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Do the scriptures say children should be spanked?

Not to be copied without permission.

It was an ordinary afternoon. As I sat at my desk, the phone rang.  It was the parent of a four-year old boy from a different state.  The parent said that she and her husband just returned from an interview at a school they hoped their son would attend the following year.  One of the questions during the interview referred to child spanking.  The principal asked the parents if they were okay with children being hit, as this was the practice at that school. 

You can’t imagine the shock and outrage I felt as I listened.  I couldn’t believe that in 2005 corporal punishment was still being practiced.  The first thing that came to mind was what I read as part of position paper from the National Association of Elementary School Principals.  The report began with the following:  “Indentured servants were whipped, but that was outlawed. The mentally ill lived in cages, but that was outlawed. Prisoners went without food and water, but that was outlawed. Students were hit with boards for misbehaving—and that still continues.” I was shocked to see that in the year 2000 (when that report was written) children were still being hit in school.

I decided to research this issue and share some of my findings.  This article will in no way decide halachah. As with all questions,daas Torah should be consulted.

The first thing I did was place a call to my posek,  a member of the Moetzes Gedolei HaTorah and of the Rabbinical Board of Torah Umesorah.  I asked the question directly, “Is anyone in a school permitted to hit a child?”  The answer was immediate, clear and decisive.  “NO!  A child can’t be TOUCHED (as in the form of discipline) by anyone at school,” the gadol responded.  I anticipated what some may then ask,  “What about the directive from Shlomo HaMelech (Mishlei 13:24) that states  “One who spares his rod hates his child?”  Based on the immediate and quick response, I assume that this question had been asked on previous occasions.  He said, “The stick today is a stare, an eye-piercing glare!  In our times we are not permitted to hit children.” 

In the course of my research I was found that there are many different opinions and rulings on this issue.  Before reaching your own conclusion, I urge you to consult with your posek

Those who support hitting the child quote the above pasuk as their permit to hit the child and as their directive for child rearing.  It is interesting to note the Yalkut Shimoni states that according to Shlomo HaMelech if a father does not REBUKE (in place of hitting) his child about Torah, wisdom and derech eretz, the father will eventually hate the child. But if he does rebuke his son, the father will love him. As the pasuk concludes, “and he who loves him, disciplines him in his youth.”  Based on the Yalkut Shimoni a child must be trained. We can therefore replace “rod” with “rebuke” – the child we love is the recipient of a rebuke or  a severe glaring look.

The obvious question is did Shlomo HaMelech intend for the rod to be literal or did he mean for the child to be rebuked and /or glared at for direction.  In my own experience the glare is the most effective method of rebuke. 

In the course of my research, a parent remarked to me that hitting is effective.  The proof is that in olden times children were far more respectful and obedient.  In my mind, that does not qualify as a positive argument for hitting children.  If the children behaved better because they were scared, I am not quite sure of what benefit that was.  How did they behave as soon as the fear wore off or when they grew older? 

On a recent trip out of town, I visited one of the local yeshivos.  As I was studying the issue of hitting, I took advantage of my encounter with a group of sixth-grade students.  I believe that we can learn much from listening to what the children say.  I was most impressed with the maturity of the discussion.  They were able to discuss both sides of the issue.  There were several points that are worth repeating.  One student said that Shlomo HaMelach was instructing parents to hit but not rabbeim.  Another student expressed that hitting is never good if it is as a result of anger.  One student summed it up best, “It depends, as each situation is different.”

Let us take the position that Shlomo HaMelech was literal in his use of the word rod and let us assume that while a child is in school, the school takes the place of the parent.  However, I find the transfer of the obligation to hit the child from the parent to the school to be farfetched.  If we will take Shlomo HaMelech’s words literally and a rod means a physical rod, then let us also be literal about the word father – father and not rebbi

While most parents claim that a lack of discipline is a major problem, those same parents don’t approve of corporal punishment at school.

There are studies that indicate that hitting a child can be considered abusive behavior and results in adults who do not function in a healthy manner. We must, however, separate the potch  from other forms of hitting  Adults who hit children are not acting properly and adults who were hit when they were children did not grow up to be healthy adults.  While according to the gadol’s guidance, that even a touch is forbidden, we can all agree that NO ONE would approve of any form of abusive punishment. 

One of the strong arguments against hitting is that it can result in a distortion of the child’s perception of justice and can cause harm to his emotional development.  Please realize that these dreadful outcomes can result with any form of discipline if it is inappropriate or is a result of the adult’s anger.  Shouting at or otherwise embarrassing a child or a giving the child an extended time-out while angry, can have the same negative ramifications.

In the course of my study of this issue someone suggested that instead of a definitive ruling that children should not be hit, why not create a healthy framework in which children can and should be hit.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any justification to even create any framework for hitting children at school.  However, if a parent prefers a framework for hitting his child, then he must take the following guidelines into consideration:

•            Make sure that the hitting is never excessive. It should be light (a potch) and brief (one or two). It must never cause physical or even emotional damage.

•            Never hit the child when you are angry.

•            Never hit except as part of a thought through plan and not as an impulsive reaction.

•            Never hit unless the child has been forewarned that there will be a physical punishment.

•            If you must hit do so in private, not in the presence of peers.

•            If you must hit, make sure that it is accompanied by a verbal explanation as to why the child is being hit and an outline of future expectations and repercussions.

•            Allow for the child to express his feelings after being hit.

If the above list is too exhaustive and will eliminate the setting to be able to hit your child, all the better. 

Some parents follow the guideline to only hit children when they are in physical danger, e.g. running out in the street, lighting a match, etc. as a means of impressing upon the child the severity of the danger.

Finally, I would like to conclude with the Gemara (Bava Basra 21a).   It says that Rav said to Rav Shmuel bar Shilas that when you hit a child for disciplinary purposes, hit him only with a shoelace.  My guess is that if we had followed the guidance of Rav, we would not have this debate. Unfortunately, part of the problem that exists today as a result of hitting students is the fact that shoelaces or similarly harmless methods were not used.

May HaKodsh Boruch Hu help us raise our children with love and kindess and may we never come to untenable measures!

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