Discipline of Children: Lessons from Proverbs

Discipline of Children: Lessons from Proverbs

The obligation for Christian parents to bring up their children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” is stated clearly in the New Testament (Eph. 6:4). The Bible’s manual of practical instruction concerning discipline, however, is found in the Old Testament. It is the book of Proverbs.

The writers of the New Testament display an obvious dependence on this particular Old Testament book, especially when speaking of discipline. The writer of Hebrews, for example, quotes from Proverbs 3:11-12 when describing the discipline of the Lord, likening it to the discipline of the father who delights in his son. Jesus alludes to the same text when He says, “Those whom I love I reprove and discipline” (Rev. 3:19). Two of these New Testament texts bring to mind Proverbs 29:15 where we are told that “the rod and rebuke give wisdom”—something physical and something verbal. Jesus reverses the order in Revelation 3:19, putting the verbal first and the physical second, but in Ephesians 6:4 the order of physical then verbal is preserved—“the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” This New Testament dependence on the book of Proverbs, combined with the fact that the New Testament contains little actual instruction concerning the hands-on aspects of raising children, makes it seem reasonable to look to the book of Proverbs as a prime source of sound and practical counsel.

This article is largely concerned with the physical aspect of discipline—using “the rod of correction” (22:15). The word “rod” is linked in one place in the book of Proverbs with the word “strike” (23:13-14). Another proverbial reference to discipline contains the words “stripes” (or “blows”), “wound” (or “hurt”) and “strokes” (20:30). This factor, along with the simple definition of the Hebrew word for “rod” (a stick used for striking), leads to the conclusion that when the word is used in the book of Proverbs it is intended to refer to physical correction by means of spanking. I offer the following principles of discipline, therefore, with the understanding that I am not using the word “rod” as a metaphorical reference to whatever means of correction a parent might prefer. I am referring to a striking implement of some sort, firmly applied to the backside of a child, with the intent of causing physical pain, and for the goal of bringing the child into consistent and joyful submission to parental authority (and hopefully, into joyful submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as well). I realize that many parents do not prefer, or even believe in, spanking as a means of discipline. By studying the above passages more closely, it will at least be clear that this is the biblical approach.

I’m writing more directly to fathers in this article, but most of the instructions apply to either fathers or mothers. If you are a single mother, you will find plenty of biblical help here to guide you.

This is an unpopular subject for some, especially in a day when we often hear sad cases of child abuse and the uncontrolled tempers of some parents. Yet controlled and measured discipline may yield extraordinary results in your children and in the order of the home. What I’m going to say to you is far removed from abuse, though it does involve temporary pain. As I have practiced the biblical teaching on physical discipline over the years, my children have increased, rather than abated, in their love for my wife and me. They will tell you so themselves. Remember above all, as you read, that the intent of disciplining a child is to actually demonstrate love. This is modeled for us by God Himself:

For those whom the Lord loves He disciplines,
And He scourges every son whom He receives. (Hebrews 11:6)

Helps for Applying Biblical Correction:
1. Don’t view the rod as a last resort, and don’t use it only for the “worst” sins.

The rod is the only form of physical discipline that is explicitly commended and commanded in Scripture (Prov. 22:15; 29:15; 23:13-14). Verbal correction (rebuke or reproof) is also referred to as “discipline” in the book of Proverbs (cf. 6:23; 12:1; 13:1, 18; 15:5, 32; 17:10; 19:20, 27), so I am not saying that words of warning or rebuke are not biblical means of discipline as well. Proverbs 29:15 says, in fact, that “the rod and reproof give wisdom.” There is also nothing sinful in employing other creative means for training children or solving problems related to their behavior (for example, firmly patting the mouth of a small child who will not stop talking, requiring a child to hold a hand over the mouth for incessant talking or interrupting, removal of privileges to foster a thankful attitude, or making a child sit quietly on a chair when he or she needs to calm down). But when verbal correction fails to produce repentance, and when further corrective discipline is called for, training devices like these should not be thought of as replacements for, or equal to, spanking. The use of the rod is the only manner of physical discipline clearly prescribed by God, and should therefore be established in your home as the “default” means used when words are not enough. As an old Egyptian proverb says, “boys have ears on their backsides; they listen when they are beaten.”

2. Use the rod early.

Proverbs 19:18 says, “Discipline your son while there is hope, and do not desire his death” (emphasis mine). This verse tells us that there will come a time when there is no more reasonable hope—when it is too late to discipline effectively, presumably because patterns of behavior have become so ingrained in a child that spanking will not have the desired effect. The early years, therefore, are the time to firmly establish the regular and consistent use of the rod. I suppose no one should prescribe a specific age to begin spanking, but no one should prescribe a specific age that is too early for spanking either. If a child is old enough to intentionally disobey or display an obviously rebellious attitude, he or she is old enough to experience painful correction. For very young children, you may wish to apply the rod on the bottom of the foot or on the upper part of the leg. If you use the rod effectively and regularly during your children’s early years, you will drive foolishness from them early (cf. Prov. 22:15), and give them the wisdom to be more attentive to rebuke (reproof) as they grow older.

3. Use the rod to generate pain sufficient to deter the child from sinning.

Proverbs 20:30 tells us that for the rod to be effective, the blows must hurt. The child who goes away from a spanking undeterred in his or her sinful attitude or behavior has not experienced a degree of pain sufficient to bring him or her into submission. This obviously implies that certain children will need to be spanked harder, or with more repeated blows, than others. Here are a few practical issues to consider in order to make your spankings effective:

  • Use an effective implement. A paddle made of balsa wood will have little effect. The hand is usually not the best choice either. It is softer than a wooden paddle, and it does not match the biblical description of a “rod.” In my experience, a heavier wooden paddle of some sort is the best option.
  • Remove protective padding. For example, blue jeans only serve to minimize the desired effect.
  • Be sure the child holds still so that your blows are not indirect, inefficient, or deflected by flailing limbs. Younger children who flail may require physical restraint by the parent giving the spanking, but the best practice is to train the child to hold still and submit voluntarily to the discipline. Promising (and delivering) extra swats for flailing is one good way to accomplish this.
  • Pause between swats. Three swats given in rapid succession impress the mind of the child as one sustained but brief experience of pain, while a delay between swats (three or four seconds) makes each individual sensation of pain more unpleasant and significant.

Proverbs 23:13-14 seems to be a response to those who are reluctant in this area. The writer says, “Do not hold back discipline from the child, although you strike him with the rod, he will not die” (v. 13). The writer knew that some parents might be tempted not to spank, or spank hard enough. He actually comforts the parent by saying (in effect), “Your spanking, even though significantly painful, will not kill the child. On the contrary, by doing what is necessary, you will ‘rescue his soul from Sheol’” (v. 14).

In some cases, mothers lack the physical strength to make spankings effective, especially with children who struggle and resist during discipline. Fathers must therefore establish the standard and make up for any lack of strength on Mom’s part (more on this later).

4. Use the rod for improper attitudes and when children test your parental will.

Once, after I had instructed my 3-year-old son to stop climbing on the back of the couch and sit down, he looked me in the eye and said, “You don’t tell me what to do.” The whole family was in the room for family worship, and the response to my son’s defiant comment was pin-drop silence. Every eye was on me. After an immediate trip to my office in the basement, my son had a much better understanding of who would tell whom what to do. What a clear example of brazen rebellion, you might be saying, but compare my son’s sin with the child who glares at you, puts on a sour face and pouts, stubbornly refuses to make eye contact, or ignores you when you speak, but does not say anything back. The only difference between this child and my son is that my son actually vocalized what was in his heart. The child who does these other things is saying, even though only in his or her mind, “You don’t tell me what to do.” Discipline your children for angry, disrespectful looks or tones of voice, stubbornly folded arms, stomping feet, or rolled eyes, because actions like these reveal a heart of rebellion just as clearly as words.

5. Teach submission before entrusting with decisions.

Proverbs 29:15 says “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.” The point of this proverb is that the child who is given the right to control his own circumstances, rather than immediately submitting to the decisions of his parents, will become a problem. There comes a point at which children need to be taught decision-making principles and skills, but younger children need to learn first to promptly and joyfully submit.

Well-meaning parents often err, in my view, by entrusting very young children with too much authority in making their own choices. For example, let’s say it’s nearing bedtime for your 3-year-old, so you ask, “Are you ready for bed?” The child will probably answer, “No, not yet.” If you are the typical parent, you might then say, “OK, you can stay up 10 more minutes” (After all, if you were not prepared for a “no” answer, you should not have asked the question.). Now the child is happy and goes to bed without protest after 10 minutes have gone by. While this may seem like a positive encounter, the child has been led to believe that he made the final decision as to when bedtime was. In his mind, he got his own way. While this might make for a peaceful evening, it has not taught the child to submit to the parent’s will. How much better to inform the younger child that it is time for bed (rather than asking if he is ready for bed), and then deal correctively with any resistance or defiance? How much better to make this the regular practice until the child has learned pleasant and prompt submission to parental instruction and decisions? The most important lesson children need to learn at a very early age is that they must submit to your will, not you to theirs.

6. Fathers must be leaders in the area of discipline.

It is tempting for fathers who are gone all day at work to be reluctant to deal with disciplinary issues when arriving at home. It is also tempting to allow disciplinary standards to slip at this time because you want your children to look forward to your arrival rather than fearing the sound of the car in the driveway. Your wife, however, may have been dealing with disobedience and disrespect in your absence. Consider some of the results of your reluctance to deal correctively with the sins that were committed in your absence:

  • By your lack of corrective action, you will cause your child to lose some respect for his or her mother. It will appear to the child as though she has made too much of the disobedience. After all, you were not all that concerned about it when you came home, so your wife must have been overreacting (or so the child reasons). Your reluctance to discipline in situations like this actually makes life harder for your wife in the days to come, and can create a divided loyalty in your child’s heart.
  • By being lenient when the child has been disobedient or rebellious for your wife, you gain a false affection from the child—one that is not tempered by respect. Just as true Christians have a reverent fear of the God they love, children should have a reverent fear of the father they love.
  • When you fail to discipline (when necessary) upon your arrival at home, you miss the opportunity to teach your children about soberly anticipating Christ’s return. Jesus is clear in the New Testament that those who misbehave in His absence will be ashamed and will be treated severely upon His return. By teaching your children to fear your return if they have been disrespectful or disobedient in your absence, you teach them a valuable truth about Christ’s return.
  • By attempting to love your children through lenience, you fail to demonstrate the love they truly need at that moment—the love displayed through the use of the rod (cf. Prov. 3:11-12; 13:24).
  • By relying so heavily upon your wife’s discipline (whose spankings are probably less painful than yours), you deprive your child of some of the pain which the Bible says “scours away evil” (Prov. 20:30). In my experience, one of the most effective ways to instill in children a healthy respect of both parents is to let the children know that you work together on their discipline. This can be done, for example, by assuring the child that if he or she gets a “Mom” spanking while you are gone, a “Dad” spanking may be expected when you get home.

The point is, you should not delegate the full responsibility for corrective discipline to your wife, even when you are away from home. You are the disciplinary leader in the home and should set a biblical pace, helping and encouraging your wife to keep up the pace as best she can in your absence.

7. Discipline your children as future church members.

You cannot make your child become a Christian, but you should be raising your children with the expectation that they will become Christians. Therefore, because an integral part of being a Christian is being a good church member, you should be raising them with the expectation that they will begin to behave like good church members. You should begin training them to participate with the church in the most basic ways—ways that would be expected of any church member. I am referring to basic skills and disciplines like sitting still in a chair, focusing attention on whomever is speaking, and remaining quiet so others are not distracted. Other ways of participating may be added as they grow older, but these are essential to learn even at the start.

Younger children will certainly not be perfect because they are naturally geared toward selfishness and foolishness in all these ways. They want to talk whenever they feel like talking. They want to wiggle or get down on the floor because they are more comfortable there. They want to focus their attention on whatever they want to focus on, and so on. By making the decision to take a 3 or 4-year-old out of the nursery and keep him in the full meeting of the church, you are also making the decision to discipline that child when his or her selfishness and foolishness becomes disruptive. As the proverb says, “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of correction will drive it far from him” (22:15).

Our culture may frown on spanking, but you should meet with no opposition or disapproval in a godly, Bible-believing church if you decide to take your child out for a little “church discipline.” Everyone should rejoice to see that you are bringing up your child in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.

Applicable Passages from the Book of Proverbs

Proverbs 3:11-12

My son, do not reject the discipline of the Lord or loathe His reproof, for whom the Lord loves He reproves, even as a father corrects the son in whom he delights.

Proverbs 13:24

He who withholds his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him diligently.

Proverbs 19:18

Discipline your son while there is hope, and do not desire his death.

Proverbs 20:30

Stripes that wound scour away evil, and strokes reach the innermost parts.

Proverbs 22:15

Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far

from him.

Proverbs 23:13-14

Do not hold back discipline from the child, although you strike him with the rod, he will not die.

You shall strike him with the rod and rescue his soul from Sheol.

Proverbs 29:15

The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child who gets his own way brings shame to his mother.