Almost two decades ago I wrote the first book from a Christian/Biblical perspective that addressed the subject of child rearing and discipline while arguing that the Biblical text does *not* teach spanking. I am so thrilled to see that the position is no longer one of minority. The verses have been tackled by others since me and, as I argued, the “doctrine of sparking” does not hold up to Biblical scholarship. It certainly doesn’t hold up in research or studies into the effects done by other disciplines. Children do not gain any benefit from spanking – and parents are not doing God’s bidding when they spank their children! This is a Christian myth – one that has persisted for far too long.
I was thrilled to read this review of Ted Tripp’s book today from my friend Matthew Copeland. Matthew is an educator who uses a specialized phonics based multi-sensory program, The Wilson Reading System, to teach reading skills to all grade levels of students who struggle with dyslexia and other reading problems. He wanted to write this review but didn’t want to spend money on the book to do it. A friend sent him an old copy and he wrote something amazing. I’m honored he is allowing us to share it here.
Tedd Tripp’s childrearing epic is insidious, as the title and the introduction evoke an image of parents being like shepherds gently guiding their sheep, using the curved end of the rod/staff to pull wandering sheep in the right direction, rescuing a sheep stuck on a cliff or down in a pit, using the rod/staff to fight off attacks from wolves who want to destroy the sheep. This is an inspiring metaphor for parenting, which is likely to draw parents or prospective parents into the text. Unfortunately, Tripp’s ambitious parenting guide, which proports to train parents to address the heart issues behind childhood misbehavior, fails in its ambition by offering a mess of contradictions, and an alarming theology where parental use of a literal rod to hit children usurps Jesus’ sacrificial love and grace as the means for restoring hearts and saving souls.
Tripp believes that when children misbehave, they are rebelling against God. There is a circle of protection, and when children are obeying their parents they are in a right relationship with God and are promised rewards of blessing and long life while in the circle. Outside of the circle, a child is at risk of spiritual and physical death. Tripp uses a few verses in Proverbs to conclude that the only “godly” way parents can return their children to the circle of safety is a spanking ritual where the parents communicate with the child until the child confesses the heart issue that caused them to sin; the parent tells the child how many times they will be hit; the child’s drawers are removed so that their bottom is either completely bared or only covered by their underpants; the child is bent across the parent’s lap (Tedd stresses that it must be across the lap, because it stresses the intimacy of the physical relationship between parent and child, which sounds kind of gross.); the child is hit repeatedly (Ted describes using a paddle with his children); when the hitting is over the parent should tell the child they are loved; if the child is still angry about being hit, then the whole ritual should be repeated; the parent should then pray with the child and share the gospel: “when the wax is soft during discipline, the time is right to impress the glories of Christ’s redemption (150).”
It should be noted that there are no relevant scriptural references to defend the ritual described above. In spite of this, Tripp insists that this ritual is the only way to open a child’s heart up to obedience and to the gospel, because the only way your words will, “have weight with a young child,” is if they are combined with the painful “tactile experience” Tripp describes (150). In fact, the scriptures that Tedd uses to defend hitting children are primarily from Proverbs, which is a book of highly figurative wisdom literature written for teenagers and young adults. How do we know it was written for this age group, because in Proverbs the Hebrew word that is translated as child in our English translation is na’ar. In the ancient Hebrew culture a na’ar referred to a child between the ages of 12 and 19. We also know the audience is for this age group, because a majority of Proverbs revolves around subject matter, like sexual immorality, that would only apply to that age group. Tedd describes beginning to hit children as young as 8 months old (152); he says as soon as they are old enough to resist you they are old enough to be hit (he even defines a child struggling during a diaper change as disobedience) (151-152). The problem with this is that the Hebrew terms for the age groups that Tedd encourages hitting are: yeled = infant, yonek = 2 year old, olel = 3 year old, gamul = 3/4 year old, taph = 5/6 year old, elem = 5 to ten years old. But, Proverbs doesn’t say to discipline a yeled, yonek, olel, gamul, taph, or elem with a rod; all verses refer to a na’ar. Tedd states that hitting should probably stop when a child is 12, yet if one takes the rod as being literally for hitting, then Proverbs says it shouldn’t start until the child is 12.
However, the rod that Tripp worships for its ability to change hearts and bring salvation, is most likely not literal. Wisdom literature is characterized by highly figurative language, which is why you shouldn’t take the hyperbole of Proverbs 23:2, “put a knife to your throat if you are given to gluttony,” as a literal command for you to slit your throat to avoid overeating. The Hebrew word for the rod described in Proverbs is shebet, and it refers to a shepherd’s staff, or a king’s scepter, and sometimes the word of God. In all these instances it symbolizes guidance and authority. Like I mentioned in the introduction to this review, a shepherd used his shebet/staff to prod or gently pull a wandering sheep in the right direction, to pull a sheep from a ditch or cliff, to beat attacking wolves. The shepherd did not beat the sheep with the staff, otherwise the frightened sheep would run away and would not follow the shepherd. The shebet could also be a king’s scepter, which is also a symbol of authority. If the king’s scepter was extended to you you would be welcomed into his presence; having the rod/scepter withheld meant a person was not welcome in their presence. If one follows this interpretation of the Hebrew text, then the Proverbs rod verses that Tripp mentions can be interpreted in the following ways:
1. “Whoever spares the rod (authority/Word Of God) hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them (Proverbs 13:24 NIV).”
If sparing the rod is used in the context of the king’s scepter, then this verse could be interpreted as saying that just as a king extends the scepter to welcome people into his presence, a parent should not spare welcoming their children into their presence so that they can be taught, guided and corrected.
2. “Foolishness is bound up in the heart of a child; The rod (authority/Word Of God) of discipline will remove it far from him (Proverbs 23:15).”
3. “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 (Sheol) (Proverbs 23:13)
People often think this verse refers to a literal beating with a literal rod, but the word beat can have different meanings. The sun can beat down on the earth, and in that context it means that the sun is a constant presence. Beat can mean a constant presence, or something repetitive. Being beat with authority could mean that the use of authority to teach your children should be a constant presence, and that such lessons should be repeated as much as needed when failures occur. If this verse were to be taken as a literal command to beat a child with a shebet, then this verse would be a lie, because beating a child with a shepherd staff, or a king’s scepter could definitely kill them. I have a friend (Samuel Martin) who is a biblical scholar who lives in Israel, and he posted pictures of a shebet in one of his blogs, and it is not just a stick, it is a thick staff of wood.
If this verse were literal, it would also be a lie, because it makes the argument that beating a child with a rod could save them from death and hell, but that is not true. If the rod is the Word Of God, then that could definitely save person from death. If the rod is a king’s scepter, and the king is Jesus, then the authority of Jesus could save someone’s soul. Literally beating people doesn’t result in salvation or open their heart to accept salvation as Tedd suggests.
4. “The rod (authority/Word Of God) Of correction imparts wisdom, but a child left to himself disgraces his mother. Discipline your son and he will give you peace; he will bring delight to your soul (Proverbs 29:15,17).”
Ironically, Tedd believes his literal interpretation of a rod is Godly and that all other methods of discipline are unbiblical, because they are based on external behaviorism. The irony is the fact that even though Tripp is using a painful external stimulus to associate acts of disobedience and sin with pain, he seems to think he is not a behaviorist, because he is hitting his children out of “obedience to God,” and because he communicates to his children that their sin has forced him to obey this command. Tedd quotes Hebrews 12:11, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it,” to justify hitting, but he assumes that the pain being described is the external pain of being hit. Discipline is naturally painful, but it is an internal pain. It is the pain of not having your every selfish whim fulfilled. It is the pain of experiencing natural consequences of poor decisions. It could even be the growing pains of maturity. Furthermore, Tedd believes that his method of hitting children is different than “unbiblical” methods of correction, because the hitting is corrective rather than punitive. Yet, when Tedd describes the detailed process for “correctly” hitting a child in Chapter 15, he refers to his method as physical punishment on several occasions, which betrays the truth behind Tedd’s lie that the hitting is not a punishment.
According to Tripp, the “unbiblical” methods of disciplining children include, rewarding good behavior (because the child’s idols are the motivation rather than a change in heart), taking away privileges (for the same reason as the rewards), emotionalism, time-out, yelling, grounding, and ironically hitting.
Tedd is against rewarding children, because he sees it as a form of bribery which appeals to a child’s idols. He states that this method only encourages children to behave when their parents are around to notice the behavior. First of all, Tedd is a bit heavy handed when it comes to this idolatry argument. Secondly, the simple solution to this dilemma is to randomize the rewards system so that a child can never expect when they will receive a reward. My elementary school had these, “I caught you being good,” stickers, and you never knew when you might get one. Wherever you were, there were always teachers and administrators watching who could potentially report your positive behavior. The effect was that children strove to make an effort to be good, and at the end of the day it was usually a complete surprise when you found a sticker on your desk that said, “I caught you being kind to someone who was upset,” “I caught you making the new student feel welcome” etc…Eventually, a child learns to see the inherent goodness and value of being good, whether they receive a physical reward or not. Rewards are also beneficial for encouraging students who have difficulty with a specific task and need training to develop the resolve to work through such difficulties. I am trained in a program that helps dyslexic students learn the skills they need to read more fluently, and these students can easily become frustrated. However, knowing they will receive candy from the learning games we play, and sometimes prizes, helps keep them motivated until they develop an intrinsic satisfaction from the task. When the student gets to this point, they do not need the prizes any longer, and they usually do not ask for them. Also, Tedd states that obedience puts children in a circle of protection where they are promised blessings and long life; is this not an appeal to rewards to encourage obedience?
Tedd is also against what he calls emotionalism. To explain emotionalism, he describes an event he witnessed in an airport where a young girl was behaving badly. The mother became angry and said, “I am sick of you. I hate you. Go away. Find someone else to yell at. I don’t want you. I can’t stand you. Get out of my sight (58)!” The mother then picked up her things and moved away from her daughter, and the daughter, afraid of being left in the airport, began frantically apologizing and crying. While I agree that this example is destructive, because you should never withhold love as a form of correction, I think Tedd is wrong when he concludes that there are no instances of emotionalism that can be effective when training the heart. Emotionalism can teach empathy and compassion. A child can learn that the way we interact with people can affect their emotions. I remember a time in preschool where I was angry about something and I stamped my feet and told my mom I hated her. My mother responded by telling me I hurt her feelings, and when her words sunk into my conscience, I cried and apologized. Another time I became upset about something and I took a picture I had made for my mom off the refrigerator and ripped it to pieces. When my mom saw the ripped up picture and approached me about it, I could tell she was sad, and this motivated me to grab paper and crayons to create a new picture. I was learning that my actions could either hurt or help people. I don’t see how my examples of emotionalism would be destructive.
Tedd also decries time-out and describes an example that bares more of a resemblance to shunning than time-out: “they place their misbehaving daughter in a chair alone in the living room for a specified amount of time. As long as the child is being punished in the chair, no one in the family may speak to her or have any contact with her. She is isolated from the family which carries on as if she isn’t there (63).” When Ted asks this girl what makes her the most sad, she says, “I am saddest when I am on the chair, and my daddy is home, but he won’t talk to me (63).” Tripp concludes the girl is being trained to avoid misbehavior out of fear of having emotion withheld. While I agree with Tedd’s assessment, I do not remember time-out being carried out in that manner with my mother. It is cruel not to respond to someone and pretend they are not there, and I cannot recall a time where I was in distress during time-out and my mother did not respond to me. I also remember an alternative to time-out that was much more effective; it was a conditional time-out where the child is only in time-out as long as he or she refuses to cooperate and obey. When the child has calmed down, and thought things through, they can tell the parent they are ready to leave time-out and cooperate. When the child is ready to leave time-out, a restorative process can occur where the parent can have a conversation with the child about the issues behind the misbehavior and talk about a plan to avoid the misbehavior. The parent can also help the child make amends.
Tedd’s last critique of “unbiblical” correction focuses on punitive methods, and ironically Tedd mentions hitting as one of these punitive methods, but then one sentence later defends the rod again (64). Ted states that these methods, “attempt to keep the child under control through the negative experience of punishment,” and therefore do not reach the heart issues. Yet, his defense of his interpretation of the rod is supposed to make the reader suspend disbelief and agree that removing a child’s pants and whacking their backside with a piece of wood is positive, and is not punishment, so long as the parent is not angry or frustrated.
Tripp also condemns taking possessions away from a child as a means of punishment that does not address the heart, but what if what is being taken away is a natural consequence of the offense? A frustrated child throws his toys, so the parent puts them away because he is not using them correctly; a child uses her markers to color on the walls, so the markers are put away for a while and mother gives her daughter a rag with some soap and water and helps her with cleaning the markings off the wall; a teenager uses the computer to access inappropriate web sites, so his access is restricted until he can learn to use the internet safely and his parents can trust him again.
Tripp finishes up his complaint against “unbiblical” correction by talking extensively about how grounding is also a punitive means of correction that does not deal with heart issues, because all the parents do is confine the child to their room so they do not have to interact or communicate with the child. Once again, I agree that if this is all the parent does when their child is grounded, then it is rather purposeless. However, I question whether this is always the way grounding works? I do not recall any of the times I was grounded as spending the entire time in my room without having interactions with, or conversations with my mother. If I was grounded, it usually meant I couldn’t watch television for a period of time. Isn’t it possible that during the time where a child is grounded from the television, or some other activity, the parent could be using that time to address the heart issues that caused the misbehavior? Let’s say my crime was telling a lie, and I was grounded from watching television for three days. During the time where I would usually be allowed to watch television, my mother could have me read some stories about characters who needed to tell the truth in difficult situations along with a conversation about the subject matter, maybe she could have me write about why the truth is important, or write a plan for how to work through the fear and anxiety of telling the truth in difficult circumstances.
With all the infinitely creative ways to correct misbehavior and address issues of the heart, it is dumbfounding to think that Ted thinks the only option is whacking a child with a piece of wood while telling them you love them, and that your only doing it that way because an uncreative God wants you to only do it that way.
Speaking of God, how did God respond when Jonah ran away and refused to go to Nineveh; a three day time-out in the belly of a fish until Jonah realized he was wrong and decided to obey. When the prodigal son returned to his father after wasting all of the money that was supposed to be his inheritance, did the corporal punishment occur before the father killed the fatted calf and prepared a feast, or was it administered after the feast? When Adam and Eve sinned, the privilege of living in the Garden of Eden was taken from them, but they were spared immediate death, they were clothed, and they were told that a way was going to be made for them to one day return to the garden (temporary loss of a privilege). After Peter denied Jesus three times, Jesus returns and asks Peter three times if Peter loves him and to feed his sheep, a blatant appeal to emotionalism. When King David committed adultery with Bathsheba and sent her husband into the front lines of battle to die, David was convicted of his sin and was grieved when Nathan told him a story/parable. It looks like God has used unbiblical methods of correction to reach the hearts of his children.
Other areas of contention with this book include the fact that there is not an ounce of reference to child development, educational psychology, or scientific research to back up any of Tedd’s claims. It is simply a collection of his own ideas and bible references. I have no problem with the Bible, but it is not a parenting handbook, history textbook, or science book, and I believe the way one interprets the Bible should be backed up by the science and research that God has revealed to humanity.
Tedd is condescending and arrogant. He makes it seem like he knows everything about child rearing, and has the audacity to say that if you don’t hit your children you do not take God or the Bible seriously.
Some of what he says borders on legalism. He says that he doesn’t think a girl should go to dance classes, because she will learn idolatrous standards of beauty.
Ted Tripp says children who obey parents will be in a circle of protection where they will be blessed and have long life, but how can this be true when I’ve known kind, faithful, and generous people who died young, or who have seemed to suffer misfortune after misfortune throughout their existence? I also know a wicked person who has cheated their children, stolen from their children, assaulted others, manipulated people with emotional and verbal abuse, and happens to be wealthy and still alive even though they have diabetes and are in their late 80’s.