Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child? The Unexpected Way Religious Beliefs Influence Parents’ Views
This is the seventh in a series of weekly blog posts addressing discipline and parenting practices. In this series, we will explore reasons that parents choose among discipline approaches, the science behind those techniques, and alternative approaches to discipline.
By Cindy Miller-Perrin, PhD (Distinguished Professor of Psychology, Pepperdine University)
How do religious beliefs impact parents’ positions on the use of physical discipline with their children?
Parents’ support for using physical punishment with their children varies, to some degree, by religious affiliation. Both the United Methodist Church and the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, for example, have passed resolutions encouraging parents to avoid the use of physical punishment in favor of other forms of discipline. Members of other faith traditions such as the Jewish, Catholic, and Mormon faiths appear to have also either discouraged or prohibited the use of physical punishment with children.
Conservative Protestants, on the other hand, represent one faith tradition where physical punishment of children is sometimes recommended and encouraged. Conservative Protestants are significantly more likely than parents of other religious backgrounds to support and practice corporal punishment. This support of corporal punishment is largely based on conservative beliefs that the Bible is inerrant and should be interpreted literally.
In addition, many Conservative Protestants believe that children are prone to egocentrism and sinfulness at birth and therefore the parent must shape the will of the inherently rebellious child. From this perspective, the child’s submission serves as a model for their future relationship with God.
Are Christian parents biblically mandated to spank their children?
Does the Bible teach parents to spank their children? The routinely repeated phrase ‘‘spare the rod, spoil the child’’ does not actually appear in the Bible. Instead, it is a popularized paraphrase of several verses in Proverbs. Four of the most commonly cited verses include the following from the New International Version:
He who spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is careful to discipline him. (Proverbs 13:24) Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far away. (Proverbs 22:15) Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you punish them with the rod, they will not die. Punish them with the rod and save them from death. (Proverbs 23:13–14) Blows and wounds cleanse away evil, and beatings purge the inmost being. (Proverbs 20:30)
The important question, of course, is whether these passages should be interpreted as a mandate to spank, and whether the growing empirical research that spanking does more harm than good should contribute to the conversation.
For many progressive Christians and biblical scholars (including many Conservative Protestant scholars), the Bible should be read with an understanding of the cultural context in which its passages were written. Children in the ancient world were devalued, and often mistreated. Infanticide was not uncommon. They also lived in a world where violence was understood as the only disciplinary tool. The phrase “time out” does not appear in the Bible!
Given their lowly status in the ancient world, and the role of violence in that world, it is not surprising that the writer of Proverbs (presumably King Solomon) would have spoken of the “rod of discipline.” Once we understand this context, the passages take on new meaning. They are actually meant to place limits on violence in a world in which the weak and powerless, including children and slaves, were sometimes violently mistreated. It is also important to note that Jesus never advocated for physical discipline of children.
Both the Old and New Testaments clearly speak of disciplining children, but spanking and physical punishment are not synonymous with discipline. Today we know that there are other ways to discipline children, with many alternative methods empirically supported as more effective and less potentially harmful than spanking. Considering the Bible’s attempt to regulate and control physical violence during its time, it seems reasonable to argue that a modern day reading of the scriptures should not be interpreted as an endorsement of physical punishment.
So, what goes into positive Christian parenting?
There are many positive findings associated with Christian parenting that suggest that Christian beliefs and parenting can be combined to be effective without the use of physical discipline. The belief that the Bible is God’s true word and that it has answers to important human problems, for example, has been positively associated with praise and hugs.
Sanctification of parenting, or the belief that parenting holds spiritual significance, is associated with:
increased consistency in responding to child misbehavior,
less use of verbal aggression,
increased frequency of praising a child’s behavior and character,
greater emphasis on the importance of moral responsibility,
greater investment in parenting,
sharing more positive memories with one’s child, and
having a greater emotional tie with one’s child.
Key factors associated with favorable Christian parenting appear to relate to both parental faith-based actions and beliefs. For example, parents who identify their religious affiliation as Conservative Protestant report more frequent use of physical punishment than parents of other faiths. However, parents who attend religious services report less frequent physical punishment than parents who do not attend religious services, once religious affiliation has been accounted for statistically.
In addition, interpreting religious content symbolically rather than literally has been associated with positive parenting qualities such as:
being supportive toward children and their independence,
exerting little psychological control over children, and
stressing the importance of the child developing a sense of self, contributing to the community, and building friendships.
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Perrin, R., Miller-Perrin, C., & Song, J. (in press). Changing attitudes about spanking using alternative biblical interpretations. International Journal of Behavioral Development.
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The Book of Resolutions of The United Methodist Church – 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/discipline-children-without-corporal-punishment
Dr. Cindy Miller-Perrin earned her PhD in Clinical Psychology from Washington State University and is currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology at Pepperdine University. She enjoys teaching undergraduates and is the recipient of the 2008 Howard A. White Award for Teaching Excellence at Pepperdine. She is a licensed clinical psychologist who has worked with maltreated, developmentally delayed, and other troubled children and their families. Dr. Miller-Perrin has authored numerous journal articles and book chapters covering a range of topics, including physical punishment, child maltreatment, family violence, and vocation and life purpose. She has co-authored four books, including Why Faith Matters: A Positive Psychology Perspective (with E. Krumrei, 2014), Family Violence Across the Lifespan (with O. Barnett & R. Perrin, Sage 1997, 2005, 2011), Child Maltreatment (with R. Perrin, Sage 1999, 2007, 2013), and Child Sexual Abuse: Sharing the Responsibility (with S. Wurtele, University of Nebraska Press, 1992). She serves on the editorial boards of Journal of Aggression, Maltreatment, and Trauma, Journal of Child Sexual Abuse, Journal of Child and Adolescent Trauma, and Advances in Child and Family Policy and Practice. She is a Fellow in the American Psychological Association (APA) and has served as the President of the Section on Child Maltreatment and Member-At-Large for Division 37 Society for Child and Family Policy and Practice of APA. She is currently President of APA’s Division 37.
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