Parenting Beyond Belief: On secular parenting and other natural wonders

finding nemo…belly up


There’ve been three deaths in our immediate family in the past 48 hours. Wait, lemme go downstairs and check.

Okay, four.

Squishy, Squirmy, Stripey, and now–uh, another one–were found one at a time, white-eyed and motionless, in our new aquarium. They were tiger barbs. Now they’re not.

Yes yes, we took all appropriate steps in setting the thing up. I’ve had many aquaria in my life, enough to know precisely why these fish died: They died because fish are dying machines.

I tried to prepare the kids for this before we even walked out the door of Cheap Flushable Pets Warehouse. “I want you to know something,” I said. “Aquarium fish have a habit of dying. Often. And for no apparent reason. I just want you to be ready for that.”

But they were too busy cooing new names to the little terminal creatures through the walls of their plastic-bag ICUs to hear Daddy Cassandra moaning about the future.

“You’ll be my Squishy-wishy!” Erin cooed to her bag. “And you’re Stripey!”

The future arrived the next morning when I switched on the aquarium light and found Squishy stuck to the filter intake.

The girls feet were on the stairs. I panicked, grabbed the net, scooped the sushi, darted into the bathroom.


I emerged nonchalantly. “Morning girls!”

Erin looked at me suspiciously. “Why do you have that?”

I looked down at the net in my hand. “This?” I quickly realized that all possible cover stories for emerging from a bathroom with a dripping net are far worse than the truth. “Sweetie, I’m sorry, but one of your fish died during the night.”

“Which one?” She walked to the tank calmly and peered in. “Oh. Squishy is gone.”

“I’m sorry. Are you okay?”

“Yeah. It’s okay. I still have four.” It was a “5 for $5” deal on tiger barbs.

By the time she returned from school, another fish had swum the tunnel of light — another of her tigers.

By dinnertime, a third. “What the heck!” she said, mostly angry that the Fish Reaper was swinging his filleting scythe so selectively at her herd. Laney’s and Connor’s fish, all non-tigers, were still happily playing Who’s Behind the Bamboo, oblivious to the carnage around them.

“Can I touch it?” she said, staring at the sad little thing.

“Sure you can.” My kids’ ease with such things amazes me. Dead things have always called up a deep terror in me. And I’ve seen plenty: in addition to countless childhood pets, there was my father (aneurysm), grandfather (can’t recall), a restaurant patron (heart), a sheep in Scotland (drowned), and a man on a train platform in Vienna. I’ve always been shaken by the realization that such a thin line exists between life and death — that you are here, and then, often without warning, you are nowhere. The man in Vienna, like me, was preparing to board a train to Munich. Moments before, he probably had quite the same plans as mine. Instead, he cancelled every remaining appointment he had by crumpling to the platform, dead.

I scooped up Stripey and held the net out toward Erin. My nine-year-old self would have…well, he wouldn’t have asked to touch it in the first place. But if somehow he had, nine-year-old Dale would have poked it with one fingertip, then fled to the bathroom to scrub that fingertip raw. To get the death off. I hate dead things.

What I really hate, I think, is the reminder that one day I’ll end up Stuck To The Filter myself.

But Erin didn’t poke it and run. “Oh, Stripey,” she said as she picked it up with two fingers and laid it in her other palm. She stroked its side. “He’s so soft.” Laney joined her. Then Erin walked to the bathroom, said goodbye, and flushed.

I promised we’d pop on over to Aqua Hospice tomorrow. And if she points at another tiger barb, I’ll just reach into the tank, squish it, and hand the guy a buck.

nemo and dory

PBB book event

Planning to be on the third planet from the sun this Sunday? Join me at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta for a talk on parenting without religion and the book Parenting Beyond Belief. Presentation followed by Q&A and book signing. Admission is free!

Sunday, November 4, 2:00-3:30 pm
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Atlanta
1911 Cliff Valley Way N.E., Atlanta GA

waking up


To be awake is to be alive. I have never met a man who was quite awake. How could I have looked him in the face?
from Walden, Henry David Thoreau

I taught Chapter 2 of Walden in a freshman college seminar for years — then stopped teaching it for the last few. The students’ reaction to it depressed me. Eyes would roll, or wince, or slowly close in sleep. Though some were always reached and moved, most spent their time hating his admittedly ornate prose, ferreting out this or that hypocrisy, or answering his insights with a resounding “duh.”

I’d try to point out that worrying about the environment or about the restless expansion of unquiet civilization was far from duh-level obviousness in 1840s America. That these are now a bit more “obvious” is due in large part to cranky visionaries like Thoreau.

(Pfft. Why is it so easy to picture me, whitehaired, palsied, hands folded on a plaid lapblanket in my wheelchair, pathetically refighting old seminars with dim ghosts of eighteen-year-olds now on Medicare?)

I could go on about Thoreau — fired from teaching for refusing to use corporal punishment on his students, later jailed for refusing to support slavery and a particularly stupid war — but all of those flowed from the one thing that most grabbed me about him: he was trying as hard as he could to wake the hell up and to bring us along.

Which brings me to this alarm-clock photo:


It’s two million plastic beverage bottles, the number used in the US every five minutes.



Closer detail:

IMAGES © CHRIS JORDAN. Used by permission.

The unreduced photo, by the way, is 5 feet high and 10 feet across. The impact in the gallery must be incredible.

The photographer is Chris Jordan, whose astonishing work draws attention to the consequences of runaway consumer culture. Take a minute to check out his website, and by all means, share it with the kids. Connor (12) was riveted, appalled, and motivated.

(Many thanks to Leslie’s Blog for introducing me to Chris’s work.)

from stereotype to tribute?

Two posts ago I mentioned that my daughter had chosen to dress as an American Indian for Hallowe’en. I was taken to task by a commenter for failing to think about the issues raised by such a choice.

I immediately saw her point and agreed with it. If my son had said he was dressing up as “a black person,” there’d be no question of allowing it. The fact that I knew Erin was doing it out of admiration (based on excellent recent curricula in her class) is beside the point: dressing up as a representative of an entire ethnic group — let alone an abstract collection of groups under a label like “American Indian” — is the very definition of stereotyping.

But now there’s been a very interesting development. Erin came to me last night, completely unprompted, and said, “I decided I’m not just an Indian anymore. I’m Sacagawea.” She was beaming.

Sacagawea. This seemed to instantly reframe the issue for me. Sacagawea — a historical person of great achievement — is a genuine hero to Erin right now. Whether or not it clears the issue entirely (I somehow doubt that), this does seem to move the gesture in the direction of tribute.

What do you think?

Erin as Sacagawea

meet you @ the forum

roman forum
Recent snapshot of secular parents milling about the PBB Secular Parenting Discussion Forum

Had a nice interview yesterday with a religion news wire service for an upcoming syndicated article on secular parenting — but I think I made it all sound too easy. I described ways we buffer our kids from this and that, how we expose them to this and that, and how the interactions our family has had with religious folks generally involve fewer pitchforks and torches than we often fear.

“So if there are so few problems,” the reporter asked, quite sensibly, “what’s the need for the book?”


I do that sometimes. In an effort to take the temperature down a notch, I undersell the very real challenges. I explained that the biggest problem is at the larger level — community and society — which continues to demonize and marginalize nonbelievers and to consider them, among other things, unworthy to hold office or to have a voice in important ethical issues. But it’s also the case that Becca and I have gotten better at anticipating problems and raising our kids in ways that minimize the turbulence at the everyday level by applying many of the ideas in the book. Grappling with the issues has made us better secular parents, which makes things go better on that everyday level — which can lead to improvements on the larger scale.

Because of PBB, I’m becoming something of a Dear Abby of secular parenting. Every week I get emails asking for advice on this or that. How to help the second grader who is being religiously bullied at school. How to deal with a twelve-year-old boy who’s developing an unmoderated arrogance toward all things religious. How/whether to keep Grandma from evangelizing the kids. Whether/how to celebrate Christmas. Whether to go through with the baptism the relatives want. How to get a five-year-old started on understanding evolution. How a mom can talk to her daughter about death when she’s not all that keen on it herself.

In the beginning I’d type out my thoughts, but in recent months I’ve started referring parents to appropriate threads in the Parenting Beyond Belief Forum. Over 200 secular parents are registered and trading ideas on that board, which now has more than 200 topics and 1200 posts.

Last week I got an email asking how best to handle religious relatives who insist on saying grace when they come to your house. This is one I answered on the Forum a while back. An excerpt of that Forum thread:

HappyDad from California wrote:

Here’s a situation I figure must be common. We have a lot of family in town, all churchgoers except for us, and we get together a lot for family events. When a meal is at our house, we start to tuck in without saying grace, and somebody (usually my sister, knowing exactly what she’s doing) says, in a wounded voice, “Aren’t we going to thank Jesus for this lovely meal?”

After an awkward few seconds, SHE will invite someone to do it. “Rachel, why don’t you lead us in prayer, honey.” She’s not trying to be disrespectful or embarrass me, by the way…she just honestly can’t pick up her fork until somebody checks in with jehovah.

Yes, I know it’s my house and I have the right to keep religion away from my table. I know that. But first of all, seriously, I always forget until the moment it happens, and then I’m thrown. And secondly, I’m asking how, precisely, I can do this. It isn’t always my sister; sometimes somebody else beats her to it, so I can’t just pull her aside and make the issue go away. And I really don’t want to insult their intentions, which I promise are good. But I don’t want superstition in my house, and I don’t like having to sit and pretend to pray in front of my kids.

They’re alllll coming over again early next week. Gimme some tips here, guys and gals! Thanks!

I replied:

Public prayer galls me for at least two reasons: it’s coercive, and one person speaks for everyone, assuming a uniformity that is never really accurate. It is also too often manipulative (“And may the Lord bless and protect those among us who have been making unwise choices lately” [all eyes go to cousin Billy]).

We have a family tradition that solves this problem and has become a special daily moment in and of itself.

As we sit down for dinner (every day, not just when there are guests), we join hands around the table and enjoy about a half minute of silence together. We’ve asked the kids to take that time to go inside themselves and think about whatever they wish — something about the day just passed, a hope for the next day, good thoughts for someone who is sick, or nothing at all. And yes, they’re welcome to pray if they’d like to.

But here’s the key: it’s a personal, private moment. We don’t follow it with “You know what I was thinking about? I was thinking about homeless children.” Otherwise it turns into a spitting contest to see who was thinking the most lofty thought. Kids will try this at first. Just nod and change the subject. Eventually they figure out that it really is a private moment, which changes the nature of it.

It’s become a daily watershed for us — a moment that marks the transition from hectic day to quiet evening. I love it.

When we have guests, we tell them (before anyone can launch into prayer) that we begin our evening meal with a moment of silent reflection, during which they may pray, meditate, or simply sit quietly as they wish.

And if you have to pull out the big guns, tell them you just respect the teachings of Jesus too much to disregard Matthew 6:5-6:

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the streetcorner to be seen by men….when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father in secret….”

That’s a red-letter passage, straight from the big guy. Tends to end the debate.

Several other parents replied as well with tips and thoughts. And that’s the beauty of it, of course. I don’t mind the emails one bit — I love them, really, they make me feel oh so terribly significant — but why not also drop in on the PBB Forum and tap 200 heads instead of one? Yes, now! Up the big marble stairs, turn right, through the blood sacrifice room, third door on the left.
[Also, psst: Don’t forget to check on the ten wonderfull things page once in a while. And keep sending your suggestions for wonder-full links for secular parents to dale {AT} parentingbeyondbelief DOT com.]

“why does she always have to be ‘so beautiful’?!”

Helen of Troy
HELEN OF TROY, looking (as usual) decidedly un-Greek

I like what’s happening to my nine-year-old middleborn, Erin B. And I don’t like what’s happening to me.

First of all: I know I’ve blogged a lot recently about bedtime myths and legends, and I don’t want to give the impression that my kids are on some force-fed diet of classic western civ. Every night I give them a choice of whatever they want to read. And for the last several weeks, the girls always yell, “Myth! Myth!” (To which I can only respond, “Yeth?”)

Last week it was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — one of my favorite Arthurian legends, despite some admittedly strange bits. One reason I like it: I have a hunch that Gawain derives from Gowan, which is Gaelic for “blacksmith” and the root of our family name. Anyhoo, Gawain arrives in the Forest of Wirral, only days before his scheduled re-encounter with the Green Knight. Tired, he spots a nice castle and makes for it. The lord of the castle takes him in and gives him a great meal. Ahem:

After the meal was finished, the lord of the castle brought Gawain into a sitting room and sat him in a chair by a roaring fire. At last, the lady of the castle came to visit them. She was so very beautiful that she outshone even Queen Guinevere…

“Why does she always have to be ‘so beautiful’?!”

I blinked. It was Erin, her face scrunched into a frown. “Well…she doesn’t have to be, B. She just is.”

“But they always are! ALL the ladies in the myths are (in a mocking voice) ‘so beautiful’! Every one!”

Huh?? “They aren’t always…” My voice trailed off a bit in the manner of someone who realizes, too late, that he’s talking through his hat. Clearly she had noticed something I had not.

“Yes! They are! What about the one last night?” The night before we read Pyramus and Thisbe, the deep precursor to Romeo and Juliet. I reached up and pulled our condensed Age of Fable off the shelf and thumbed to the story.

First sentence:

Pyramus was the handsomest youth, and Thisbe the fairest maiden, in all Babylonia.

Hm. “Okay, so two in a row. But…”

“And Psyche!”

Hm. I flipped to Cupid and Psyche:

A certain king and queen had three daughters. Two were very common, but the beauty of the youngest was so wonderful that mere words…

Psyche Entering Cupid’s Garden
John William Waterhouse (c. 1904)

Huh. I began to search my mind, desperately, for a myth I had recently trotted before my girls in which a woman’s intelligence was praised, or her strength — something beyond her looks.

“Aha!” I said at last. “What about Atalanta? She was smart and faster than all the men!” I flipped to the page. “And her beauty wasn’t part of the story. Here: ‘Atalanta was a maiden whose face was boyish for a girl, yet too girlish for a boy.’ See?”

“Keep reading,” she said. “I remember.”

Sure enough, in the next paragraph, Atalanta, in a footrace, “darted forward, and as she ran, she looked more beautiful than ever.”


“I began to search my mind, desperately,
for a myth I had recently trotted before my girls
in which a woman’s intelligence was praised, or her strength —
something beyond her looks.”


No use going back one more night, I knew. That was the night we read about the Trojan War — starring Helen of Troy, “the most beautiful woman in all the known world.”

Holy crap!

I was about to bring up Medusa, but she’s the exception that proves the rule. According to Ovid, she was once beautiful, until she seduced Poseidon, and jealous Athena turned her into a hideous snake-haired beast. Again, looks are at the center of things.

One of the most interesting things about Erin’s exasperation is that (even by the testimony of non-parentals) she is a beautiful girl. Yet she can see that reducing a person to a single surface attribute is insulting, limiting, even when she herself has that attribute in spades. When she was not even three years old, we did a great little routine for friends and family. I’d say “Erin is beautiful and smart,” to which she would reply, without missing a beat, “An unnnnbeatable combo!”

I was proud of her for recognizing the anti-feminist vein in the old stories–and ashamed of myself for going numb to it. Why did I need my nine-year-old to remind me? There was a time when objectifying references to women made me howl. Fifteen years teaching at a women’s college will do that for you. Sure, I went to Berkeley, but it took a Catholic women’s college (yes, the irony drips) to thoroughly wake me up, to make me a feminist. I know that if I’m not outraged, I’m not paying attention. I know that.

Three days ago, I did it again. Erin walked into the kitchen wearing a fantastic American Indian costume Becca had just whipped up for Hallowe’en. So what did NeanderDad say?

“Erin, look at you! Are you gonna be an Indian princess?”

“No!” she said hotly.

“Uh…Indian maiden?”


“Uh…uh…a squaw?”

That’s right: I said SQUAW! I said SQUAW! Holy crap!


“Uh…you’re a…you’re a warrior!”

THANK you!”

Okay. The nonviolence advocate in me winced, but the feminist in me stood tall. Almost as tall as my nine-year-old daughter.


responses to “spare the rod”

I’ve received several messages from readers who join me in opposition to violent discipline but claim that the Bible’s use of “rod” has been misinterpreted by fundamentalists—that it is really something shepherds use to guide sheep, or to measure them, or to simply keep them in line, and that this is what is being advocated for children as well. That’s the approach of the (excellent) Christian parenting author Dr. William Sears. If that approach dissuades a few more people from spanking, that’s a good thing.

The problem with the argument from scriptural misinterpretation is that the other side simply says, “No, you’ve misinterpreted,” and no real progress is made. It’s one of the main reasons scriptural arguments are ineffective: someone else simply says, “No, hate once meant love,” and we’re at a standoff.

Better to take a moment to establish how a given word is used in context than say what we’d prefer it to mean. In this case, the Bible does quite clearly advocate violence against children. Though there are rare exceptions (Psalm 23), the rod of the Bible seems quite clearly to be an instrument of smiting, beating, and whipping:

Exodus 21:20
And if a man smite his servant, or his maid, with a rod…

Exodus 17:5
…and thy rod, wherewith thou smotest the river, take in thine hand, and go.

Numbers 20:11
…with his rod he smote the rock twice…

2 Samuel 7:14
If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod

Job 21:9
Their houses are safe from fear, neither is the rod of God upon them.

Proverbs 13:24
He that spareth his rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.

Proverbs 22:15
Foolishness is bound in the heart of a child; but the rod of correction shall drive it far from him.

Proverbs 23:13-14
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.

Proverbs 26:3
A whip for the horse, a bridle for the ass, and a rod for the fool’s back.

Isaiah 9:4
For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor…

Isaiah 10:24
Be not afraid of the Assyrian: he shall smite thee with a rod

Isaiah 14:29
Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken

Isaiah 30:31
For through the voice of the LORD shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod.

Lamentations 3:1
I am the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath.

Ezekiel 7:11
Violence is risen up into a rod of wickedness

Micah 5:1
they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek.

I Corinthians 4:21
What do you desire? Shall I come unto you with a rod, or in love and a spirit of gentleness?

2 Corinthians 11:25
Thrice was I beaten with rods…

Now seriously: Is the Biblical rod for leading, or for beating?

The fact that in addition to slavery, misogyny, and lots of other unfortunate things, the Bible does indeed clearly advocate beating children gives us one less reason to accept this deeply-flawed book as any sort of post-medieval moral guide—and that realization can represent genuine moral progress.

Once we dismiss the Bible decisively as any sort of useful moral compass, we can shake the cobwebs from our heads and turn to the growing body of research that shows spanking to be both ineffective and the source of ten specific negative developmental outcomes.

Editorial misconduct

Here is a very nice article by a Christian parent who decided to stop spanking. The editor found it necessary to add this irritating caveat:

Editor’s Note: For many Christian parents, there may be no more contentious subject than spanking. Parents on both sides of the issue find themselves constantly needing to defend their choice to other parents. To make matters more confusing, Christian parenting experts have come down on each side of the conversation, often using the same passages of Scripture to make opposite points. But in the end, every family must prayerfully seek God’s leading as they decide which discipline methods are most effective in shaping the character of each of their children.

The following article reflects one couple’s decision to stop using spanking as a method of discipline. We recognize that other families will have other experiences and we invite you to share your ideas and opinions on this subject in our online chat area.

Note that (unlike the article itself), reason is kept out of the ethical picture. Consult the Bible. If that’s unclear, pray. It is far better to encourage and develop moral judgment than to simply jump from one questionable authority to another.

More on James Dobson

Excerpts from The New Dare to Discipline by James Dobson.

“My primary purpose … has been to record for posterity my understanding of the Judeo-Christian concept of parenting that has guided millions of mothers and fathers for centuries.” p. 18

“You have drawn a line in the dirt, and the child has deliberately flopped his bony little toe across it. Who is going to win? Who has the most courage? Who is in charge here? If you do not conclusively answer these questions for your strong-willed children, they will precipitate other battles designed to ask them again and again.” p. 21

“Spanking should be of sufficient magnitude to cause genuine tears.” p. 35

Dobson recommends painful squeezing of the trapezius muscle on the neck to obtain “instant obedience.” p. 36

Dobson recommends using switches and paddles to hit children. p. 64

Dobson recommends starting whipping at age 15-18 months, and adds “there is no magical time at the end of childhood when spanking becomes ineffective.” p. 65

Dobson advises parents to hit toddlers when the toddler “hits his friends.” p. 66

If a child cries more than a few minutes after being spanked, hit the child again. p. 70

[Thanks to Dogemperor for this research.]

Sample of warnings by SOME churches telling parents they MUST spank

Corporal punishment instruction pamphlet issued by Bethel Christian Academy in El Sobrante CA includes the lovely paragraph “Parents who do not practice corporal punishment are depriving their children of the only method God says produces wisdom, and risk directly opposing God’s will.”

resurrection day — and once again, Life has Meming!

We had a server crash Sunday afternoon. For three days and three nights,1 the Meming of Life lay in the heart of the earth. Now, on Tuesday morning, we have risen indeed! Check the cyberholes in my cyberhands if you doubt.

1Using New Testament math, here explained.

and then we played

I’ve sprinted upstairs to transcribe the following dinnertable conversation with my daughter Delaney, nearly six. The names have been changed to etc:

DELANEY: I was at Kaylee’s house today after school, and she said she believes in God, and she asked if I believe in God, and I said no, I don’t believe in God, and her face got all like this

shocked, shocked!

and she said, But you HAVE to believe in God!

DAD [w/mouthful of grilled pork]: Mmphh fmmp?

DELANEY: And I said no you don’t, every person can believe their own way, and she said no, my Mom and Dad said you HAVE to believe in God! And I said well I don’t, and she said you HAVE to, and I said that doesn’t make sense, because you can’t like go inside somebody’s brain and MAKE them believe something if they don’t believe it, and she said do your Mom and Dad believe in God, and I said no, they don’t believe in God either, and her face did like this again

shocked, shocked!

and she ran into her room and got a book.

DAD [mashed potatoes]: Mm bhhk?

DELANEY: Yes, a picture book, and she said you HAVE to show this to your Mom and Dad, it’ll make them believe in God!

DAD: Whu…

DELANEY: And I said, I don’t have to show them that book, and she said if you don’t show it to them and if you don’t believe in God, you can’t come to my house anymore!

[Mom and Dad’s eyes meet, eyebrows fully deployed.]

MOM [who (having been raised right) swallowed her potatoes first]: Then what did you say, sweetie?

DELANEY: She kept saying it, so I cried. And then I said my dad says its okay for people to believe different things, and you can even change your mind a hundred times! And she said okay, okay, stop crying, you can come to my house anyway.

MOM: And then what?

DELANEY: And then we played.

linky with bandana

spare the rod (and spare me the rest)

[Originally appeared as “Reason vs. the Rod” in the Institute for Humanist Studies Parenting Pages’ Parenting Beyond Belief column, Oct. 17, 2007.]


Nothing focuses the mind like scrutiny. I can get pretty flabby in my thinking when I’m just bouncing ideas against the inside of my skull like Steve McQueen’s baseball in The Great Escape. I’m always a genius in the solitary confinement of my head. But the moment I have to explain myself publicly, I put my ideas on a quick and painful diet.

Since the release of Parenting Beyond Belief, I’ve had to tone up my thoughts on parenting a bit. How can children be good without reference to a god, how can we explain death without heaven—these questions I can answer in my sleep. According to my wife, I often do.

More challenging are the essential questions. What is the essence of secular parenting? How is it fundamentally different from religious parenting? Those are the questions I love the most. They are instant liposuction for my head.

Secular parenting is not motivated primarily by disbelief in God. My religious doubts sprang from thinking for myself, not the other way around, so it’s freethought, not atheism, that’s down there at the root. When someone asks for the foundations of my parenting, I paraphrase the Bertrand Russell quote that begins my book: Good parenting is inspired by love and guided by knowledge. In other words, next to the love of my children, my parenting philosophy is motivated primarily by confidence in reason.

But I’ve wondered lately if my more practical parenting decisions aren’t rooted just as solidly in my confidence in reason. On reflection, they are indeed.

Take one example: I don’t spank my kids. This is interesting to me because religious fundamentalists spank in earnest, citing the biblical injunction “Spare the rod, spoil the child.”


There’s something doubly funny about the invocation of that scripture. Funny Thing #1 is that it isn’t scripture. Funny Thing #2 is its actual source—a bawdy poem by Samuel Butler intended to skewer the fundamentalists of his time, the English Puritans:

What med’cine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets styl’d;
Then spare the rod, and spoil the child.
Samuel Butler, Hudibras, Part II (1664)

He’s lampooning the Puritan obsession with sexual abstinence as the cure for passion, using “the rod” in this case as a wickedly funny double entendre, and making sly reference to an actual passage from Proverbs: He that spares his rod hates his son: but he that loves him disciplines him promptly (Proverbs 13:24).

I never tire of hearing sex-averse fundamentalists quoting from a bawdy satire that was aimed at them—and invoking a penis in the bargain. It’s almost as much fun as watching my homophobic aunts happily shouting along with the refrain to “YMCA” as if it’s a song about recreation facilities. But as tempting as it is to refrain from spanking just because fundamentalists spank, I have a better reason. That’s right: confidence in reason.

Let me here confess that I have spanked my kids. It was seldom and long ago, before I had my parental wings. I’m still ashamed to admit it. Every time it represented a failure in my own parenting. Most of all, it demonstrated a twofold failure in my confidence in reason.

Every time a parent raises a hand to a child, that parent is saying you cannot be reasoned with. In the process, the child learns that force is an acceptable substitute for reason, and that Mom and Dad have more confidence in the former than in the latter.

I try to correct behaviors by asking them to recognize and name the problem themselves. Replace “Don’t pull the dog’s ears” with “Why might pulling the dog’s ears be a bad idea?” and you’ve required them to reason, not just to obey. Good practice.


“Every time a parent raises a hand to a child,
that parent is saying you cannot be reasoned with.
In the process, the child learns that force is an acceptable
substitute for reason, and that Mom and Dad have more
confidence in the former than in the latter.”


The second failure is equally damning. Spanking doesn’t work. In fact, it makes things worse. The research—a.k.a. “systematic reason”—is compelling. A meta-analysis of 88 corporal punishment studies compiled by Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff at Columbia University found that ten negative outcomes are strongly correlated with spanking, including a damaged parent-child relationship, increased antisocial and aggressive behaviors, and the increased likelihood that the spanked child will physically abuse her/his own children.

The study revealed just one positive correlation: immediate compliance. That’s all. So if you need your kids to behave in the moment but don’t care much about the rest of the moments in their lives—hey, don’t spare the rod!

mary spanking christ
Max Ernst, The Virgin Spanking the Christ Child
before Three Witnesses

Many people think a no-spanking policy is just plain soft on crime. And if spanking were the only way to achieve good behavior, I might just have to spank. I have very little tolerance for kids who are out of control, whether yours or mine. (Just so you know.) Fortunately, many other things get their attention equally well or better, without the nasty side effects. A discipline plan that is both inspired by love and guided by knowledge finds the most loving option that works. Spanking fails on both counts.

Instead, keep a mental list of your kids’ favorite privileges—staying up late, reading time before bed, Xbox, freedom, dessert, whatever. If they really are privileges rather than rights—don’t withhold rights—they can be made contingent on good behavior. Choose well, and the selective granting and withholding of privileges will work better than spanking. Given a choice between a quick spanking or early bedtime for a week—heck, my kids would surely hand me the rod and clench. Too bad—the quick fix is not an option.

The key to any discipline plan, of course, is follow-through. If kids learn that your threats are idle, all is lost.

I hope it’s obvious that all this negative reinforcement should be peppered—no, marinated, overwhelmed—with loving, affirmative, positive reinforcements. Catch them doing well and being good frequently enough, and the need for consequences will plummet. It stands to reason.

In the long run, if our ultimate goal is creating autonomous adults, we should not raise children who are merely disciplined but children who are self-disciplined. So if your parenting, like mine, is proudly grounded in reason, skip the spankings. We all have an investment in a future less saddled by aggression, abuse, and all the other antisocial maladies to which spanking is known to contribute. Reason with them first and foremost. Provide positive reinforcement. And when all that fails—and yes, it sometimes does—dip into the rich assortment of effective non-corporal consequences. Withhold privileges when necessary. Give time-outs, a focused expression of disapproval too often underrated.

And don’t forget the power of simply expressing your disappointment. Your approval means more to them than you may think.

Why Spanking Doesn’t Work (book)
Project NoSpank

For a look at the dark side, check out Darth Dobson’s take on spanking, including this immortal line: “[If spanking doesn’t seem to work,] the spanking may be too gentle. If it doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t motivate a child to avoid the consequence next time.”