"Spare the rod and spoil the child." We've all heard it, right? Only there's one problem: that most quoted 'biblical' parenting instruction doesn't appear anywhere in the Bible!
William Langland's The Vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, 1377, includes this line: "Who-so spareth ye sprynge, spilleth his children." That is old English for the phrase we are familiar with. King Solomon, in Proverbs, said something that on the surface sounds similar, but actually means something entirely different: "One who spares his rod hates his child, but he who loves him, disciplines him in his youth." Let's compare the two phrases:
Can we compare spoiling a child to hating him?Spare the rod and spoil the child.
One who spares his rod hates his child…
Can we compare spoiling a child to hating him? More often we think of people spoiling their children because they love them. King Solomon wrote that one who loves his child disciplines him in his youth. Why do some people spoil their children, while others discipline their children firmly but lovingly, and yet others take the phrase literally and hit their kids?
Parents usually parent in the style that they do, not because that's what's good for their kids, but rather because that is what is suitable to them, the parents, in the moment. Let's be honest here. The way that we react to our kids has more to do with us and how we are feeling than with what the kids actually did.
If you are by nature warm, calm, collected, and have strong principles, it will come across in your parenting. If you are a hot-head, that too will come across. When your children feel that you are reacting to them based on your own "stuff" and not because of their actions and their needs, it will distance them from you. If you can see that your children need something that they don't want, or want something that they cannot have, and you can deal with it in a clear and principled way, they will understand that you are doing it for their best interest. If you flare up, you have lost your chance to teach them what you believe.
This can also be more subtle. People's moods and situations fluctuate. If a child comes to you in the evening wanting to tell you about what happened in school that day, and you had a successful and pleasant day in which you accomplished everything on your list, you might put down your newspaper, or turn off the computer, or hang up the phone, sit down with the kid and really listen. You might be surprised or impressed or even worried about what your child has to tell you, but you are open to hear the child out. When the child wants to communicate and you are emotionally available to receive what she has to say, the conversation will really be about the content your child wants to share, and the interaction will enhance your relationship.
Let's take the opposite scenario. You had a tough day. Everything went wrong. Traffic in the morning made you late to work. The boss was furious that you were late, because there is an important deadline tomorrow. You found out that another coworker was "let go" because of financial constraints. You scurried around in circles trying to do your part, but nothing seemed to be coming together. You forgot to pick up what you needed to make a healthy dinner, so dinner found its way from the freezer to the microwave to the table. You want to eke out some quality time with the kids, but your mind is only on the work you need to do to meet the deadline, and when you can finally get them out of your hair to do it—and you are worrying whether you are next in line to be "let go." When the kids sit down with their homework, you run to the computer. You look up and see Michael standing there. "What!? Aren't you supposed to be doing homework? What do you want from me?"
It's no longer about poor Michael; that's you and your stress speaking. Now the thing is, you are no dummy; you know that your stress is speaking. And Michael's no dummy either. He knows that you are in drive-through parenting mode. If you are distracted, Michael is free to do what he wants. If you catch him, one of two things will happen: either you'll scream your brains out and put on a good show, or you'll just let it slip by because you don't have the time or energy to deal with it, and because you know that you are stressed and don't want to take it out on Michael. Either way he wins—but really he loses, and so do you. King Solomon would call that hating the child.
Hopefully none of us would say that we hate our children. Yet all of us sometimes hate ourselvesNone of us are perfect parents, and we all fall into those traps at times, but hopefully none of us would say that we hate our children. Yet all of us sometimes hate ourselves. We hate our inability to control the situation, and the inability to be perfect. When life gets out of hand, unless we are very careful, this hatred can well up and spill out on our kids. We can't give love or stability to our children when we don't have it within ourselves. So what do we do? We do damage, either by giving our kids our money and our stuff instead of our hearts, or by hitting and screaming.
One who spares his staff hates his child. What staff was King Solomon talking about? A staff is solid and doesn't change. A staff is used for support on one's way. For parenting rules to successfully show our children that we are trying to build them in ways that are good for them, the rules must be solid and consistent; they must support the growth of the children on their paths, and protect the needs of the parents. The staff is the "measuring stick" that the parent can use to show the child that there are realities, principles that obligate us all.
Adults who have solid principles that support them in all their ways will be able to measure the behavior of their children in a predictable and safe way, and respond to inappropriate behavior in ways that don't undermine their parental authority or just blow off anger. They will be able to feel the support and love within themselves, and be able to support and love their children. "One who loves (his child) disciplines him in his youth." If you love your child you will help him to develop himself in a disciplined way in his youth, before things get out of hand. You will make time to explain to your child, not in the heat of anger, but in a moment of warmth and understanding, why you expect him to behave in a particular way, and why that is important to you, and ultimately to him.
It's pretty simple. Who you are is how you'll parent. You can only teach what you know. You can only give what you have. You can only build with the tools in your box. Fill yourself with warmth, goodness, and all that you dream of for your children. They will know you as a treasure chest, and come to fill themselves with knowledge and nourishment for life.