‘Sparing the Rod’ and a Quote on ‘Sex’ Draw Responses

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In these days when a story about child abuse appears in almost every day’s newspaper, it is interesting to examine that cherished maxim, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Doubtless tens of thousands of children have been beaten by parents sanctimoniously invoking that dubious advice, many mistakenly assuming, I suspect, that its source is the Bible.

Responding to my recent column on maxims, Henry J. Shames points out that “Spare the rod” is not from the Bible, but from “Hudibras,” an erotic poem by the satirical poet Samuel Butler (1612-1680)--not the author of “Erewhon” and “The Way of All Flesh.”


Shames notes that in the poem a “very lascivious lady” says to her lover when he seems reluctant to submit to aphrodisiac flagellation:

Love is a boy, by poets styled,

Then spare the rod and spoil the child

He says, “I’ll let you guess what the word child refers to.” (I don’t even want to guess what rod refers to.)

Shames points out that the Bible does express the same debased philosophy in Proverbs 13:24: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son; but he that loveth him chasteneth him betimes.”

One trembles to imagine the number of children who have been beaten in obeisance to that dark fallacy.

The Oxford Book of Quotation quotes the 19th Century poet-humorist Thomas Hood, in “The Irish Schoolmaster”:


He never spoils the child and spares the rod

But spoils the rod and never spares the child

I’m afraid that is a practice all too common in our society.

In “Measure for Measure” Shakespeare seems to be saying that sparing the rod invites contempt:

Now, as fond fathers,

Having bound up the threat’ning twigs of birch,

Only to stick in their children’s sight


For terror, not to use, in time the rod

Becomes more mock’d than fear’d

But for true wisdom on the subject we must turn to Chicago journalist Peter Finley Dunne’s beloved Irish saloonkeeper Martin Dooley, who is quoted in the following exchange:

“Spare th’ rod and spile the child,” said Mr. Hennessy.

“Yes,” said Mr. Dooley, “but don’t spare th’ rod an’ ye spile the rod, th’ child and th’ child’s father.”

It was such wisdom as that, delivered in his brogue, that made the imaginary Irishman a national treasure in the first two decades of this century.

As for me, I am against any corporal punishment for children. The father who uses the rod has lost the argument, and the rod will not win it for him. In the first place, if a spanking is severe enough to intimidate a child, it is too severe. It is felonious. In the second place, any child who is intimidated by mild physical punishment is weak, and the punishment will only make him or her more so.


Meanwhile, Willard Olney of Hesperia questions my use of the word sex in the sense of sexual intercourse. I had recalled that at a football luncheon some years ago, I had sat next to Georgia Frontiere, owner of the Rams, and that the first thing she said to me was, “Do you think football players should have sex just before a game?”

“Jack,” writes Olney, “you are too good a reporter to quote Mrs. Frontiere directly if she didn’t actually say what you reported. If she used sex instead of sexual activity or something like that, and if that event was several years ago, I would be astonished. It seems to me that that usage is a recent development--but I could be wrong.”

Olney is right on one count. I am too good a reporter to misquote Mrs. Frontiere. That is exactly what she said. Sex as a synonym for sexual intercourse may be of recent origin, but it has certainly been around longer than Olney evidently thinks. Webster’s New International Dictionary (unabridged), which was published in 1961, says “ sex , specifically: sexual intercourse.”

In movie courtroom dramas one is likely to hear the following dialogue:

“Have you ever had sex with the defendant?”

“Not that I can remember.”

In fact, the word is so handy, that I’m surprised it took us so long to adopt it.

I urge Olney to keep his ear to the ground and join the century.