BIBLICAL PRINCIPLES FOR TRAINING CHILDREN


“He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes”
(Proverbs 13:24).


The rather flustered mother was unloading her groceries at the check-out counter. She had been queuing for at least twenty minutes, and was glad when it was finally her turn. But suddenly, her 4-year-old son struggled free and began running towards the toys department. “Come back here please!” his mother pleaded after him. The little child appeared not to notice at all. “Come here please, and I would buy you a lollipop!” He simply said: “No, I don’t want a lollipop.” She paid for the purchases, then, carrying her groceries in several plastic bags, walked towards the toy department where the 4-year-old was already trying to tear open the box off a toy car. “I’m going to count to 3, if you don’t come with me, I am going to walk off… one… two… three.” Nothing happened. The young mother, by now visibly irritated, lost her patience, screamed at the child and dragged him out physically by the upper arm.


This scene is, as a whole, fictitious but, in its parts, factual. Many of us, I believe, would have witnessed similar scenes, or at least parts of it. Our hearts go out with sympathy to any young parent who has to deal with difficult children such as described above. Some of us may even be able to empathise with the pain because we ourselves have difficult children, and we feel so helpless.


Children seem to be getting naughtier and more rebellious with each passing generation, and there appears to be little we can do to stem the tide? But is it really the case that we cannot help the declension? Is it really an inevitable consequence of modern living? Well, I believe the general declension in the discipline of children has indeed a lot to do with the modern philosophies of living and of human nature. But I do also firmly believe that the discipline of our children and teens is to a very large degree dependant on whether they were trained correctly in their early years.


But how to train? I believe the answer cannot be found in the worldly philosophies of man. A very great number of American families, I believe, are today reeling in confusion and pain because of unthinkingly adopting the godless humanistic ideas of the infamous Dr. Benjamin Spock, who for a generation taught parents never to physically discipline their children for whatever reason. Where then can we find guidelines for child-training? I believe there is nowhere else better to look than the Word of God who created man (and therefore children).


In this short article, we want to look at the subject of chastisement as part of discipline designed to train young children to learn submission to parental authority. For our purpose, we shall study Proverbs 13:24 (quoted above) by asking the vital questions of exegesis: What? Who? Why? When? How?


What?


For most of us, I believe, the words “chastise” and “punish” are almost synonymous. Some of us have been taught that God chastises His children but punishes His enemies, but we only have a fuzzy idea why that is the case. The fact is that the two words are actually quite different. The word translated “chasteneth” in our text is the Hebrew word musar that refers to correction, instruction or discipline. It is never translated as “punish” in the Scriptures. On the other hand, several words are translated “punish,” such as naqam (e.g., Ex 21:20), which has the idea of taking vengeance; and anash (e.g., Ex 21:22), which has the idea of being fined, or paying for what is due; or paqad (e.g., Isa 10:12), which has the idea of visiting with justice. “Punishment,” in other words, has to do with compensation or the satisfaction of justice, whereas “chastisement” has to do with bringing an errant one back into line or to warn of punishment if the correction is not heeded. God does not punish His children according as their sins deserve because Christ was already punished on our behalf. He has satisfied divine justice perfectly.


Now, in the process of child-training, punishment is often needed. A child accidentally drops his ice cream cone on the carpet. He may be rebuked for his carelessness, but he will still have to be punished for his fault by having him, say, clear up the mess as much as he can. We may say more about punishment in another article, but punishment should only be administered after confession of fault and forgiveness (cf. Num 14:19–23).


Proverbs 13:24 is not about punishment but about chastisement. It is not so much about administering justice to our children as it is about training their wills so that they learn to submit to the God-appointed authority of their parents. This point should be borne in mind, especially since chastisement will not only be less and less needed for properly trained children, but will become less and less effective for older children or teenagers, whereas punishment or the administration of justice of one form or another may continue to be necessary and effective for discipline and instruction.


Who?


Who is primarily responsible for the children’s discipline? It is the father. Note the masculine pronouns: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son….” Are we being too presumptuous by basing so much on a little pronoun? I don’t think so, for in the New Testament, the Apostle Paul also places the responsibility of child training upon the shoulders of fathers: “And, ye fathers, provoke not your children to wrath: but bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord“ (Eph 6:5).


Paul does not say: “And ye mothers,” but very specifically addresses the fathers. He tells the fathers that the spiritual training and instruction of the children is their primary responsibility, not their wives’. The word translated “nurture” is the Greek paideia, which refers to the rearing of a child (Grk. pais), including his or her training and discipline.


And this is not the only verse that tells us that it is the father’s duty to discipline. The writer of Hebrews compares God’s chastisement of His children with the chastisement of children by their earthly fathers: “If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons; for what son is he whom the father chasteneth not?” (Heb 12:7). Notice that it is assumed that earthly fathers discipline their children.


Does this mean that mothers must not discipline? Of course not. The wordings of the Fifth Commandment indicates that mothers have authority over their children too. Similarly, Solomon teaches us: “My son, keep thy father’s commandment, and forsake not the law of thy mother: Bind them continually upon thine heart, and tie them about thy neck” (Prov 6:20–21). It is clear that although the primary responsibility of discipline and instruction belongs to the father, the mother has a warrant to actively contribute. This fact is especially important, as most children will spend more time in their early years with their mothers than their fathers.


Why?


In the first place, discipline is a demonstration of love. This is clear in our text: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Prov 13:24). It is a demonstration of love because there is a great possibility that a child who is not disciplined when young will grow up to be an unbeliever.


How can a Calvinist believing in sovereign election make such a statement? Firstly, because we are to live according to responsibilities and principles revealed in the Word of God, and not according to what God has not chosen to reveal (Deut 29:29). Secondly, because experience through observing the unfolding of providence often confirms this principle that a person’s childhood training influences, to a large degree, what he is as an adult. And thirdly, but most importantly, because the Scriptures tells us so:

Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him (Prov 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 (Prov 23:13–14).


We must note that the child’s foolishness, referred to in Proverbs 22:15, is not just about the child being playful or fun-loving or full of jest, as if Solomon is teaching us to drive out any semblance of childishness or child-likeness from our children. No, the foolishness is rather about disregard of God’s ways. A child is inherently selfish and has no regards for authority and for God (cf. Ps 14:1; 53:1), and will naturally walk in the way that leads to hell and damnation. This is why the rod is said to deliver the child from hell in Proverbs 23:13–14.


The logic seems to be quite simple. If we discipline our children, painful as it may be, it will not be occasion of their death if we apply it correctly. But if we fail to discipline them, we are letting them walk to their eternal death. What father or mother will allow a child to walk unrestrained over the edge of a cliff? What can be worst than a father or mother who allows his or her child to walk over the edge of the lake of fire?


Let us learn to give our children what they need, not what they want. Surely, we will not allow our children to play with fire or with a knife. We know that these will endanger their lives. Why then, do we allow them to trifle with sin, which is far, far more dangerous for them?


Failure of parents to discipline their children is a form of child-abuse. At one end of the spectrum, we have those who abuse their children physically by unreasonable force and beatings. On the other end, it is those who over indulge their children and spoil them. The biblical balance is discipline according to the Word of God.


In the second place, moreover, an ill-disciplined or self-willed child can be a source of much frustration and heartache in the home. Again Solomon reminds us: “Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul” (Prov 29:17).


Without discipline, you are likely to have a disorderly, unhappy family, full of quarrels and fighting, and wickedness and rebellion against God. Let the failure of Eli to appropriately discipline his sons Hophni and Phinehas, and God’s subsequent punishment upon them, be a warning to us (1 Sam 2:12–25; 2:29; 3:13).


When?


The word translated “betimes” (Heb. shachar) in our text means “seek early” (or originally “look for dawn”). The same word is used in Proverbs 8:17, “I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me.” Apart from helping us to understand the meaning of the word “betimes,” this verse also gives us an indication on why beginning to discipline early is very important. “Those that seek me early shall find me” (Prov 8:17b). This suggests to us that many of those who come to know the Lord in their lives, began to seek the Lord early. This observation has been shown to be true statistically, but we need no statistics to teach us, for here in the Word of God, we are told that it is generally the case.


Another verse in Proverbs puts it this way: “Chasten thy son while there is hope, and let not thy soul spare for his crying” (Prov 19:18). If you want to mould a lump of clay into a beautiful shape, do not wait till it is dried up, for then it would be late. Try moulding when the clay is half dried, and it is likely to crack up. Try moulding it when it is completely dried and hardened, and it would be impossible.


On the other hand, if you begin early, your child will very likely develop a godly character, which he will maintain for the rest of his life. Solomon says: “Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov 22:6).


How early? As early as possible. Indeed, we should begin as soon as our children are cognisant of our approval or displeasure, whether by facial expression or tone of voice. A baby of six months or so, for example, can be trained not to wriggle while his diapers are being changed. This can be achieved with a firm “stop moving!” followed by a gentle but sharp slap on the buttocks if the baby persists to struggle. How this works, I am not exactly sure, but I believe many mothers (and fathers) will testify that it works. But later when the child is a little older (say as a toddler), then chastisement should only be carried out when you can be sure that he understands your instructions or prohibitions and yet wilfully disobeys. Initially, it will probably be difficult to ascertain if your child understands your instructions, but after a while, I think it will become very clear.


How long must you continue to discipline? We are instructed to chastise our children early, which suggests to us that chastisement cannot and need not be carried on without ceasing. I believe J. Richard Fugate is right when he says:

Chastisement will be required often during the “child” stage of development until the child becomes obedient. This should normally occur between eight and twelve years of age. From then on it should only be necessary to chastise a teenager occasionally when he tries to re-exert his own will against set standards (What the Bible Says about Child Training [Aletheia Publishers, 1980], 147).


How?


The rod (Heb. shebet), proposed in our text and elsewhere (Prov 22:15; 23:13–14), can refer to a stick or a cane. I believe the cane is perhaps the most effective instrument for discipline. The cane, when used on the buttocks (Prov 10:13; 19:29; 26:3), is far less likely to cause injury than using the bare hands; and moreover, it serves as a symbol of authority vested by God to chastise. In this regard, it is instructive to note that the word translated “rod” is used to refer to the “sceptre” in Genesis 49:10.


I am sure that some otherwise very biblical Christians will probably cringe in horror that I advocate the use of the cane. They will denounce the use of the cane as barbaric or uncivilised. But I make no apology, for it is not only time-tested but biblical. We may argue all we want that the instructions in the book of Proverbs need not be taken as commands, but even if we take the instructions in Proverbs to be mere guidelines, any opposition against the use of the rod, be it from the moral or cultural perspective, would be opposition against the Holy Spirit who inspired the text. Use other methods if you like, but do not oppose or despise the use of the rod.


Now, we would do well to remember that the rod is recommended only for chastisement, not for punishment. Caning is often not appropriate as punishment. An eight-year-old receives a soccer ball for his birthday. In his excitement, he kicks the ball in the living room resulting in a catastrophic destruction of the chandelier as well as the glassware display showcase. Should he be caned? Well, if he has been warned before not to kick a ball in the living room, and he is repeating the offence, it could be indication of a rebellious attitude and a disdain for authority, and so he may need to be chastised with the rod. But if it is the first time he is committing the offence and he is truly penitent about it, I do not think caning is appropriate at all.


Having said this, we must realise that in reality, it is often difficult to distinguish between chastisement and punishment in child training. As such, I would recommend that the rod be used only when there is evidence of disobedience or contempt of authority. Never use the cane when it is an accident (e.g., dropping ice cream on the carpet), or when it is due to lack of ability (e.g., unable to do sums or failing to retain Catechism in memory). The situation will be quite different if you had warned your child not to turn the ice cream upside down and yet he does it and it drops on the carpet. In this case it is rebellion, and chastisement with the rod is in order. What about when the Laws of God are broken? Your child tells a lie. Should you chastise? I believe so, though chastisement with the rod should be used only when you are sure that the child understands that lying is sin and rebelling against God, and yet he does it. What if a child, after doing something in disobedience or failing to do as instructed, realises his fault and comes to you to confess his fault and to seek your forgiveness? He forgets to bring his notebook to church despite reminders, but he comes to you to confess once he discovers it is missing. Should you chastised with the rod? I think not, though an appropriate penalty should be meted out, such as forbidding him to play with his friends for a duration of time.


Chastisement should also be meted out to correct sinful attitudes, such as pride, selfishness, laziness, vindictiveness and callousness. In all cases, however, it is necessary to explain as clearly as possible to the child, the reason for the chastisement, or else the chastisement will provoke the child to resentment rather than repentance.


Chastisement should also not be carried out in a fit of anger, for when you are angry, you would not only be unlikely to explain your actions clearly, but you may end up abusing rather than disciplining your child (cf. Jas 1:20).


The aim of chastisement, we must remember, is acknowledgement of sin and a willingness to submit to parental authority. For this reason, Roy Lessin, in his interesting booklet Spanking: Why When How? (Bethany House Publishers, 1979), pp. 76–78, recommends that you must not stop spanking until you know the child is crying in repentance and not anger. Well, in practice, it is extremely hard to distinguish between a cry of anger and a cry of repentance. And moreover, children are of different disposition so that one child may begin to cry the minute he knows he is going to be chastised whereas another may appear stoic and indifferent outwardly no matter how hard and how much you cane him.


Let each parent therefore prayerfully seek wisdom from the Lord on how much and how hard to spank a particular child, that the child not only appreciates the gravity of his faults, but demonstrates a willingness to submit to his parent’s authority then and in future. But take heed to Paul’s caveat: “Fathers, provoke not your children to wrath” (Eph 6:4a). We may provoke our children to wrath or deep-seated anger by: (1) striking unreasonably, e.g., chastising for accidents; (2) being inconsistent, e.g., showing favouritism; (3) disciplining in anger; (4) allowing the child no room for repentance; and (5) being overtly strict or fastidious.


Finally, I must emphasise that it is important at the end of a session of discipline, to reiterate to your child that he has sinned against God and have your child confess his actions again, and to seek your forgiveness and, if possible, the forgiveness of the Lord in prayer.


Conclusion


Beloved, have you started disciplining your children? If you truly love them, you must begin to do so as soon as possible. “He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes” (Prov 13:24). Discipline will not be pleasant for the child or for the parents, but if it is carried out consistently and meaningfully, it can reap much benefit. What is applicable of the chastisement which our Heavenly Father inflicts on us who are His children is also applicable to our disciplining of the children God has given us: “Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievous: nevertheless afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby” (Heb 12:11; cf. 12:5–8).


JJ Lim