In discussing a recent study whose conclusion was that spanking children turns them into bullies, CNN commentator Roland Martin invoked the “Biblical” injunction: “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” Close, Mr. Martin, but no cigar.
The old proverb as we know it in English appears in the works of many early writers, none of them Biblical. The earliest known source is William Langland’s Piers Plowman in 1377, in which is found: “Who-so spareth the sprynge [switch made from a tree branch], spilleth [spoils] his children.”
Another early source for the maxim is Richard Mulcaster’s 1582 grammar manual, known as The Elementaire, in which he opines: “Comma, is a small crooked point, which in writing followeth som small branch of the sentence, & in reading warneth vs to rest there, and to help our breth a litle, as Who so shall spare the rod, shall spill the childe. “
The first known appearance in the exact wording that we know today—“Spare the rod and spoil the child”—was in John Clarke’s Paroemiologia Anglo-Latina, a 1639 compilation of proverbs in English and Latin.
King Solomon, author of the Biblical Proverbs, was credited with the adage in a sermon by Edward Symmons in 1642, but the quotation as such does not appear in any English translation of the Bible.
In Hudibras, a satirical poem in 1662 or thereabouts, Samuel Butler used the phrase in quite a different context, having to do with cooling the passions of an ardent wooer, not with the discipline of children.
Solomon does indeed endorse the notion of beating up on your kids to make them behave. Proverbs 13:24 counsels, “He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.” (Try and say that three times fast.)
The Bard of Buffalo Bayou, who was caned regularly as a child but spoiled rotten nonetheless, has some proverbs of his own:
If at first you don’t succeed,
It’s likely that you never will.
The chances that a friend in need
Will show up when you call are nil.
An apple a day, I can affirm,
Will cost you more than half a buck.
The early bird may catch the worm,
The early worm is out of luck.
Now if you told the truth, no doubt
You would admit that you believe
That when the gifts are handed out,
It’s really better to receive.
The road to hell the preacher always mentions
Is followed by the wicked and depraved.
That road, they say, is paved with good intentions—
But I say, what the hell, at least it's paved.