The Jewish Parent by Dr. Sanford Drob
Volume 3 , Issue 4 (March, 1990 | Adar, 5750)
There can be little doubt that according to Jewish tradition parenting is the most important occupation in the world. While the Talmud is quite brief in listing the obligations of a parent to a child, stating, for example, that a father is obligated to circumcise his son, redeem him, teach him Torah, take for him a wife, instruct him in a trade and teach him how to swim (Kiddushin 29a, 30b) this very terseness obscures the fact that in the requirement of teaching Torah, a parent is required to instruct his or her child in the total art of living.
It is no wonder, then, that Jewish parents have taken their job so very seriously, and it is, perhaps, the very seriousness of their pursuit which makes the Jewish man or woman so vulnerable to anxiety and guilt in relation to the parenting role. Adding to this anxiety is the fact that parents, and traditional parenting practices, have in this century for the first time in history, come under serious attack, with presumably well‑meaning parents being accused of everything from ?inducing schizophrenia? to ?soul murder? in their children. It therefore behooves us as parents who are eager to teach our children the Jewish art of living, to examine our parenting practices both in the light of Judaism and the findings of contemporary psychology. In doing so we will, I believe, rediscover the combination of love and discipline which is the hallmark of Jewish parenting.
Does Torah Advocate Harsh Rule?
A superficial reading of traditional Jewish sources might very well leave one with the impression that Judaism advocates a harsh rule of parental discipline. The book of Proverbs, for example, is replete with the advice that to spare the rod is indeed to spoil the child. For example:
?? ?Chastise thy son, for there is hope; and let not thy soul spare him from his crying.? (Proverbs 19:18).
?? ?The rod and reproof impart wisdom; but a lad abandoned to himself brings shame upon his mother.? (Proverbs 29:15).
?? ?Withhold not from a lad correction, for if thou beat him with the rod he will not die ... but thou wilt deliver his soul from perdition.?
In the midrashic Wisdom of Ben Sira we find the admonition: ?Bend his head in his youth and strike his buttocks when he is young.? (Ben Sira 13).
While it is clear that such statements, taken in isolation and not further qualified or interpreted, provide a distorted perspective on Jewish parental discipline, it is also quite clear that many a Jewish parent has taken counsel from what they understood to be the ?traditional approach.?
Harsh Rule Under Attack
It is the so‑called traditional approach of harsh discipline ?for the child's own good? which has come under the fire of contemporary psychology. According to the psychoanalyst Alice Miller, ?traditional? methods of child rearing simply perpetuate a system in which anger, hatred and aggression are instilled in children by methods of discipline which pay little attention to the child's needs, individuality, and feelings. According to Miller, while we believe that our spanking and other harsh discipline of our children is necessary for their proper socialization, in reality we subconsciously punish our children for the harm inflicted upon us by our own parents, a harm against which we could not as children defend ourselves. In short, we combat our own parents in our children and the cycle of repressed anger, hatred, and aggression is continued. According to Miller, we compound the problem for our children by refusing to let them express their anger and suffering except at the risk of losing their parents' love and affection. This, she says, is the greatest cruelty of all. (For Your Own Good, p. 106).
For the critics of traditional parenting, parental abuse and exploitation of children can take many forms other than direct physical or verbal attack, including neglect, deception, humiliation, pressure to perform, and overinvolvement. According to Miller, we must abandon the old pedagogy (which justifies all of these harms and more) and substitute a parental posture in which we have respect for our children's needs, feelings and individuality, and through which we encourage them to express their feelings, particularly their anger and their pain.
Does Judaism advocate what Miller refers to as traditional pedagogy? Certainly not. If we examine the sources on Jewish parenting carefully we soon discover that the primary principle of Jewish parenting is that all acts of parental discipline must be accompanied by, and set in the context of, expressions of parental love. The Talmud (Sotah 47a) advises: ?A child, discipline him with the left hand and draw him closer with the right hand.? Advice to the same effect is found also in Proverbs (3:12): ?For he whom the Lord loves, He admonishes like a father who appeases his son,? a passage which Rashi interprets to mean that G‑d is like a parent who disciplines his child in order to change his behavior, but then appeases and soothes him with words of affection. Even the apparent Biblical injunction to impart discipline with the rod, was interpreted in Rabbinic tradition in a manner which cautioned a parent against bringing harm to his or her child: ?Rav said to Rav Samuel bar Shilat: If you hit a child, strike him only with a shoestring? (Bava Batra 21a), which is interpreted both by Rashi and the Rambam to mean that a parent should strike a child only with the lightest, most harmless of strokes. Indeed we find in Proverbs: ?Chasten your son, for there is hope, but set not your heart on his destruction,? (19:18), and ?A rebuke enters deeper unto a person of understanding than a hundred stripes a fool.? (17:10)
Parents Should Not Instill Fear
A story is told in
the Talmud of tragic harm which resulted when parents attempted to discipline
their children with an iron rule. In happened that a child from B'nai Brak broke his father's flask. The father, upon discovering
the damage, threatened to box the child's ears, and the child, in terror of his
father, ran off and threw himself into a well. The matter was brought before
Rabbi Akiva, who ruled that the death was not a
suicide and that no burial rites should be denied the child. His ruling was, in
effect, that the terror of the father brought about the child's demise (Minor
Tractate, Mourning, 2:5). The Talmud relates a similar story to the effect
that a certain ?son of
The passages I have just quoted should certainly lay to rest the notion that Judaism either advocates or condones the kind of harsh‑discipline which terrorizes children under the guise of pedagogy ?for their own good.? Perhaps one more piece of evidence is in order: A story is told of a man who complained to the Baal Shem Tov that his son had turned completely away from Yiddishkeit. The Besht asked him if he loved his son, and when the man answered ?of course,? the Besht replied, ?Then love him even more.?
The conclusion we can draw is that the Jewish tradition holds that parents should be neither punitive nor permissive, but that they should steer a course in which they discipline their children in the context of parental love. Love, of course, does not mean that parents should be overcome by needs to keep their children happy, as was King David with his sons Absalom and Adonijah. The Midrash relates that ?because David did not rebuke his son Absalom and did not chastise him, Absalom turned to an evil culture? (Exodus Rabbah 1:1) and further that Adonijah rebelled against his father because David never stopped him to ask, ?Why did you do such a thing?? (I Kings 1:6). We must, of course, be very firm with respect to important moral values, and in so doing we must accept that our children may be temporarily unhappy as a result.
Spanking Does Not Teach Morality
Our discipline of our children should, however, rarely if ever be punitive. Rare, indeed, is the parent who can strike a child in a purely loving manner, without any admixture of personal frustration or vengeance. Furthermore, as the noted child psychologist Selma Fraiberg has shown, a spanking is ineffective in teaching morality, as the child who has been spanked feels that the spanking itself has atoned for his misbehavior and he is, therefore, now himself ?off the hook? and free to misbehave again. What's more, spankings and other punishments only bring about anger and resentment, and rarely cause the child to reflect upon his or her actions. It is for this reason that Jewish law (Moed Katan 17a, Rashi on Leviticus 19:14) forbids a parent from administering corporal punishment to an older child lest such a child be made angry, causing him to strike the parent back.
Rather than punishment, the Talmud regards ?positive reinforcement? as the pedagogical ideal. In Taanit 24a we find the story of a man who has such influence over things that he is said to be able to make the rains fall, and the winds blow. When Rav asks him about his profession, he relates that he is a teacher of children, one who keeps a pool of fish and who entices and ?appeases? stubborn learners by ?bribing? them with fish until they come to learn. While there are certainly times when limits must be set without recourse to positive rewards, even in this case, Jewish law (Kitzur Shulkhan Aruch 165:7) forbids the parent from threatening a child that he will be ?punished? at a later time. Discipline, if it is to be effective at all, must be immediate and linked to the specific misbehavior. Far better to remove a child immediately from a context in which he is misbehaving than to threaten him that he will be punished later. Children learn better when they discover that there are, indeed, direct consequences to their actions. According to noted parenting authority Nancy Samalan, under such circumstances parents should refrain from lecturing their children or admonishing them with statements like ?this will teach you,? or ?let this be your punishment.? While we should let our children know of our anger and disappointment when they misbehave, lectures and admonishments only increase the child's anger, thereby cutting off the possibility of their own ?teshuvah? and the making of genuine amends. Indeed, the most successful disciplinarians are those who encourage their children to participate in discovering ways of correcting their own misbehavior.
Earlier I pointed out that according to Alice Miller the greatest cruelty that parents can inflict on their children is a refusal to acknowledge (and allow them to express) their own feelings. This refusal can occur in a wide variety of contexts, for example: in forbidding children to show anger to us, their grandparents or their siblings; by telling them that they have no good reason to be upset by something said by a friend; by insisting that an insult they have experienced is ?all in their imagination?; by lecturing to them that they should feel appreciation rather than resentment, etc., The late Israeli psychologist, Hayim Ginott constantly stressed that many, if not a majority, of the battles and crises that transpire ?between parent and child? (the title of his now classic book) could be avoided if parents simply listened to, acknowledged and helped put into words their child's feelings on a daily basis. Indeed this is probably the very essence of the psychotherapeutic process, a process which would in most cases be obviated altogether if parents put it into effect with their own children. The healing power of acknowledging a child's feelings is beautifully revealed in the following tale of Rabbi Nachman:
The story is told of a king whose son imagined himself to be a turkey and who sat himself under the dinner table without any clothes and scratched around for leftover crumbs that had fallen to the floor. One day, after the king had exhausted all remedies, a wise man came who said he could help the boy. The wise man undressed and sat down naked beside the child and when the boy asked what he was doing the sage replied, ?I am a turkey.? Surprised, the boy answered back, ?I, too, am a turkey,? and the two then sat naked beneath the table for several days getting acquainted. After a time the sage had some shirts thrown down and he inquired of the boy? ?Do you think a turkey cannot wear a shirt?? ?Of course he can wear a shirt and still remain a turkey,? was the child's reply. And so the wise man continued in this manner until little by little, the two of them were fully clothed, seated and eating at the dinner table.
The moral of this tale needs hardly to be stated. One can well imagine that all pleadings to the effect of ?You're not a turkey,? ?Stop this foolishness,? ?Get out from there and get dressed at once,? were of no avail in bringing this child back to the real world. Only one who could meet the child on his own level, acknowledge and even empathize with the child's feelings, could gain the sort of trust that was necessary to direct this child on the ?right? path. Such is the way of the wisest sage, and such is the proper way of the Jewish parent.