"He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes." Proverbs 13:24
Now that I have small children, and in particular male children, I have been quoted this passage more than once as a sort of pre-emptory strike by well-meaning persons who wish to ensure that I keep my boys in line using physical punishment. What they fail to see is that the passage is clearly not to be taken literally.
"The rod" is not a specific object. There is not a "rule of thumb" regarding the precise thickness and nature of the rod to be applied. Rather, it is metaphorical.
Proverbs 22:15: “Foolishness is bound in the heart of the child, but the rod of discipline will drive it far from him.”
Lamentations 3:1: “I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.”
"The rod" is metaphorical while "a rod" is more concrete. Psalm 2:9: "Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." Exodus 21:20: "And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod, and he die under his hand; he shall be surely punished." Because the passage specifically references "the rod," rather than "a rod," and then goes on to discuss it in terms of general withholding of discipline, it is clear from the passage itself that "the rod" is simply a metaphor for parental discipline of any type.
What puzzles me is the archaic insistence that this metaphorical rod must only represent physical or corporal punishment, and that spanking is an essential element of God's plan for children. "Oh no," they say, "it doesn't have to be an actual stick. It should be your hand. Or a piece of flexible tubing. Not something that breaks bones, of course. And never in anger. But you HAVE to spank." Okay, if you acknowledge that "the rod" is not necessarily an actual rod, why must it be physical?
Take, for example, Psalm 23, in which the Psalmist states "Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me." Psalm 23:4. Many agree that the rod referred to is a stick used by the shepard to literally knock the sheep back into line when they start to stray. But they are also capable of seeing that God does not have big stick that literally descends from the sky to whack us upside the head whenever we stray from God's path. Instead, they look at the negative consequences of our actions as punishments from God sent to keep us in line. This is my precise point. If God is perfectly capable of using that natural consequences of our acts as a disiplinary tool, and you grant that this is the correct interpretation of "the rod" in Psalm 23, why do you therefore insist that the sole and only correct interpretation of "the rod" in Proverbs is a physical/corporal beating?
I intend to discipline my children. That will not, however, include any form of formal or informal hitting, kicking, or pulling hair. Rather, I will allow the natural consequences of their actions be their teacher. No, I'm not going the extreme of letting them get hit by a car to teach them not to run out into the street. But they will be carried to the door for the foreseeable future until I can trust them to walk beside me. This is acting as much like God as possible. God does not throw huge, literal sticks at us. He simply does not protect us from the consequences of what we do. Have an affair, your marriage will suffer. Stay up all night, and you will be tired. That's the kind of rod being discussed in this passage. I do not need to spank to give my children the Biblical correction they need.
Indeed, physical punishment is often counter-productive in teaching. If spanking has any deterrent effect whatsoever, it's to teach kids "I had better not get caught." That's a far different lesson from "I'd better not do that," and light years away from a understanding of WHY one action is right and the other is wrong. The entire point of parenting is to produce a balanced, functioning adult. I do nothing to advance that goal if I don't teach the child not only how to act but why to act that way. Natural consequences parenting has that lesson built-in. If my child misses a deadline for a homework assignment, I will not be calling the school to beg for an extension. If my child gets booted from a team merely for hanging around with someone who is doing something wrong, I'm not going to argue for reinstatement. If they stay up all night, they'll still go to school. If they wreck their favorite toy, I'm not buying a new one.
I feel it is very important that people within the church push back against these pressures to conform to what is being called the Christian view on corporal punishment. Certain segments, denominations, or congregations are co-opting the word of God to fit their own world view and attempting to impose them as the sole and superior Biblical interpretation. This is wrong. It hurts kids. Because of this particular passage, children are abused or dying each and every day. Even well-meaning Christians, like those I am acquainted with, don't take the time to really think through or research the references, and thus lend support and credence to the teachings which child abusers use to justify their actions.
I was appalled to read of one book (the plastic tubing reference above) in which it was advocated that children as young as six months be struck with the tubing to "teach" them not to go off a blanket. The idea being that this training forms the foundation of an unquestioned obedience to parental guidance. I submit that this obedience is unquestioned because it is not subject to higher reasoning or even an ability to think the matter through. It is instinctive, this cringing away from pain by a being too young to know how it's hands and legs are supposed to work. That is definitive of the concept of cruelty.