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Spare rod, but not the iron one
By Orson Scott Card September 30, 2010

"Spare the rod and spoil the child" was the old adage, drawn from the book of Proverbs. Some have taken it literally, as divine sanction for beating children with sticks.

Slightly modernized, here's what the proverb actually says: "He that spares his rod hates his son: but he that loves him chastens him betimes" (Prov. 13:24).

The point is not that children need beating, but rather that they need their parents -- their fathers in particular -- to let them know what is and is not permissible.

This is a grave responsibility of all people, to civilize their children. It's good that we have tossed the "rod" of brutality away -- but too many have tossed out the "chastening" as well.

I can imagine a modern, gentle, nonviolent parent crying out in a wheedling tone to a three-year-old running straight toward a busy street, "Cyril, you have to stop! You're heading for a really long time-out, Mister!"

Beating children was officially intended to teach them to avoid future misbehavior in order to avoid the beatings. In fact, however, beatings (or spankings) were too often used by parents in the grip of strong emotion: Fear at accidents barely avoided or rage at the child's seeming defiance.

The whole concept of punishment isn't really helpful in training children, and parents must never raise a hand against their children in order to vent their own emotions.

There really are times when parents need to use their vastly superior size and strength to coerce their children and make them behave contrary to their momentary desires.

Why? Because children are dumb, that's why, and it's the parents' job to keep them alive long enough to get smarter.

The goal, however, is not to punish or even to instill fear. That only teaches children to obey while their parents are watching, and to lie in order to evade punishment.

Physical coercion (not infliction of pain) is a vital tool parents must sometimes use to teach their little children the skills they need in order to become civilized and responsible sons and daughters of God.

1. Impulse control -- the habit of pausing long enough to think of many possible consequences besides the intended one.

2. Resistance to temptation -- internalizing rules well enough to obey them even when a coercive adult is not watching.

3. Delay of gratification -- the ability to defer gratification of a desire until a more appropriate time.

These are transferable skills -- learn them in one context, and they are available to use in another.

So yes, you scoop up the child who is running toward the street. But you also explain -- even as the child wriggles and protests -- why you are doing it. "Look at the cars, Cyril. You were heading right toward them. What do you think will happen if a car hits you?"

It's often surprising how young they are when they begin to understand. But they can't understand a rule if you don't explain it to them; and often you can't explain it unless you are willing to physically compel them to hold still and listen.

Even in their rage at being shown how helpless they are in the face of your strength, they learn several things:

1. You're not afraid of their anger; nor can their anger make you angry.

2. There are things you will not let them do. Period.

3. There was a reason why you acted as you did, and it was for their good.

4. If they stop themselves from acting badly, you don't have to stop them.

When our kids were little, we had some rules about behavior while shopping.

For instance: "You can ask for anything -- once," I explained. "If we say no, however, you may not ask a second time, or argue, or wheedle, or whine, or act angry. If you do, you will never get that thing as long as you live. Even when you're grown up and have a job and a house of your own and money of your own, I will go to your house and find that thing and take it away."

By then they were giggling and saying, "No you won't, Daddy," and I would say, "Yes I most certainly will." They laughed, but they got the message.

So when, in a store, they had asked and been told no, if they started to argue or whine or pout, their mother or I would raise a finger and say, "Do you want to never have it as long as you live?" And ... they would stop.

Later, at home, we could discuss why the answer had been no. (It often had to do with the fact that we couldn't afford it, or that it was cheap junk, not worth any price.)

However, we could also be persuaded that the desire was a legitimate one. Thus they learned that if they waited till later and talked with us reasonably, they might get what they wanted -- or at least understand better why they couldn't.

I didn't even have to make a list of things to burglarize their homes for later.

Our children didn't stop wanting things we had said no to. But they learned the boundaries. They learned that we cared what they did. They learned to wait and have the discussion later. They learned that shopping trips were more fun with no whining.

Another rule was "Stay right with us even when we're doing something boring like paying for something. If you don't stay with us, we have to hold your hands very firmly. And if you fight the hand-holding, the shopping trip is over for you."

The result? A few interrupted shopping trips as we went home early; a few other shopping trips where one parent stood leaning against a boring wall holding the hand of a frustrated child who was learning that there are things even more boring than watching parents pay for things.

By age three or four, our children would watch other parents give in to their whining children, or drag screaming brats along the floor because they refused to walk, and they would ask us, "Why do they act that way?"

Our answer was, "No one taught them how to be civilized when they were little."

And when, as they neared age 16, they would see some of their LDS friends' parents let them date too young. But our children didn't even ask.

They already had the skills they needed: They obeyed the rules themselves, because they understood and agreed with them. They knew how to wait for a good thing to begin at the right time.

Toss out "spare the rod" and replace that saying with a new one: "When you try to bend the iron rod, you bruise the child."

Copyright © 2010 by Orson Scott Card

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