Virtual Talmud

“Spare the rod and spoil the child,” a well-known and unfortunate aphorism based on Proverbs 13:24, was recently invoked in the debate about a proposed California law banning spanking children younger than age 3. The bill garnered so much resistance and ridicule that its sponsor, California Assemblywoman Sally Lieber, just had to withdraw it. Instead, she substituted a proposal limiting more severe forms of corporal punishment for young children, but left spanking intact as an option for parents.

This is a shame.

I believe much of the opposition to the bill was based on resistance to the government legislating appropriate methods of parenting. But what of the merit based on the bill’s content?

Starting from our verse in Proverbs, Jewish law has traditionally been very accepting of mild forms of corporal punishment, especially in the service of education, while making clear that it only applies to mild force (in cases of excessive force the parent or teacher would be criminally liable for any injuries). It should also be noted that most of these legal rulings came out at a time when parents had far more control over their children than we would likely want to give them today–telling them whom to marry for instance, or what trade to take up–and so corporal punishment was broadly employed and accepted. As the 13th century rabbinic commentator Nachmanides observed, “Every man smites his son and strikes his student.”

Also broadly accepted was a husband’s “right” to use physical force against his wife, so much so that domestic abuse cases were, until fairly recently, often overlooked by law enforcement as a “private family matter.” Since then, new societal norms have arisen about the treatment of wives and children, as well as new understanding about how corporal punishment can damage young children and lead to more, rather than fewer, behavioral problems. If the rabbis’ rulings about corporal punishment were based on the common practices and assumptions of their times, then our positions should do the same.

Spanking and other forms of corporal punishment only send our children the message that problems should be “solved” through violence. They serve only as an outlet for parents’ frustration with lack of control and don’t engage the child’s behavior or its underlying causes. They can also easily slip into more serious forms of abusive behavior as each new infraction is met with a higher level of violence. This is not how we should be parenting, and just because Jewish law permits certain forms of corporal punishment doesn’t mean that they’re right. Let’s all agree that the rod–and our children–should be spared.

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