child over his or her struggles, changing the rules for them will simply lead to a delay in the child learning normal life consequences. When parents allow a child's disease, misfortune or otherwise negative circumstance to be an excuse, the parent is unintentionally telling their child "you aren't capable of succeeding in normal life circumstances," and "you deserve an excuse." While this is different from advocating for a child to establish an IEP to make use of necessary academic resources that children suffering from a disability are often in need of, it is still important to challenge and encourage children to overcome even the most difficult of life circumstances. Sparing the rod in this sense fails to teach kids that sometimes we have to find a way to "succeed anyway," that it's ok to try and fail, and that you, as a parent, will be there to encourage them and fight alongside them in the midst of any failure, but that you won't do things for them.
3. Colluding with a child. Whether you're in a difficult marriage where you want a child on your side or you are raising a child after a divorce, there is often a draw to win favor from the child over the other parent. This too will result in a negative effect on the child, and also leads to another form of "sparing the rod." Collusion can seem harmless, but studies show children DO NOT feel safe without the consistent enforcement of set-rules. So for young people, when the rules change frequently, their sense of stability does too. When a parent attempts to collude with their child, the child will also start to catch on to the fact that you are primarily trying to "win them" from the other parent and will ultimately lower the child's sense of worth. To avoid putting kids in the middle, try counseling as co-parents to make sure you can establish a mutual agreement on maintaining mostly consistent rules and expectations for your developing child.
While avoiding the "spare the rod" mentality does not necessarily mean we have to spank our kids at every mistake, (in fact most parenting experts advise AGAINST spanking your child) it DOES mean we must hold our kids' feet to the fire as we seek to teach them important learned behaviors. With a kind, yet consistent approach, it is more likely that a child will adopt your teachings as their own, ultimately yielding positive results that will stick with them for a lifetime. I wish you all the best in adopting your own unique parenting approach, and I hope those of you structured around biblical religious ideology find support and encouragement in exploring the many ways we might "spare the rod" without using the rod (spanking) too often, or possibly not even using it at all.