Turning Old Clichs into New Maxims:
Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child
By Richard Eyre

Note: This column appears every two weeks . with an old clich replaced by a new maxim each time.  Click here to read the full introductory column. Click here to go to the Cliches archives

First of all, this one (in its too literal interpretation) was never valid and certainly never wise. I believe strongly that its Biblical basis is metaphorical.

Children may become spoiled through a lack of any discipline from their parents, but the corporal, physical punishment this clich advocates was never necessary, and if it can keep a child from  becoming spoiled, it can also keep him from feeling loved, from developing confidence and freedom, and from reaching his full ability and potential.

The implication of the clich is that children are trained the way animals are sometimes trained – not to do certain things because pain will be inflicted on them if they do.

The main problem with most parental discipline, or with parenting in general,  is that it is aimed at training children to behave in a particular way so that they will be less trouble to us and more impressive to others. Instead we need to learn that discipline should be a means of teaching children correct principles and of helping them to find and love their best selves.


In a large parenting seminar that we were conducting, we asked the audience to name some of the hardest aspects of raising children – the things that bothered them the most, that they spent the most time being troubled by, that they would like their children to change if they had one wave of a magic wand.

Hands went up, and the predictable answers came out: “Clean up after themselves,” “Stop fighting and end sibling rivalries,” “Accept responsibility for their tasks,” “Obey me.”

We talked for a time about various techniques and methods for developing more obedience, better order, less fighting, and so on. All seemed to agree that these ideas could make their households less hectic and their children less bothersome.

Then we asked a very different question ? not what bothered or troubled them  most in parenting but what the deepest danger was, the greatest mistake they could make with the most lasting and serious consequences.

Two answers emerged:

1.       a permanent or long-term loss of communication ? a breakdown of trust so that feelings and needs were no longer shared, and

2.>       the breaking of a child’s fragile ego ? the loss of his self-esteem or the thwarting of its growth.

Suddenly, right there in the meeting as we talked together as parents, we realized we were on a new level. What mattered most was not what worked best or what minimized inconvenience most. What mattered most was love, how much we shared and cared for each other, how well we communicated with each other, and how much self-esteem and individual security our love could give to our children. We realized how easy it is, sometimes, in our efforts to make children less bothersome and better behaved, to damage their egos and destroy relationships.

If our quest for perfect order, obedience, manners, and no-problem kids creates a constant barrage of correction and criticism and fear-based discipline, we may win the batter and lose the war. We may have neat, quiet homes containing insecure ego-damaged children.


Should we worry at all then about spoiling our children? Yes!  But children are never spoiled by too much praise. Many children have strong wills, but they all have fragile egos. Critical, insulting words; impatient, harsh tones; and any kind of corporal punishment can dent and damage these egos and can dampen and dim trust and communication.

Children do need rules, limits, and correction.  In fact, much of a child’s security rests in knowing that his parents care about him and that his life does have rules and limits. But communication and self-esteem should always be the highest priorities. Time must be taken to talk about rules, to let the child help make them, to explain that they spring from love, and that we have them because children are important. And we must work on our tone, our look, our words, our touch ? to see that they all build esteem rather than destroy ego.

It’s hard to remember and hard to prioritize communication and the esteem of children when they seem to get in the way of our own convenience or the way we’d like things to work. It’s hard, but a new maxim may help:


In other words, forget about convenience, military-like neatness, and efficiency.  Forget about trying to make your child fit some perfect system you have in mind. Focus on the child instead ? on who he is, what he needs, what he does well, and what he needs help with. Build your system around him rather than trying to build him into your system.

Next column we will stay with our parenting theme

and take on what may be the dumbest clichs of all .

the one about children resembling lumps of clay.

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