The Sceptic Blog

Random thoughts of a random chappy

Smacking children – a Jewish approach

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1. A few days ago considerable attention was given by the British media to the case of a father who, angry at his daughter’s unruly behaviour towards neighbours, slapped her face in an attempt to shock her out of her ways. The daughter complained to the police, who cautioned the father.

2. The Jewish attitude to corporal punishment is often summarised by reference to the verse in Proverbs (13:24) “He who spares his stick hates {often translated as ‘spoils’} his son”. The implication is that failure to discipline children is not in their interests.

3. Of course, some explain this verse as purely metaphorical, referring to the concept of discipline in general and not specifically or exclusively to physical punishment.

4. Clearly, it is open to people to interpret the verse literally or metaphorically. But even those who interpret it literally ought to be aware that read in a slightly different, but still literal, way it can be seen as imposing an important constraint on those who believe in the importance of physical punishment.

5. Read the verse in the following way (which classical construction of Biblical Hebrew readily permits): “Who is it who must spare his stick? One who hates his son”. It then comes to remind us that corporal punishment should be administered neither in hot blood – at a time when one feels animus against the child of a kind that might cause one to hit out either in the wrong way or for the wrong motive – nor in too cold blood (ie so long after the incident as not to appear to the child to be reasonably connected to the incident).

6. What worried me about the reported incident was the suggestion that the punishment had been a slap around the face delivered in anger. It is never right to hit a child when angry, nor in my opinion is a slap around the face an appropriate form of corporal punishment. Discipline must be delivered when the parent is calm and in control, and in a form which is effective but dignified both for the parent and for the child. The purpose of corporal punishment should not be to relieve a parent’s feelings, nor to cause the maximum pain: in my experience when effective at all – and it is not effective or appropriate with all children or for all purposes – it is unnecessary to cause real pain, and the smacking is a purely formal – but sometimes extremely effective – operation.

7. It is certainly true that failure to discipline ones children effectively does them real harm and amounts to a failure to exercise the responsibilities of a parent: but as always, there are right ways and wrong ways.

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Written by Daniel Greenberg

August 21, 2008 at 9:08 am

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