Punishing a Child

I have a child-rearing question. We found some coloring on the wall. We suspected our 4-year-old, and asked him if he did it. He denied it. We are not positive he did it, but he has a guilty look and it is very unlikely that another child did it.

What do we say to him? Do we just forget about it? Do we try to convince him to tell the truth? Do we punish him even though we are not 100% sure? What should we do?

The Aish Rabbi Replies:

Your question touches on fundamental concepts of child-raising that will affect your child for a lifetime, and I commend you for taking this seriously enough to write.

The bottom line? You must not punish him unless you are 100% certain he did it.

The best thing to do is to ask the child to help clean up the walls. Do not accuse or punish. Asking for his admission isn't productive since his goal is only to escape from punishment.

After the fact, you should simply say, "We love you even if you color on walls – but it's important to tell the truth." And leave it at that.

The idea here is to help the child develop an appreciation for telling the truth that will last a lifetime. Not to necessarily get him to tell the truth regarding one incident of coloring on the wall.

Don't worry – even though you may lose this "battle," you are more likely to win the war.

In other words, teaching him to tell the truth does not have to be done specifically right now over this event. The lesson can be taught in a series of follow-up stories over the next few weeks. Use the straw man technique to develop a main character who gets into a similar situation as your son – e.g. “Once upon a time there was a boy called Mikey...”

The "plot" of each story is, naturally, that the boy lied because he was afraid – and then he told the truth and everyone was so proud of him! Also, he did not get punished for what he did, because he told the truth and said he was sorry. If the "crime" in the story involved damages of some kind – e.g. coloring on the wall – you should add in the story how he cleaned it.

The next time something like this happens with your son, remind him of the boy called Mikey who told the truth, cleaned the wall, and did not get punished.

Ask him if he wants to be like Mikey.

Tell him that if he tells the truth, then he only will have to 1) wash off the wall, and 2) say he is sorry.

If he tells the truth, then make a big deal about it – e.g. let him hear you tell the grandparents on the phone how wonderful he is, etc.

All of the above holds true in the event that you are not certain if he did it.

If you are 100% certain that he did it, then do not ask him if he did it. Just state matter-of-factly that you know that he did it, ignore any denials and get straight to the point. He must:

1) Say he's sorry

2) Clean off the wall

3) Possible punishment

Of course, point out to him that item #3 – punishment – only comes when we deny it.

And finally, one word of practical advice: Any house with young children should have washable walls!

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