Spare the Rod and Save the Child

Spare the Rod and Save the Child

This is an English translation of a sermon preached in Créole by Pierre Ploured at El Shaddai Church, Port-au-Prince on Sunday March 19, 2017, based on Proverbs 23:13-14, Mark 10:13-16, and Ephesians 6:1-9. Our church community shares a bond with El Shaddai Church, through out support of Hand in Hand with Haiti.

How do we reconcile scriptures that on the one hand encourage us to beat our children with a rod in order to discipline them, and on the other hand warn us against exasperating our children? Furthermore, Jesus warmly accepts children into his loving arms and blesses them while telling us that they are closer than we adults are to the Kingdom of heaven.

My father was one of the youngest among 14 children in a very poor family. His father (my grandfather) abused alcohol and abused his children. He would severely beat my father with a whip whenever my father misbehaved. My father was beaten so often that he cannot remember how many times. As a result, my father grew up in extreme fear of his father and was never able to have a loving relationship with him. As I was growing up, my father only knew one way to discipline me; with a thick army leather belt (after all he was a soldier in the Canadian military). But I can count on one hand (no more than 5) the number of times that my father had to beat me for having misbehaved. This does not mean that I misbehaved only 5 times as a child. It means that my father became increasingly uncomfortable with beating his children, and he found other more loving and constructive ways to discipline us. Yet, because of even just a few beatings, I still lived in fear of my father. I have now raised 2 children – and I can count on one finger how many times I used physical force to discipline them. Once, when Daniel was 4 years old, he acted in wilful defiance against me and after adequate warnings I decided that I needed to spank him. I used my open hand on his buttocks (no stick, no belt) and struck him 2 or 3 times only. When my hand hurt, I realized that it was hurting him as well. I decided never to strike Daniel ever again. And with Nadine, I never had to strike her once. This does not mean that my children never misbehaved. No, like all other children they misbehaved, but over the years I learned different ways to discipline a child without striking them. And I have been blessed with a wonderful loving relationship with both Daniel and Nadine, who have grown into respectful caring adults.

My father and I experienced reconciliation only 2 years ago, when Pastor Denis visited Winnipeg during Daniel’s wedding in June 2015. Pastor Denis, my father and I were having a discussion, when my father mentioned how he had been severely beaten by his father, and how he had beaten me a few times. My father then shared how he regretted having beaten me and after 50 years of regret he wondered aloud if I had ever forgiven him for using severe military discipline on me. What happened next, with Pastor Denis as our witness, was a beautiful moment of reconciliation where I was able to sincerely tell my father that I had forgiven him many years ago, even though I had never had the courage to tell him. So at the age of 82, my father was liberated from the guilt he had felt for so many years about beating me, and only less than 5 times. My father never had a chance to reconcile with his own father, but he was at least blessed with a reconciliation with his own son.

What evidence do we have about the effects of the physical punishment of children? First, we know from data that UNICEF collected in 2014 that 80% of children worldwide are physically punished by their parents. We also know that most parents use physical punishment when they are angry and are acting out of desperation, not knowing what else to do. Hundreds of studies have looked at the effects of physical punishment on children and on their parents. And the results have demonstrated that the benefits of physical punishment are very minimal at best and very brief; the child may temporarily improve their behaviour but the harms of physical punishment are major and can last a lifetime including 1) increased rebellion and aggression in children, 2) increased antisocial behaviour in children, 3) increased use of physical means by children as a means for problem solving, 4) increased childhood learning difficulties, 5) increased mental health disorders in children and adults, 6) increased spousal abuse, 7) poor parent-child relationships, and 8) low moral standards in children. A large analysis of 75 studies performed over the last 50 years published in a family psychology journal in June 2016 revealed that 99% of all studies demonstrated significant detrimental effects of physical punishment, with no more positive outcomes than other non physical methods of discipline. That is to say, alternative non physical methods of discipline can be as effective as physical punishment, without the adverse effects of encouraging aggressive negative rebellious behaviours.

If we are looking to raise our children into a more respectful, kind and caring society, we will need to begin to be role models for them first in our homes and then in our schools. There are many alternative methods to discipline children that do not require physical beatings. Sometimes when a child is misbehaving, it is because they are unable to handle the stresses around them and what they actually need is a “time out” to think through their situation and to re-evaluate their response. Giving children the freedom and the space to take a break (or a 5-10 minute “time out”) can be very helpful in avoiding further confrontation or misbehaviour. Children often misbehave because they don’t understand what is happening to them and they feel helpless.

Providing children with a positive reinforcing environment in the first place can also reduce misbehaviour. Children thrive in an environment that focusses on rewarding good behaviour, rather than focussing on punishing negative behaviour. Spending quality time with children, and giving them our loving attention is one way to prevent unnecessary misbehaviour. There are many approaches to disciplining a child without needing to beat them; and what all non physical disciplining approaches have in common comes down to being good adult role models. If we are constantly criticizing one another and our children for the things they do wrong, if we never provide praise or encouragement, if we are unpredictable in our discipline and only exercise physical discipline when we get angry and frustrated, and if we often resort to physical beatings to punish our children for their misbehaviour, then that is how they will learn to solve their problems as children and in the future as adults. How will our children learn how to use reason and calm discussion to solve challenging problems if we don’t show them how to do it? How will our children learn that their misbehaviour has consequences that require restitution with other persons if we don’t teach them how to ask for forgiveness and repair the wrong that was done? How will our children learn not to resort to physical violence if we use physical violence as our primary and only method of discipline?

Even those who support the use of physical punishment are now setting very clear boundaries and rules. Those psychologists who still think that there might be a role for physical punishment are now saying that it should only be rarely used as a last resort, after all other alternative non physical approaches to discipline have not worked. And if physical punishment is deemed necessary, they recommend that it should only be applied to children between the ages of 2 to 6, that it should never involve a neutral object (such as a stick or a belt) but should only be inflicted with an open hand, that a maximum of 2 or 3 strikes should be delivered to the thigh or buttocks, and that it should never be used in schools.

Last year, the team of Canadian medical and nursing students that came with me to Haiti witnessed in a school frequent (every 10-15 minutes) beatings of children with wooden sticks and with belts (thankfully not Imago Dei school). Such beatings in a Canadian school could lead to criminal prosecution and imprisonment. Our medical and nursing students returned to Canada emotionally traumatized by what they observed. Our Christian witness of the Gospel message of forgiveness and sacrificial love is severely compromised when we beat our own children with sticks and belts. And it certainly provides a contrasting image to Jesus welcoming the little children into his arms.

Beating our children with sticks and belts is in many ways no different than how slaves were treated. The Bible has over 270 references to slavery, and hence implicitly endorses slavery which was very much a part of the culture when the Bible was written. But time and ethics have demonstrated the evils of slavery, and slavery has been abolished. In fact, I am standing this morning in the very country that experienced the very first successful slave revolt, leading to the freedom of countless slaves and the eventual abolition of slavery. So although the Bible endorses slavery on hundreds of occasions, we have chosen to abolish slavery. The Bible references disciplining of children with a rod only 5 times (4 in the book of Proverbs, and once in the second book of Samuel). Yet despite the rare mention of the physical punishment of children in the Bible, we have created a widespread endorsement of the use of the rod on our children in the Christian community based upon a mere handful of verses. And these few verses need to be examined within the context of scripture that warns us against exasperating our children and that encourages us to “bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4). When Paul tells us to discipline our children, the Greek word that he is using refers to the systematic training and verbal instruction of children in order to impart the knowledge of God regularly and lovingly to our children under the guidance of Scripture. Paul says nothing about beating our children, and I am certain that he was familiar with the Proverbs verses. And I find it very hard to imagine Jesus using a whip or a rod against a child. The Jesus I know would discipline a child with dignity and respect, yet firmly and with authority, without having to resort to physical violence.

So remember, there is no evidence in the psychology literature that the physical punishment of children improves child behaviour any better than non physical methods of discipline. Because physical punishment is not that effective, it has to be constantly escalated to more severe beatings; which is what makes it so dangerous. And there is ample evidence that the physical punishment of children is harmful with increased risks of many detrimental outcomes in childhood and in adulthood. In 2006, the United Nations declared physical discipline to be a violation of children’s human rights, and recommended the abolition of physical discipline in the home and in schools. I am encouraged to know that physical discipline is discouraged at Imago Dei school, and is rarely used. To the principal of Imago Dei school I say “congratulations”; to the teachers of Imago Dei school I say “congratulations”.

Do we want to prepare our children to solve their disputes using violence? Do we want to encourage more violence in our society? If yes, then beating our children is probably a good way to accomplish this goal. My father only knew severe beatings as the discipline he received from his father. But he unknowingly began a process of healing; breaking an intergenerational cycle of violence in the home, by restraining his use of physical punishment with me. Consequently, I learned to manage the disciplining of my own children (and of the many children who I teach in my Judo Club) without the use of physical punishment. I am hoping that my children have learned a very valuable lesson in how to discipline their own children. And I am hoping that Imago Dei school will continue to be a role model for El Shaddai community and for Haiti. What our world needs is less physical violence, not more; and we would do well to start by being good role models in our schools and in our homes.

Fathers, mothers, teachers, pastors – do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline, the admonition, the exhortation, the encouragement, and the instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).

We thank you Lord God for giving us the Grace to help us understand your Word. May God bless you; Amen!

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