To Train Up A Child, or: Spare the Rod? What Rod?

hana_williams-150x150On October 29, 2013, Larry and Carri Williams of Sedro Woolley, Washington, were sentenced to 28 and 37 years in prison, respectively, for causing the death of their adopted daughter Hana Williams just after midnight on May 12, 2011. She was approximately 13 years old. She died of hypothermia and malnutrition after being systematically beaten, starved, and forced outside in the cold by her adoptive parents as punishment for her “rebelliousness.”The Williamses had adopted Hana just three years earlier in 2008. The last year of her life was particularly brutal. In that year she lost 30 pounds due to her parents withholding food from her as punishment. Weighing only 78 pounds at the time of her death, her body was covered with welts and bruises from the beatings her parents had administered. They regularly punished her for such “offenses” as refusing to stand in a twelve inch circle that they had ordered her to stand in.

This was the third death linked to the child-raising practices advocated by Michael and Debi Pearl in their 1994 book To Train Up A Child.

  • Sean Paddock, 4, of Johnston County, North Carolina, died of suffocation at the hands of his adoptive mother, Lynn Paddock, on February 26, 2006. She had been systematically spanking her children according to the Pearls’ advice.
  • Lydia Schatz, 7, of Paradise, California, died on February 6, 2010, as a result of hours of beating by her adoptive parents, Kevin and Elizabeth Schatz. Her “offense” in her final beating was that she had mispronounced a word in her reading exercises.

All three of these families believed in the child-raising principles advocated in To Train Up A Child. And though they went far beyond what the Pearls advocate in the book, the deaths of their children were linked to beliefs and practices inculcated in them by the Pearls’ book.

In To Train Up A Child, the Pearls advocate “training” children to absolute obedience by systematically hitting them with instruments such as a plastic plumbing supply tube whenever they disobey commands—including contrived and arbitrary commands—given by their parents.

Michael Pearl runs a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization called No Greater Joy Ministries. To Train Up A Child is its best-known product. He preaches at a small fundamentalist church in the town of Pleasantville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Debi live.

He claims that the methods of corporal punishment (or “spanking,” as he prefers to call it) in To Train Up A Child are based on the Bible. But as we will see, his methods are more like the behaviorism of atheist scientist B. F. Skinner than they are like anything found in the Bible.


Spare the rod and spoil the child?

First, let’s get one thing straight. The widely known phrase “spare the rod and spoil the child” does not come from the Bible. It comes from the satirical poem Hudibras, by Samuel Butler, which was first published in 1662.

The closest statement that does occur in the Bible is found in Proverbs 13:24, which reads, in the King James Version:

He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

Did King Solomon, the traditional author of Proverbs, believe in literally beating children with a rod?

Probably. Though there are other interpretations.

Blogger Beth McDonald points out that Solomon’s father, David, was a shepherd. The true meaning of the rod, she says, is as an instrument of guidance and protection for the sheep. And I do believe there is merit to this idea. In the Bible, “the rod of correction” is used not only literally, but also metaphorically as a symbol of discipline, training, and guidance for the young and for the foolish.

However, here are several more verses about “the rod” from the book of Proverbs—which is the main Biblical source used by Christian fundamentalists to justify corporal punishment. These quotes are also from the King James Version, which is the overall favorite among fundamentalist Christians.

In the lips of him that hath understanding wisdom is found: but a rod is for the back of him that is void of understanding. (Proverbs 10:13)

Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him. (Proverbs 22:15)

Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die. Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell. (Proverbs 23:13–14)

A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back. (Proverbs 26:3)

The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame. (Proverbs 29:15)

Based on these verses from Proverbs, it’s hard to argue that the book of Proverbs doesn’t advocate literal beatings with a rod, in addition to metaphorical meanings as found in various other passages from the Bible. Here are just two such metaphorical passages:

If they break my statutes, and keep not my commandments; Then will I visit their transgression with the rod, and their iniquity with stripes. (Psalm 89:31–32)

Is God literally going to beat wrongdoers with a rod and with stripes? No. The Psalm speaks metaphorically of disasters and hardships that will come to those who break God’s commandments. An example of this is found in Isaiah:

O Assyrian, the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation. I will send him against an hypocritical nation, and against the people of my wrath will I give him a charge, to take the spoil, and to take the prey, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. (Isaiah 10:5–6)

The passage in which these verses occur is a prophecy against the Assyrian empire, which God had used as a “rod” to punish his wayward people of Israel by attacking them and taking the whole northern kingdom of Israel into captivity and exile.

And yes, in the beloved 23rd Psalm we read of the sheperd’s rod being used as a comfort:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. (Psalm 23:4)

In short, the Bible uses “the rod” both literally and figuratively. And figuratively, it refers both to punishment and to guidance. It is likely that in Bible times, “the rod of correction” was literally used to beat the backs of both children and adults as a form of discipline and punishment—just as it still is in many parts of the world today.

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