Every parent I know has spent more time with their kids this year than they expected. In addition to the many other pressures in 2020, parents of young children have felt increasing pressure in our parenting. More time means more opportunity to sin against and be sinned against. More time means we wonder if the way we’ve been doing things is going to serve our families in the long run. More time means the cracks show.
But the cracks aren’t new to 2020.
A young Christian friend of mine just gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, and she’s nervously navigating the parenting philosophies of the age. She told me about a friend of hers with a 3-year-old, who confided that she dreads getting up in the morning, because her daughter is so hard to be around. This mother commented that she didn’t believe in “law-based parenting,” but wasn’t sure how to address the constant tantrums and defiance.
The friend telling me this story wasn’t sure what “law-based parenting” was, but suspected it had to do with the use of threats or consequences. She said that although she grew up getting spanked for disobedience, and felt spanking had been practiced graciously and effectively by her own parents, none of her friends seemed willing to use what Proverbs calls “the rod” on their children.
I’ve noticed the same phenomenon. Many parents in my generation have been influenced by terms we don’t fully understand—terms like fear-based or law-based parenting—and have no idea of why or how to discipline young children. We have access to many great Christian parenting books that direct us to focus on gospel conversations with our kids instead of being focused on outward behavior. But these authors may be assuming some basic tools—tools many of us don’t have.
If we haven’t picked up the mechanics of discipline from people we know in real life, we may simply not know how it works. We may not know how the rod plays a role in training children to listen and obey, establishing the kind of relational trust that provides a jumping-off point for communicating the gospel.
Discipline Shows Them What God Is Like
If someone asked me, a millennial parent, what my cohort struggles the most with, I’d respond with the word “authority.”
I think there’s been a misunderstanding. A false dichotomy has been set up among the young parents I know: grace-based parenting versus law-based parenting. Another friend of mine recently asked me whether, when her son ignored her request to clean up his room, she should “show grace” by cleaning it up for him or “apply the law” by making him do it after all. Online, I see comments from moms afraid to make their kids eat supper, because they believe this could turn them into little Pharisees.
My friends and I talk to our kids constantly. But many of us find our words fail us. Our no doesn’t mean no, and our yes doesn’t mean yes (Matt. 5:37). We struggle to get basic order into our homes with streams of argument, wheedling, and explanation. We communicate many things about God to our kids, but when none of our commands sticks, we risk misrepresenting God. We’re teaching our kids that just as we don’t mean what we say, God doesn’t mean what he says.
The maxim many operate under goes like this: “God shows you grace by not punishing you. So you can show your kids grace by not punishing them.”
We’re teaching our children the muscle memories of authority, obedience, relationship, and blessing—things they’ll still be a part of when they’re adopted children of God.
But this is a false parallel. Our kids aren’t related to us the way an unsaved person is related to God. An unsaved person is God’s enemy. Our children are part of our family already. We’re not teaching them how to earn their salvation and get into the family—we’re teaching them what it’s like once you’re part of a family. We’re teaching the muscle memories of authority, obedience, relationship, and blessing—things they’ll still need when they’re adopted children of God.
Our children, in the task of parenting, are already ours. We’re already in fellowship with them on an earthly level, and we have every opportunity to show them what fellowship feels like. It feels like laughter. It feels like good food. It feels like order. It feels like blessing. And sometimes, it feels like the painful consequence of discipline. As Scripture tells us,
And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons?
“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.”
It is for discipline you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? (Heb. 12:5–9, quoting Prov. 3:11–12)
This passage isn’t about God’s enemies destined for punishment. It’s about his children. If he disciplines those he loves, and tells us it’s right for dads made in his image to discipline those they love, we need to look closely at what that means. God’s discipline is loving and patient correction of those who already belong to him, not a capricious lashing out of anger. We would do well to model this kind of discipline for our children.
Rod in Proverbs
If we want to find clear biblical words about how loving authority operates in the home, Proverbs gives us plenty to wrestle with.
“Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,” Proverbs 22:15 observes, “but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.”
“Do not withhold discipline from a child,” Proverbs 23:13 insists—continuing with words that may shock us—“if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.”
“Discipline your son, and he will give you rest; he will give delight to your heart,” Proverbs 29:17 says.
We’re ambassadors to our kids. Ambassadors of grace, of love, of joy, of order. We’re ambassadors of God’s own heart. And in order to show him to our kids, we must be willing to love them as he loves us.
Obviously these verses raise many other questions about the hows, the whys, and the exceptions. But what I want to argue for here is a simple and fairly uncontroversial statement: the Proverbs commend the use of the rod. They assume that the principle of the rod is an essential part of loving our kids.
Some may disagree with the idea that Proverbs can be read prescriptively (“It’s not a command; it’s wisdom literature!”). I could grant them that approach. But I’d still be left asking: so do we want to be wise, or don’t we? Did the biblical writers think this was a good idea, or not? Can we read these passages and come up with any other compelling reason why such strong endorsement of corporal discipline is found in the Bible?
Objections to the Rod
Some reasonable objections arise as we talk about the use of physical discipline in the home.
What about children with special needs? What about adopted children, children with a history of abuse? Also, what about the legality of spanking? Should we be concerned about that? And what about parents tempted toward physical abuse?
These questions require wisdom. The rod is a principle, not a mere physical event. The principle of the rod is that a bit of pain in the present, used in love to deter sin, will reap long-term fruit. So when a child or even a parent has a history or a medical condition that makes physical discipline unwise, there are still ways for the principle of the rod to bring peace into the relational environment. A child wants to know there is structure to the world—right is right, wrong is wrong, and caregivers are in a position of loving authority. They want sin in their hearts to be called sin and addressed, in whatever childish forms the sin might take. They want this even if they’re never going to be capable of expressing it. They want this even if they’re coming from a situation of chaos so advanced that they can’t imagine what loving authority looks like.
Exceptions shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore the call of Scripture.
Finding out how to communicate that authority without the physical rod will require great wisdom. It’s another reason why we need to be willing to humbly ask for input from experienced parents who’ve walked a similar road. And for the parents whose children don’t fit into these narrow exceptional cases, exceptions shouldn’t be used as an excuse to ignore Scripture’s call.
Legal questions are worth asking, and it’s good to know that, at this point, in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, physical discipline is legal in the home. It’s also legal in schools, in roughly half of the states (mostly in the South and Midwest). But this could change. There are already outright bans in some areas of Western Europe, with Scotland becoming the newest in a handful of countries to outlaw physical discipline of any kind. In other words, civil disobedience may become necessary. This, too, would require wisdom and a cultivated sense of allegiance to God’s wisdom versus man’s wisdom.
Authority and the Secular Prophets
Some of the clearest and most helpful words on authority in parenting have come from secular sources over the last few years.
The phenomenon of Jordan Peterson’s popularity should tell us how hungry people are for obvious statements about the way God’s world works. In his 12 Rules For Life, Peterson—clinical psychologist and a professor of psychology at the University of Toronto—uses worldly language to try to describe something we know as original sin. His experience with parents and kids has shown him something many in the Christian community underemphasize: a child left to his own devices can become a “little monster” (125). A child allowed to self-govern is an unloved child. As Peterson acknowledges the relief children feel when adults take responsibility, he also mentions spanking as one way it may be necessary to do so (141).
In The Collapse of Parenting, Leonard Sax tells stories about parents who let their young kids decide everything: what to eat, drink, and wear; how to spend free time; even where to go to school. “Over the past three decades,” he writes, “there has been a massive transfer of authority from parents to kids” (7). He connects this transfer of authority to a range of problems, including overmedicated kids, academic underperformance in American schools, and fragile undergrads.
Godly parenting is much more than establishing authority. And establishing authority is more than the rod. But it’s not less than that.
Peterson and Sax are both willing to say things that make us squirm. One of Peterson’s chapters is titled “Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them.” A Christian parent might shy away from this language, shuddering at the thought that anything could cause them to dislike their children. Sax tells stories that are shocking to us—like a 12-year-old boy telling his mom, “Turn around. Shut up. Drive” (6). We don’t like to think our kids could ever get to that point.
But this tone of warning is actually rather familiar in the wisdom literature. “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him” (Prov. 13:24). Then there’s the still more sobering “Discipline your son, for there is hope; do not set your heart on putting him to death” (Prov. 19:18). Other versions have rendered this “Discipline your son . . . let not thy soul spare for his crying.” Charles Bridges wrote in 1847:
There is much more mercy in what seems to be harshness, than in false tenderness. Let the child see that we are resolved; that we are not to be diverted from our duty by the cry of weakness or passion. Far better that the child should cry under healthful correction, than that the parents should afterwards cry under the bitter fruit to themselves and children, of neglected discipline. (271)
This language may feel like a bit much to us when we have little children, because we can’t always see what toddler sins turn into when they become middle-aged adult sins. We prefer at times to use churchy, sentimental language about parenting. But this sobering language isn’t too much for the Bible’s wisdom writers. And it apparently isn’t always too much for secular prophets like Sax and Peterson. It shouldn’t be too much for us in the church.
Mentoring and the Rod
Godly parenting is much more than establishing authority. And establishing authority is much more than the rod. But it’s not less than that. And with such weighty words in Scripture about the rod’s use, we young parents should be willing to learn the hows and whys of it.
There are helpful references to the rod in some Christian parenting books. Rachel Jankovic offers joyful vision-casting for discipline in Loving the Little Years. Ginger Hubbard’s Don’t Make Me Count to Three is quite practical. And Tedd Tripp has a full chapter on the rod in Shepherding a Child’s Heart.
But I’d like to see millennial parents reaching out to previous generations of parents who did this well and asking the most basic practical questions. How do you discipline lovingly? What do you discipline for? What do you use? How do you pray with the child after you discipline them? This kind of thing is hard to pick up from a book. You pick it up best by example, from people you respect and trust. Obviously the ideal would be if you happened to grow up in a home where this was done well (I did). But if you didn’t get it there—and many of my millennial friends didn’t—it’s hard to catch the vision without personal influence and support.
How I’d love to hear stories of young parents in the church being humble enough to ask for help. I’d also love to see more experienced parents being willing to risk seeming officious in order to do the loving thing and share their experiences.
We’re ambassadors to our kids. Ambassadors of grace, of love, of joy, of order. We’re ambassadors of God’s own heart. And in order to show the Lord to our kids, we must be willing to love them as he loves us. While we have no guaranteed outcomes about the hearts of our kids when we discipline them, we do have clear promises about God’s discipline of us: “For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it” (Heb. 12:11).
This is the heart of God in discipline. And this is the discipline we’re to imitate as we walk by faith through the joyous, complex, and incredibly worthwhile responsibility of parenting.