The question of discipline is a good example of an area where we have to understand the Torah’s broad values, rather than reading from a list of rules as we bring up our children. Children have two commandments regarding our parents – to both love and respect/be in awe of them. Our parents brought us into the world, and we, thus, have an obligation of gratitude to them during our entire lives, even after their deaths. Clearly, though, most five year olds, let alone 15 year olds, haven’t necessarily gotten that memo, leaving parents in a difficult position where they’ll need all their parenting skills. The two most relevant statements of advice in the Jewish tradition are likely: 1) King Solomon’s reminder to: “Educate your child according to whom he is” (Proverbs 22:6); and 2) the Talmudic statement to “have your left hand push away and your right hand bring closer” (Sotah 47a), which even Bart Simpson reminded Krusty the Clown’s father after he had disowned Krusty . Clearly, every situation must be approached with love, as the Talmud implies. It is only the proverbial left hand, the weaker hand for the majority, that can discipline children, and it is must be guided by the dominant right, loving hand.
In general, discipline plays an important role in raising children by teaching them how to behave appropriately, creating proper boundaries etc. The tricky part is the method of disciplining. If disciplined with love and consistency from an early age, children generally will mature into responsible adolescents and productive adults. What, however, should a parent do if he has read every parenting book, gone to Parenting 101 through 999, and the child still resembles Bam Bam more than Pebbles? Can a parent ever hit a child as a last resort?
King Solomon states that “Whoever spares the rod hates his son but if you love him, you will chasten him at an early age” (Proverbs 13:24). While this would seem to allow hitting one’s child in extreme situations, Jewish law takes very clear stands against the physical and emotional abuse of children, and thus hitting one’s children (beyond constraining them if they are acting wildly) stands outside normative Jewish practice. In addition, “rod” need not be taken literally, but as a metaphor to “tough love” and discipline – i.e. that parents have to teach their children appropriate behavior, and mustn’t let them run wild, as a lack of involvement leads to various negative consequences.
In addition, the Talmud warns parents not to hit their older children lest they unwittingly cause their children to hit back, a severe Biblical prohibition that the parents would be culpable for causing (Moed Katan 17a). Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states that parents shouldn’t be overbearing with their children regarding their own honor, and should turn a blind eye when children don’t honor their parents as fully as they could (Yoreh Deah 240:19).
Love and happiness must govern one’s relationship with one’s children. Even if the situation demands that parents display anger to teach children the importance of a certain idea, it must be feigned, for anger is considered one of the most odious characteristics (see Maimonides, Laws of Human Characteristics (De’ot) 2:3). Measured punishments are also appropriate in order to teach lessons, but should never be used out of vindication or frustration – this is a sure way to turn children away from their parents. Parents should explain rationally to their children why they are being punished and how they can ensure that future punishments will be unnecessary with a change of behavior or attitude.
Bottom line, disciplining children is a fundamental responsibility for parents, but can never cross the line into any form of abuse. One must know one’s child in order to determine when a strong or soft hand is most appropriate. While there are no guarantees when it comes to children, raising them with traditional values of belief in God, respect for others and fidelity to Jewish law in a joyous and loving atmosphere should obviate the more difficult parts of discipline, ensuring that children will grow into productive and loving parents themselves.
First allow me to give my personal opinion on disciplining our own children. Whenever I see a parent disciplining his/her child in a way that makes me uncomfortable, it is usually because the parent is uncontrollably angry and stressed. It is never a good idea to discipline one's own child when you are not in control of your own emotions. Taking a few deep breaths before disciplining the child is a good value.
In Judaism, we have the concept of ben sorer u'moreh from the Torah. This the stubborn and rebellious child who, the Torah instructs, should be taken by his father to the center of town so that the citizens of the town can stone the boy to death. It is a troubling text for our modern sensibilities. However, what is so telling about this text is that the rabbinic commentators explain that this event never actually occurred. Perhaps it is in the text to scare young people into behaving, but that level of discipline never existed.
In our 21st century understanding of discipline, corporal punishment is not a value. There are sensible ways to discipline children including taking away material possessions or activities that are important to them (i.e., "no video games for two days" or "you will not be able to go to the movie theater with your friends." Using physical force to discipline children (whether students or one's own child) is not acceptable in our society. The spanking that was once allowed has become more controversial and I believe there are other (less demeaning and violent) ways to discipline children.
Rabbi Kelman has done an admirable job in summarizing the Jewish approach. My goal is to expand on a few related thoughts.
The word discipline is related to the words disciple and discern. The root meaning has to do with teaching, particularly teaching that shapes and guides a student in developing their character. That definition meshes with the Jewish notion of child-rearing. We want to raise our child(ren) to live as a mentsch, a good, kind and responsible person.
The Talmud (B. Kidushim 29a) offers an instructive list:
A father [sic] is required to circumcise and redeem his son [sic], to teach him Torah, to find him a mate, and to teach him a trade. Some say he also has to teach him how to swim.
Here is my commentary on this list.
To circumcise and redeem the child: These key rituals both welcome the child into the community and define him or her in the eyes of the world. A parent needs to help their child find his/her place in the family, the community and the world. Rituals offer a vehicle by which we both impart and enact the values we hold dear.
To teach Torah: In the broadest sense Torah includes a spiritual understanding of the world and a grounded sense of values. Both are necessary. The parent needs to model the behavior they wish to impart to their child. It is a deeply personal task that is not easily handed over to others, whether in the synagogue Hebrew School, summer camp or other activities. Parents are the most effective teachers, but it is hard work.
To find a mate and to teach a trade: Few parents can directly influence a child’s choice of partner or profession these days. But parents can avoid sheltering their children and instead give them the tools necessary to navigate the adult world. Choosing a mate or a profession is not innate. As we mature from adolescence to adulthood we learn how to evaluate people and opportunities, we fail, make mistakes and eventually find our grounding.
To learn to swim: Swimming is a strange activity – you cannot have your feet on the ground and swim. To succeed you must learn how to let go and find your way in a fluid environment – what a wonderful definition of the adult world. All of our routines can be upended in a moment and yet we need to find a way to move forward. In her wonderful book on child-rearing, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee, Wendy Mogel states “’teaching your child to swim’ is a primary responsibility… because the goal of parenting is to raise our children to leave us.” (pg. 140)
Discipline is related to punishment. No child simply complies with every desire or direction from a parent, and we ought to worry if they were so docile. So we need to find ways to let our children know when they cross boundaries of appropriateness or danger. As Rabbi Kelman says, a parent must know their child well to decide when circumstances call for a strong or a soft response, when compassion or judgment ought to define parental response. And one must always avoid any abusive behavior. Punishment serves the goal of helping direct our children toward a life lived as a mentsh.
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