2016-06-30
A year and a half ago, homeschooling mother Susan Lawrence of Arlington, Mass. was shocked to see an advertisement for a child discipline tool called "The Rod" in a Christian homeschooling magazine. She launched a nationwide effort to get the product declared unsafe by the government. Though that effort has not yet come to fruition, the product's manufacturer says that it is no longer being made. Lawrence spoke to Beliefnet about why she believes spanking children is unchristian, what the Bible does--and doesn't--say on the subject.

Why did you decide to homeschool your kids?
I really believe a parent is a child's first teacher. I looked into homeschooling, and found that all the research does point to homeschooled children doing much better academically than both private and public schoolchildren, in general, and also doing better socially. The child gets all this one-on-one attention. Things are geared toward their levels and their interests.

You've said you believe that spanking children is unchristian. Why?
Yes, I do. It's against the Golden Rule, that's the number one rule that Jesus gave us for human relationships. You're supposed to treat other people the way you want to be treated yourself. And of course we don't want to be hit in any way, so we shouldn't hit other people. And of course, children are people. It's obvious that we shouldn't do that to children.

The Rod was advertised in a magazine for homeschoolers. Was it a Christian homeschooling magazine?
It's a very fundamentalist magazine called Home School Digest. [Note: Wisdom's Gate, the publisher of Home School Digest, declined to be interviewed or to confirm whether The Rod is still an advertiser.]

Do you think that homeschooling parents spank more or less than parents who send their children out to school?
The homeschooling scene is very split. About half homeschool for religious reasons, and they are generally fundamentalists. And the other half is like me, I consider myself a mainstream Christian, and I do it for the benefit of the child. I believe in letting the child pursue their interests and have a lot of freedom, and so people in my camp generally are against corporal punishment of children. In the other camp they are generally for it because they take every verse of the Bible, Old Testament, New Testament, everything, literally.

Where does the phrase "spare the rod, spoil the child" come from? Is it biblical?
The phrase "spare the rod, spoil the child" is actually from a burlesque poem from the 1600s by Samuel Butler, and it's actually about sex. The whole phrase goes like this: "Love is a boy by poets styled/Then spare the rod and spoil the child." It's a love poem, well, "love," between a fat man and a widow, and this is hardly a good source for parenting advice.

Why do you think it's referenced as if it's a biblical quote?
There are about five verses in Proverbs that do speak of beating your son with a rod, and also in Proverbs they speak of beating fools on the back, and that kind of thing. There's a lot of punishment in the Old Testament. If you read the whole thing, there are floggings and stonings and all kinds of harsh punishments.

Let's talk about Proverbs 23:13: "Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you beat him with a rod he will not die. Beat him with a rod and you will save him from the grave." How do you interpret that verse?
It's a lie, because children who are beaten with a rod sometimes do die. Between one and two thousand children die every year in this country from corporal punishment. One hundred forty-two thousand are seriously injured from corporal punishment every year in America, according to the Dept. of Health and Human Services and the New England Journal of Medicine. So it can't be taken literally.

Also, Proverbs is ascribed to King Solomon. It's right in the Bible, right in the Book of Kings in the Old Testament, that Solomon displeased God. In the New Testament, Jesus says in chapter 12 of Matthew, that Jesus is greater than Solomon. And I think a lot of fundamentalists just gloss right over that. And also in Matthew, in the transfiguration, God says, "This is my son, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him." God never says listen to Solomon.

Proverbs 23:13 is one of the verses that The Rod ad cited. Do you think they were wrong to cite that verse in marketing this product?
I think they're wrong for marketing the product. They can read the Bible as much as they want, and I encourage people to do so, but marketing a product to beat children [with] is just outrageous. Ninety-nine percent of the people I've told about this are shocked that this is even legal.

The Rod, it seems, is no longer on the market.
Well, that's not certain. The only thing that we have definitely heard is that the maker of The Rod, Mr. Clyde Bullock, has said to Patricia Wen, the reporter at The Boston Globe, that he's thinking of closing down, that maybe it's time to stop, but he hasn't made any clear commitment, and maybe he's just scared, we don't know. [Note: Beliefnet contacted Clyde Bullock, whose company, Slide's Manufacturing Company, makes The Rod. Though he declined to be interviewed, Bullock said that he stopped production of The Rod "several months ago."]

The Globe made it seem like he said that in part because of the pressure of your campaign, but also in part because the cushion grip handle maker had pulled out of the deal.
Over a year ago, I was trying to get the makers of the handle to stop supplying the handles to Slide's to make these whips. [They were] shocked to find out that they were used for that. And they said they wouldn't sell to them anymore from their warehouse. However, they have distributors all over the country, and so I asked them to tell their distributors not to sell to Slide's, and they wouldn't do so.

Are there other devices being sold specifically for disciplining children?
One is called a "spanking stick," that's available for sale to the public. Someone also told me about a man down in Pennsylvania who gives away something he calls "spare rods," these wooden paddles to hit children with. There's something else on the market called the `b-stik' that someone alerted me about. It was $29.95 to give a shock, an electric shock, to a child. And they said, oh, this can work on your pet, too.

Will this be an ongoing effort by you to get some of these products on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission's "dangerous" list?
So many things are up in the air. It would be good if the Consumer Product Safety Commission would recall The Rod, then we could say, 'Hey, look at all these other things, too.' That would be an easy step, but I don't know how much farther I want to go with this. It's been really exhausting, I've been working over a year and a half on this. I will be very gratified if Slide's does indeed make a firm commitment not to advertise and sell The Rod anymore.

What kind of reaction have you gotten from your church [Lutheran] and the larger Christian community?
Very supportive. My Lutheran church and a Unitarian church have been very supportive as well. The United Methodist Church, which is the second-largest denomination in the United States, issued a proclamation in May 2004 against all corporal punishment of children. Churches are really becoming aware that they need to distance themselves from these "whip your kid with a rod" verses and go with what Jesus said instead. Also, all four of the Catholic dioceses in Massachusetts have policies against using any corporal punishment.

You write on your website about what you call "gentle discipline." What specifically do you mean by that?
Refraining from hitting. The word "discipline' comes from the Latin word that means "to teach." It's the same [root] that the word "disciple" comes from, it's the same word, disciplina. And that's what I believe you should do with your children, teach them, guide them, protect them. You are creative, and the main thing is to have really good communication with your child, to understand what might be going on with them. Maybe they're upset about something you didn't even know was going on with them.

Go to the root of the problem and have really good communication, and give your child a lot of attention too. I see so many parents, they just don't pay much attention to their child and the child gets into trouble, and then they get mad at them. I'm like, why weren't you paying attention! All the research points to children being happier, being smarter, being better adjusted, if they aren't corporally punished. Over 100 research studies have shown many ill effects like depression and aggression and lower IQ. And not one study shows any benefit from corporal punishment that you can't get from gentle discipline.

You've identified the Golden Rule, the Beatitudes, and the stories of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan as the best biblical parenting texts. Why?
They're very good models. Jesus says such good things about nonviolence, and having mercy, and forgiving. I think those make the most sense. Jesus did many other teachings, he did a lot of healings. Just kind of looking at his general outlook is very informative too. Being a healer is very important. It's very important to look at the whole Gospels and look at how Jesus was telling us to live, to be considerate, to turn the other cheek. We're not supposed to seek revenge and punish and hurt people. We try to understand them, to forgive them, and give them the benefit of the doubt, not beat them up.

Do you feel your work with "The Rod" has put you squarely into the middle of the culture wars?
Yes! I'm just so amazed at the feelings this brings up in people.

Some people are going, yay, good for you, Sue, and almost everyone is appalled that people are making money off of selling this whip to beat kids. But the larger issue of hitting children in general just seems to bring up a lot of emotions. And mostly what it seems to come down to is how people were raised themselves.

You have two camps. Some people are realizing that it did affect their lives negatively. Then there are other people who say this happened to me, and I think it should happen to my kids, too. It's a very determining factor, how people were treated as children themselves.


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