Question: My husband and I were wondering if you could shed some light on an issue we’ve been discussing. My husband’s parents believed in slapping their kids when they didn’t behave, whereas my parents only believed in talking to us. We want to be on the same page, and wanted your opinion: Smacking kids — OK or not? If not, how do we discipline children properly?
Answer: It’s obvious from your statement “we want to be on the same page” that you’re both wonderful parents. Working together is the best way to raise children. I would also like to point out that your question cannot be completely answered in this column. There are so many variables involved, and it’s beyond the scope of this article to include everything. If you have further questions, please contact me via e-mail.
The terms “slapping” and “smacking” give me the chills. Hitting children in most cases is a tremendous mistake and can have serious and long-lasting ill effects. The old adage of “spare the rod, spoil the child” doesn’t apply the same way nowadays.
Although you asked it second, I would like to focus on the discipline part of your question first.
Disciplining kids boils down to consequences and punishments. Although the line between them is frequently blurred, there is a huge difference between the two. To make matters more interesting, there are two types of consequences. One type is a consequence for an action, and the other is what we can call a learning consequence. Here’s an example. If your eight-year-old son is burping loudly at the table during suppertime, you have a few options.
- You can tell him, “Since you’re burping, you can’t have a playdate tomorrow!” This is a punishment. It’s not even remotely connected to the burping. Furthermore, he’ll probably do it again, since it’s not connected.
- You can say, “Since you’re burping at the table, you must be stuffed — so I guess you have no room for dessert.” This is a basic consequence and it’s a bit better, since there’s a direct connection.
- You can say, “Burping at a table is silly behavior, and children doing silly behavior can’t stay to have dessert. If you can sit without burping for the next 10 minutes, it will show me that you are not acting silly, and we can still have dessert.” This is the best response. It’s connected to the offense but gives him a chance to remove the consequence.
I’m sure that as you’re reading this, you’re thinking, “Wow! This makes so much sense!” Nonetheless, I assure you that when your son decides to burp loudly at the table, you’re not going to start weighing the benefits of consequences. Especially since his three siblings thought it was funny and are now burping the chorus of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” However, this is the perfect time to regain control. Yelling? It just shows you have no control. Randomly interspersing threats and punishments? I can assure you it won’t help — believe me, I’ve tried it.
What can you do? Try and do something to get everyone’s attention. Jump up or say out loud “Uh-oh!” Wait until they are all looking at you. Then you can say something like, “I’m so sorry, it’s just so sad.” Now you have their attention. Continue with, “I really wanted to serve dessert, but burping at the table is silly behavior, and children . . .” Keep in mind that this isn’t easy to do. It takes practice and determination.
We are obviously just touching the tip of the proverbial iceberg here. Nonetheless, let’s switch gears and look at the “hitting” aspect. Hitting is not a consequence — it’s a punishment. If you do believe in hitting, it should be a rare occurrence!
There are three main ways you can hit your child.
- A light smack on the hand — frequently called “petch.” Parents use this as a warning signal when their child is doing something incorrectly. I saw a boy in a local pizza store that had his finger so far up his nose that I thought it would come out of his ear. When his mother saw him, she lightly slapped his hand and said, “That’s disgusting; go wash your hand.” I’m not sure this is a valid method of discipline. On the one hand, it’s meant as a stinging reminder of sorts. You’re hoping that your child will associate picking his nose with a petch, and not do it anymore. On the other hand, you might be teaching your child to hit. Let’s put this in the category of “not recommended.”
- A controlled “patch” on the rear. I heard from a rebbe that I know well that R’ Yaakov Kamenetzky, zt’l, once said, “Hashem gave us extra padding there so we could deal with a nice patch.” If done correctly, this can be helpful. If my son were to run into the street, I would bring him home and tell him, “I love you so much. Running in the street is so dangerous. I am going to give you a patch because I need to show you how serious this is.” He could be remorseful and cry, but I would still turn him over and give him a loud patch. I stress loud, because it’s not meant to be painful, but since I would cup my hand, it would sound scary. Another instance that might warrant a patch is if your child deliberately says “no” to a parent. Same scenario. I would take the child and explain that I love him/her so much, but we cannot say “no” to a parent. (I also heard from this rebbe that R’ Yaakov, zt’l, only would hit for lying or stealing.)
- Random smacking of your child — also known as child abuse. This happens when you’ve lost it and are attempting to regain control by being physical. Not only are you teaching your child to be physical and that hitting is OK, you’re also destroying your relationship with him.
Again, this is just a brief response to your question in regard to discipline and physical punishment. To enhance your reading pleasure, I will include a list of some basic rules regarding discipline and/or hitting.
- Time-outs are not only good for kids, but they work well for parents as well. If you feel like you’re going to lose control, remove yourself from the situation for a few minutes if possible.
- The general rule is one minute per each year of age. A 3-year-old should be in timeout for three minutes, and so on. Putting a 6-year-old in a 30-minute timeout is a waste of time. He won’t remember why he’s there, and it’s too late to discuss again.
- You should never hit a child if you’re angry. It’s OK to look angry. But if you’re really upset, wait for a while. If you can’t feel bad for your child while he’s getting a patch, you shouldn’t be giving him one.
- You cannot hit a child that might hit back. This includes older children or those with a severe temper.
- When discussing the incident with your child, you’re supposed to focus on the action, rather than the child. “You did a very bad thing by pouring water on your sister’s bed” is not correct. It should be “It is wrong to pour water on someone’s bed.”
- Choose your battles. When your daughter comes home in a rotten mood and says her teacher is picking on her, it’s not the right time to back up the teacher. If she’s starting up with her siblings because she’s mad, privately ask her to go upstairs and read or relax. Don’t reward her. We’re not encouraging this behavior; we’re just showing we understand her.
- I’ve always felt that parenting has many ingredients, 10 percent of which should be discipline. If you feel that you’re constantly telling off the same child, something is wrong.
- Your child is not your friend. You can and should hear their side of a story (“I only poured water on her bed because she’s so annoying”), but then you give the consequence and that’s it. There are no discussions. There are no debates. If your child keeps arguing, keep repeating, “I love you very much, but this discussion is over.”
- My own opinion is that mothers should never be the ones to administer a patch. I just feel that mothers are the ones who give over the most love, and it’s contradictory and confusing to the child.
- Lastly, kids are resilient, baruch Hashem. If you made a mistake and hit your child out of anger or even yelled when you should not have, you can apologize. “I’m sorry, Eli, I should not have done that.”
I wish you tremendous hatzlachah with your children.
Rabbi Yitzie Ross is a well-known rebbe and parenting adviser. To sign up for his weekly emails, visit YidParenting.com.