When it comes to raising children, the subject of discipline will probably never get old. It has been discussed since the ancient times and continues to be a hot topic today: in fact, a brief search on Amazon yields over 40,000 books on the subject of “child discipline” alone! Clearly, there is a desire among parents to understand how to discipline their youngsters in such a way as to maximize their child’s well-being and to minimize the frustrations and turmoil that can occur in the home as a result of an undisciplined or rebellious child. As the number of books would suggest, there are a great many opinions out there about the best way to discipline one’s children. God, through the sages of Proverbs, also has a few things to say about the subject of raising and disciplining children. An examination of the wisdom of the sages found in presents a portrait of discipline that is consistent with the findings of modern research on effective models of discipline, and therefore remains relevant for parents and communities today.
The Sages’ Model of Discipline
Each culture uses different expressions to communicate their perceptions about the world, and the sages were no different. Central to the sages’ thinking about discipline is the “path” metaphor. The sages use this metaphor as a way of speaking about a person’s “pattern of behavior” or “approach to life.” They describe two main paths that a person can take: the path of life or the path of death. Certain types of people typically traverse one path or the other: “the wise and just take the path of life, while the wicked, foolish, and lazy tread the way of death.” A person’s behavior places them on one path or another, with the result of either untimely death or life.
The sages believed that children are naturally inclined towards folly, and consequently, towards the path of death. They assert that “folly is bound up in the heart of a boy.” The classic verse, Proverbs 22:6, also supports this understanding of human nature: “Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.” Though this verse has often been understood to mean that; “If you raise your child correctly, you are guaranteed to get good results,” a number of commentators are arguing otherwise. One reason for this is that they assert that “in the right way” (NRSV) is better translated as “according to his way.” When rendered in this way, the proverb might be paraphrased as “Let a boy do what he wants and he’ll grow up to be a self-willed adult incapable of change!” Or, as Douglas K. Stuart puts it: “Here’s the bad result that may happen if you don’t give a child proper parental guidance, but let him do what he wants.” The sages clearly believed that children are not inherently wise, and, left to their own devices, will stray toward the path of death.
But, as the second half of the Proverbs 22:15 demonstrates, the sages also believed that this inclination towards folly was reversible through discipline: “but the rod of discipline drives it [folly] far away.” Proverbs 19:18a also enforces this idea: “Discipline your children while there is hope.” Michael Fox argues that translating “’while there is hope’ [Toy, NRSV, and many others] is contrary to the syntax of 19:18,” and claims that “there is always hope he will improve.” However, Christine Yoder points out that depending on how the particle kî in the first line is translated, this phrase could mean “because there is hope” or “while there is hope.” Either way it is read, however, the idea here is that there is potential to change a child’s behavior through discipline, though the latter implies that there is a limited window of opportunity for effective correction.
Since they believed that without correction children naturally incline towards foolishness, the sages understood corrective discipline as an act of love. Proverbs 13:24 demonstrates this powerfully: “Those who spare the rod hate their children, but those who love them are diligent to discipline them.” Its strength is found in its application of the concepts of “love” and “hate” to discipline. Ordinarily, a permissive parent wouldn’t consider their neglect of discipline to be in any way “hateful”; perhaps, it would even be considered beneficial for the child. But according to the worldview of the sages, poor or non-existent discipline is tantamount to hate because a child’s unaddressed tendency toward sin will lead them to an untimely death. Thus they emphasize that loving parents are actually those who “diligently seek” to discipline their children, using a word for “diligent” that refers to an eager seeking, sometimes associated with the search for wisdom, the good, and even God.
Contrary to the popular but generic saying, “Spare the rod, spoil the child,” the attentive application of discipline in Proverbs is not a “one-size-fits-all” model and its execution requires wisdom. A cursory reading of Proverbs 10:1-22:16 reveals that discipline is to be carried out through rebuke and corporal punishment, though more detailed studies reveal the complexity of the issue. For example, Paul D. Wegner identifies “multiple layers of discipline” in the book of Proverbs, which range from more gentle to more severe. He notes that
the Hebrew word מוּסָֽר mûsār, commonly translated as “discipline” in the OT has a wide range of meanings that suggests various levels of discipline, including on the one end of the spectrum, “teaching or instruction” (Prov 1:2, 3, 7; 4:13), then progressing to “exhortation or warning” (Ezek 5:15; Job 20:3), and climaxing with “discipline or chastening” (Prov 13:24; 22:15; 23:13).
He then identifies several types of discipline available to parents, including: encouragement of proper behavior, proactive warnings of improper behavior and the consequences of sin, gentle exhortations and rebukes for sin, and corporal punishment that does not cause physical harm. This diverse “disciplinary toolkit” available to parents requires wisdom to apply properly, because each child and each disciplinary situation is unique: Proverbs reminds readers that one does not respond to a foolish child in the same way that one would respond to a wise one.
Though the sages acknowledged that parents are responsible for disciplining their children, they also recognized that discipline is a two-way street: the child must respond appropriately to the parent’s correction in order for the discipline to have its intended life-giving effect. According to the sages, “love” is the appropriate response to discipline. A love of discipline is marked by willingness to heed correction and attentiveness to counsel. A hatred of discipline on the other hand, is characterized by a refusal to listen to instruction and a tendency to reject reproof. Proverbs labels those who “hate” reproof as straying “fools,” but those who “love” discipline as “sensible” and “wise.” A child’s love of discipline will place them on the path of life, but a hatred of correction will lead to their death.
Modern Research on Parenting and Discipline
There have been numerous studies conducted in order to discover the best disciplinary practices for children and to protect them from harmful discipline. These studies have yielded conflicting results. Much of the debate in these studies revolves around whether or not one should rely on reasoning or punishment, and if corporal punishment is effective and appropriate. In response to this debates, Wegner cites Robert E. Larzelere, who after examining the conclusions of recent research, points out some of its flaws:
This strange situation is reflected in research questions and methods, which often assume the correctness of the author’s implicit beliefs. For example, few studies investigate the differences between effective and counterproductive used of a particular disciplinary tactic, whether reasoning or punishment. Instead, the preferred disciplinary tactic is assumed to be invariably effective and the other one invariably ineffective, regardless how either one is used.
Wegner quotes the summary of a recent paper by Lazelere which promotes Lazelere’s understanding of optimal discipline as a sequence in which discipline begins with “less severe tactics, such as reasoning” which proceeds to “firmer disciplinary tactics when the initial tactics achieve neither compliance nor acceptable compromise.” He advocates an initial use of nonphysical punishment with “nonabusive physical punishment reserved as a back-up for the nonphysical punishment.” These conclusions, he asserts, are “consistent with many studies showing that a combination of reasoning and punishment is more effective than either one alone and with new evidence that this sequence enhances the effectiveness of milder disciplinary tactics with preschoolers.”
Wegner also cites the work of Diana Baumrind, a researcher of human development, who is well-known for her studies on different parental styles of child care and discipline and their impact a child’s behavior. In her research, she identified three styles of parenting which each yielded different results on a child’s behavior: authoritarian, permissive, and authoritative. These styles are summarized below:
Authoritarian parents are controlling, rigid, and cold. They are strict and demand unquestioning obedience from their children…Permissive parents provide lax and inconsistent feedback to their children. They typically are less involved in their children’s lives than other parents. Such parents also may place few limits on their children’s behaviors. The authoritative parents are firm, setting clear limits on their children’s behaviors. Although they seem to be somewhat strict, unlike authoritarian parents, these authoritative people allow interaction and dialogue with their children. Explanations are given for consequences, and compromise or negotiation can occur over some issues.
Baumrind’s study demonstrated that children of authoritative parents, those who communicated well with their children and were “notably firm, loving, demanding, and understanding,” produced the most “competent and mature boys and girls.” These children were well-adjusted regardless of whether or not they had been they had been spanked as preschoolers.
The findings of Lazelere and Baumrind as complied by Wegner demonstrate that the wisdom of the sages is consistent with modern research. Wegner summarizes this well: The evidence from Proverbs and recent psychological studies demonstrates that “the area of discipline entails a comprehensive structure of multiple layers that should be framed in a loving, structured family relationship.” Thus it appears that even though the wisdom of the sages was compiled and recorded thousands of years ago, it still has the power and authority to speak to modern families today.
The model of discipline presented in the book of Proverbs has the potential to offer hope and change the world, one life and one family at a time. Its wisdom has the power to impact the lives of parents by providing them with a diverse “disciplinary toolkit” to navigate the difficult waters of child-rearing. This in turn has the potential to decrease parental abuse of children, who would be less likely to suffer harm from frustrated or ill-equipped parents. If more children were to grow up to be healthy, moral adults it would positively impact the trajectory of their communities and future families, ultimately offering hope to individuals, families, and the world. Finally, Proverbs offers hope to parents by teaching them that even though they are responsible for diligently disciplining their children, the outcome of their labors is not solely based on their efforts alone: their children must continually make the right choice to choose the path of life.
Baumrind, Diana. “Selection 22: Child Care Practices Anteceding Three Patterns of Preschool Behavior.” Human Development Faculty Intranet. Accessed December 9, 2015. http://www.cla.csulb.edu/departments/hdev/facultyinfo/index.html.
Clifford, Richard J. Proverbs: A Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1999.
Firmin, Michael W., and Sally L. Castle. “Early Childhood Discipline: A Review of the Literature.” Journal of Research on Christian Education 17, no. 1 (March 2008): 107. Advanced Placement Source, EBSCOhost (accessed December 8, 2015).
Fox, Michael V. Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009.
Naselli, Andrew David. “Training children for their good.” The Journal Of Discipleship & Family Ministry 3, no. 2 (2013 2013): 48-64. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 8, 2015).
Stuart, Douglas K. “‘The cool of the day’ (Gen 3:8) and ‘the way he should go’ (Prov 22:6).” Bibliotheca Sacra 171, no. 683 (July 2014): 259-273. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 7, 2015).
Wegner, Paul D. “Discipline in the book of Proverbs: ‘to spank or not to spank?’.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 48, no. 4 (December 2005): 715-732. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 7, 2015)
Yoder, Christine E. Proverbs. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2009
 Christine E. Yoder, Proverbs, p 29;  Prov 10:17; 12:28; 14:12; 15:24;  Yoder, Proverbs, p 29;  Prov 5:23; 22:15;  Prov 22:15a;  Prov 22:6;  Douglas K. Stuart, “‘The cool of the day’ (Gen 3:8) and ‘the way he should go’ (Prov 22:6)”, p 270-271; Richard J. Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary, 1999, p 196;  Stuart, “‘The cool of the day’ (Gen 3:8) and ‘the way he should go’ (Prov 22:6)”, p 270;  Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary, 1999, p 196;  Stuart, “‘The cool of the day’ (Gen 3:8) and ‘the way he should go’ (Prov 22:6)”, p 271;  Clifford, Proverbs: A Commentary, 1999, p 198;  Prov 22:15b;  Michael V. Fox, Proverbs 10-31: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, p 656;  Yoder, Proverbs, p 224-225;  Prov 19:18b;  Prov 13:24;  Yoder, Proverbs, p 156; Prov 1:28; 8:17; 11:27; Job 8:5; Ps 78:34; Hos 5:15; Prov 10:13; 15:32;  Paul D. Wegner, “Discipline in the book of Proverbs: ‘to spank or not to spank?'”, p 720;  Ibid, p 719;  Ibid, p 720-723;  Prov 17:10; Prov 10:17; 15:5; 19:8, 20;  Prov 12:1; 13:1, 18; 15:10, 32; 19:20;  Prov 10:17; 12:1; 15:5; 19:20;  Wegner, “Discipline in the book of Proverbs: ‘to spank or not to spank?'”, p 730-731;  Ibid, p 729;  Wegner, “Discipline in the book of Proverbs: ‘to spank or not to spank?'”, p 729;  Ibid, p 729;  Diana Baumrind, “Selection 22: Child Care Practices Anteceding Three Patterns of Preschool Behavior”, p 132;  Michael W. Firmin and Sally L. Castle, “Early Childhood Discipline: A Review of the Literature”, p 119;  Firmin and Castle, “Early Childhood Discipline: A Review of the Literature”, p 119;  Diana Baumrind, “Selection 22: Child Care Practices Anteceding Three Patterns of Preschool Behavior”, p 132;  Wegner, “Discipline in the book of Proverbs: ‘to spank or not to spank?'”, p 731;  Ibid, p 731.