Famous Sayings #8 — ‘Spare the Rod…’

May 1, 2016

“Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Spanking. Chances are you were spanked at least once as a child or know someone who was. Whether or not you agree with corporal punishment, you might have heard this phrase, too.


What Is the Origin of This Phrase?

My search first took me to ReligiousTolerance.org. The page I landed on discussed how corporal punishment was addressed in the Bible. One important point brought up was that the current form of the saying “Spare the rod…” did not come from the Bible but a more than 350-year-old poem by Samuel Butler.

The name of the poem by Butler is Hudibras. The poem was satirical in nature and aimed at both factions of the English Civil War (Martin). ReligiousTolerance.org names 1664 as the year that the poem was first published, while Gary Martin (The Phrase Finder) cites 1662.

Here is a passage from the poem:

Love is a Boy,

by Poets styl’d,

Then Spare the Rod,

and spill the Child.

At the time, “spill” was a variation of “spoil” in terms of spelling.

An earlier passage may have a variation of the saying. From William Langland’s The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman (1377) comes this line:

Who-so spareth ye sprynge, spilleth his children.

Langland used “spilleth” as a variation of “spoils.” Martin extrapolates the meaning of “sprynge.” In Medieval English, it would be a variation of the word “spring,” meaning “rise quickly, with a bound.” In this case, “sprynge” might be used in place of “sprig,” which would be “a rod or offshoot of a plant.”

Although the exact phrase may not originate from Bible, it looks like both authors mention above were at least inspired by the Holy Book. There is a verse from the book of Psalms that sounds fairly familiar. The page on ReligiousTolerance.org quotes from the King James version of the Bible. In that version of the Holy Book, Psalms 13:24 reads like this (courtesy of Bible Hub):

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

There are different forms of this verse from Bible to Bible, but most will have versions of “spare his/the rod.” The International Standard Version is the most gentle (courtesy of Bible Hub):

Whoever does not discipline his son hates him, but whoever loves him is diligent to correct him.

In any case, the verse might have served as inspiration for the famous phrase in its current form.


What Does “Spare the Rod…” Mean?

In short, a child who is not properly disciplined will suffer. The child needs to be corrected from time to time [by the parents].

How this is done is up for debate. Literally speaking, there is a mention of corporal punishment. Regardless, there is a need for discipline.


Does This Phrase Apply in Today’s World?

Yes and no. It depends on who you ask. Many people think corporal punishment is acceptable and necessary. And there are many adults who have soured on their parents after receiving spankings from them during childhood. You will find that this can be a touchy subject.

From my own non-scientific observations:

  • Those who support it tend to be conservative.
  • There are plenty of religious families that have some type of corporal punishment. This is true for many Christian families.
  • Liberals tend to reject spankings as a form of punishment.

In the United States, there is an overlap with the demographics who would agree with this type of discipline. Around half of American parents spank their kids. Spankings are largely accepted in the South. According to an ABC News poll from late-2015, 73% of Southerners agree with spanking and 62% of parents from the region admit to spanking their own children. Nineteen states in the U.S. still allow corporal punishment in schools and most of them are Southern (The Guardian). To add to that, it should be noted that many Southerners tend to be conservative and identify as Christian. Many Black Americans — who live in the South or may otherwise have southern connections and tend to be Christians — have received corporal punishment and thus see it as an acceptable practice in child rearing.

The issue of spanking made news again in 2014, when Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson was arrested for spanking his then-4-year-old son in Texas. Peterson was suspended for most of the year, effectively ending his NFL season. But do you want to know about the general response? While you would find plenty of people who agreed that Peterson hit his son too severely, there were others who weren’t fazed at all.

If you look worldwide, there are only 39 countries that have completely banned corporal punishment (in public and in the home). Those countries include Sweden (of course), Germany, South Sudan, and Turkmenistan (The Guardian). Great Britain is still grappling with the question.

Regardless, there is strong evidence that spanking has a negative effect on children long terms. There are studies dating back to the 1960s showing that children who were spanked regularly suffered psychological damage. The physical punishment made a number of the people studied more aggressive, even as kids. Regular spankings also led to depression and drug use (Cuddy and Reeves). That information comes from 2014, but it has largely been confirmed by a recent, more complete study. The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan completed a meta-analysis of information from 50 years of research.


How Do I Feel About Corporal Punishment?

To be quite honest, I’m conflicted about the whole thing.

On one hand, I don’t entirely see spankings as bad, depending on the severity. There is a line between spanking and straight up abuse. However, I would rather they be a last resort if used at all. And I don’t believe anyone outside a kid’s parents or grandparents should ever punish a child in this way.

Now, there are some situations where I feel that talking to kids, grounding them, or taking away their privileges isn’t enough. For example:

  1. What should happen if a nine-year-old physically abuses an 83-year-old person and injures that Senior Citizen? What if that child’s parents never abused that child in any way beforehand? The child needs to know about the consequences of their actions. How should anyone proceed?
  1. What should happen if a child throws a big, ugly tantrum in a toy store because his mother won’t buy him something that he wants? The tantrum can include knocking over a display, destroying property, and kicking his mother in the shins. The mother has never spanked the child before. Should she spank him?
  1. What if a kid is a classical bully? By that I mean, the kid goes around verbally and physically harassing other children at school, beating up some of them and talking things from them? The child may or may not be physically and verbally abused at home. Should that child be spanked?

Part of me thinks that the children in some of those instances should be spanked. (Given what I said above about someone outside a child’s family giving punishment, I would understand if the random adults were to hit those kids back when the parents weren’t looking.) Maybe it is an effect of my upbringing and the fact that I have this “You hit me then I hit you back” mentality for most situations like those.

There are other scenarios I can think of. For instance, there are times when children act up in restaurants and hit or throw things at random adults.

On the other hand, there is a voice telling me that spanking is wrong no matter what. And the evidence on the negative effects of spanking are impossible for me to ignore.

I am not a parent, but if I had kids, I would be fine with avoiding corporal punishment altogether. I had received spankings as a child from my parents and as a small child in nursery school. It was rare for my mother to give them; she later admitted that she didn’t like giving them. My father seemed to enjoy giving spankings and he sometimes spanked me and my sister for the stupidest reasons. The hit on the hand with a ruler by a teacher just didn’t feel right. I was 2, and what could 2-year-olds usually do to warrant spankings?

This in the way I see it: Children need to be disciplined when they make certain mistakes. On top of that, children need to know the reasons why they are being punished. And Sometimes, all they need is to be pulled aside in order to correct their behavior.

In any event, kids need to be taught from a young age that they are to respect other people’s space, property, and autonomy. They shouldn’t get away with abusing others, even if those people are older, just by playing the child card. Or worse, a child can go without being punished or with boundaries and turn out like the “Affluenza” kid. That is simply unacceptable.


Works Cited

Crandall, Julie. “Poll: Most Approve of Spanking Kids.” ABC News. 8 Nov 2015. Web. Retrieved 1 May 2016. <http://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=90406>.

Cuddy, Emily and Reeves, RichardV. “Hitting Kids: American Parenting and Physical Punishment.” Brookings Institution. 6 Nov. 2014. Weblog. Retrieved 1 May 2016. <http://www.brookings.edu/blogs/social-mobility-memos/posts/2014/11/06-parenting-hitting-mobility-reeves>.

Martin, Gary. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” The Phrase Finder. Web. Retrieved 1 May 2016. <http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/328950.html>.

Philips, Kristin. “Risks of Harm from Spanking Confirmed by Analysis of Five Decades of Research.” UT News; The University of Texas at Austin. 25 Apr 2016. Web. Retrieved 1 May 2016. <http://news.utexas.edu/2016/04/25/risks-of-harm-from-spanking-confirmed-by-researchers>.

“Pope Francis says it is OK to smack children if their ‘dignity is maintained.’” The Guardian. 5 Feb. 2015. Web. Retrieved 1 May 2016. <http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/06/pope-francis-parents-ok-smack-children-dignity>.

“Proverbs 13 ISV.” Bible Hub. Web. Retrieved 1 May 2016. <http://biblehub.com/isv/proverbs/13.htm>.

“Proverbs 13:24 KJV.” Bible Hub. Web. Retrieved 1 May 2016. <http://biblehub.com/kjv/proverbs/13.htm>.

Robinson, B.A. “What the Bible says about spanking children.” Religious Tolerance.org. Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance. Last updated 28 Apr 2014. Web. Retrieved 1 May 2016. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/spankin8.htm>.

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