How many times did you punish your children this week?

Ideally, meting out punishment should be a rare necessity. Hard to believe, (I know -- I've been there!) but true nevertheless.

Punishment is a last resort. The first line of defense we have when our children misbehave is to speak to them pleasantly and try to educate them. Explain what they did wrong and the importance of doing better the next time. Encourage them with rewards and other types of positive reinforcement

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, a distinguished educator and ethicist in Jerusalem, explains that punishment can be destructive "because children generally operate in two mutually exclusive modes:

  • The learning mode, which is characterized by a relaxed and happy state that facilitates real change, and
  • The obedience mode, which is characterized by a nervous and rebellious state that inhibits real change.

Punishment often flips children out of the learning mode and into the obedience mode. When we punish children, we succeed in immediately stimulating the external behavior we seek, but we risk stunting the internal growth that could permanently change the child and produce good behavior over the long term" (Planting and Building: Raising a Jewish Child p.81).

Rabbi Wolbe also explains that frequent punishment raises the child's level of tolerance for punishment and parents can find themselves spinning out of control with successively harsher measures. Ideally, we want a child who is sensitive to a slight look of disapproval. The over-punished child loses his sensitivity to such subtle measures.

When talking and reasoning fail, punishments, of course, do need to be implemented.

Natural and Logical Consequences

Punishments are circumstances we impose on our children. No TV. No car keys. No going out. Before we punish we need to ask if there are natural consequences of our children's behavior that we can let happen which will have more educative value than our punishments. For example, children who do not do their homework have to deal with the wrath of their teachers. Children who do not put dirty clothes in the hamper do not have clean clothes to wear.

Whenever possible, let the child experience the natural consequences of his irresponsibility or misbehavior.

When we let our children experience the unpleasantness that results from their mistakes without comment or sermon, we are allowing them the opportunity to learn from their mistakes and take responsibility for their own actions. We should not mix in to further punish them, to say, "I told you so" or to rescue them from the unpleasantness.

Whenever possible let the child experience the natural consequences of his irresponsibility or misbehavior (obviously this does not apply in all cases, such as a child who wants to run in the street or to see exactly how hot the stove really is).

If there are no natural consequences then we impose logical consequences, (also known as punishments), which ideally should fit the crime. A child who doesn't speak nicely isn't allowed to speak for a period of time. A child who throws food isn't allowed to eat more at that particular meal. A child who defaces school property has to pay to replace it with his allowance; birthday money he has saved or he should work to make the money.

GUIDELINES FOR PUNISHMENT:

  • A warning should always precede a punishment. (Sanhedrin 56 B; God never punishes us without warning and we are to emulate God)
  • Explain why you are punishing the child and let the child know that you feel sorry to have to punish him.
  • Try to match the punishment to the "crime" if possible.
  • Never give a demeaning or abusive punishment such as making a babyish child wear a diaper.
  • Try to administer the punishment without anger or other negative emotion such as revenge.
  • A punishment should not be announced and then deferred to another time. The Talmud states that a child's anxiety over this could cause him to harm himself (Semachot 2:6)
  • Be extra cautious about punishing older children. Punishments are often less effective and can cause rebellion.

Physical Punishment

Under very specific circumstances, the Torah permits physical punishment. While normally we are prohibited from striking anyone (Talmud on Deuteronomy 25:3), the Torah permits a parent to strike a minor child (Shulchan Aruch HaRav, Choshen Mishpat, Hilchos Nizkei Guf V' Nefesh).A parent is forbidden to strike an older child, above bar/bat mitzvah age, (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah, 240:20) because it is tantamount to putting a stumbling block before the blind. The older child will want to strike back, and we cannot cause him to transgress the Biblical prohibition of striking a parent.

Corporal punishment today is viewed as a sign of rejection and a statement of personal unworthiness. It isn't effective.

When is parent allowed to strike a minor child? Only when it is going to have educative value and only when it is not done from a position of anger. We are allowed to feign anger, but we should not have real anger. A child can only be hit with something light which will not actually hurt him, like a shoestring (Bava Basra 21 A), and not repeatedly (Even Shleimah 6:4 ).

Most of us hit our children when we are angry or frustrated. We are not in control of the situation or ourselves. We are not educating. We are venting.

I heard personally from Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg, of blessed memory, that in our generation corporal punishment is actually forbidden. He explained that in previous generations children could accept physical punishment as a sign of love. Nowadays, however, hitting children is considered cruel. It is viewed as a sign of rejection and is a statement of personal unworthiness. When this is the case, hitting is not effective and it is prohibited.

Rabbi Wolbe expresses a similar opinion (op. cit.. 47) and explains that children were more tolerant in previous generations and also had a more positive self-image. Young children wouldn't think of striking back. Not so today. Our children's whole environment is suffused with rebellion. This reality must be taken in to account.

We must also take into account the permanent damage that can be done to the parent-child relationship when we try to control with force. Any kind of harshness will create an emotional distance between our children and us. Our children will be unable to learn from us when there is distance. They won't be open to our admonishments or our discussions.

Rabbi Wolbe explains that there are two rods in the verse, "He that spares the rod hates his child" (Proverbs 13:24) -- violent ones and pleasant ones. Instead of reading this verse as an obligation to punish our children, we should consider which rod is the more effective one in teaching our children correct behavior.

Our children were entrusted to us in order that we teach them the right way primarily through the rod of pleasantness. We need to have tremendous self-control and mastery over our emotions in order to be true educators and to create an environment of pleasantness that will foster their maximum growth.