Spanking, Smacking, Potching: Is It Okay to Hit Your Kids?
Modern parenting approaches have largely sworn off any form of corporal punishment, whether on the hand, face, or rear end. I actually once learned from a client in New Zealand that corporal punishment is outright illegal there, and you can get in trouble for so much as pulling a kid to their room by their ear. (Is it strange that our grandmas would be considered felons today?)
Yet the Torah seems to indicate that hitting one’s children is acceptable, perhaps even desirable. Are modern sensibilities simply off-base, to be ignored in light of the Torah’s position? Certainly that’s a possible answer – there’s no lack of examples where that’s exactly the case.
But the opposition to corporal punishment does bring up some compelling points. Doesn’t solving a problem with violence lead to more violence? Don’t we thereby teach kids that might makes right? Doesn’t it harm our relationship with the child?
I think there is a simple resolution to the contradiction.
Corporal punishment can be a modest component of your parenting toolkit, so long as you never use it when you are angry.
Which means that you can use it, but probably never will.
Angry people generally do not make stellar decisions. You may in a moment of anger think it perfectly reasonable and called for to smack your child. You may think it is fair and demonstrative. Educational, even.
However, if you are physically lashing out at your child out of anger, that is not called chinuch. An angry and violent parent will not succeed in teaching a child any worthwhile lesson by striking him, except perhaps that the parent should be avoided when they are angry.
In this situation, it is indeed likely that you would be training your child to act similarly when they are angry. Children generally understand that there is a power differential between them and their parents. When they are grounded for bad behavior, they do not then learn to ground their parents when they are angry at them.
However, when a parent is lashing out in anger, that is not interpreted simply as the right of the parent, nor is it accepted as a just consequence. (If you were ever slapped or spanked as a child, think back to those moments. Were you moved to feel remorseful about whatever you had done that had provoked that reaction? Or were you just terrified, indignant, and enraged?) When you model to your children that you are under the control of your anger, they will indeed learn that such behavior is normal and acceptable.
It could be argued that a potch could send a needed message – my rebbe recounts the time he needed to convey to one of his children the importance of not playing with an electric socket. That message will only get across if it is delivered from a state of calm and love. (That said, Rav Wolbe said that in our generation corporal punishment is not really an option: the gemara says that you should not hit a child who is no longer a katan because he will strike you back, and by hitting him you are therefore causing him to sin quite grievously. Rav Wolbe notes that these days, this is true even of a three-year-old.)
I think this makes the machlokes much smaller. I would venture that nearly every time you have hit or thought of hitting your child, it was when you were angry. I myself can certainly relate to a strong urge to smack an impertinent tween across the face, but I am proud to say I have never succumbed to the impulse.
I have also considered in calm moments whether a particular incident merited a potch as a response. So far I have never come to a rational conclusion that that was the case. But I think it’s possible that one could reach such a conclusion. (I remember hearing of a gadol – which one escapes me – who called his daughter into his study and calmly proceeded to slap her across the face. Then he explained why that was necessary.)
If you think that corporal punishment is useful in some situations, fine. But I think we can all agree that venting one’s anger on a child isn’t proper chinuch for them and it isn’t proper middos for us. We could probably reasonably disagree on when and whether to hit. But let’s be honest with ourselves – the real question is whether we’re going to be hitting them when we’re mad. I don’t think that’s a justifiable course of action.
(That said, I am not judging people you if you find yourself losing control and giving a potch at times. Controlling ourselves in a moment of anger is a lifelong effort. Let’s just avoid justifying such behavior after the fact.)
The bottom line is, we shouldn’t be striking our children out of anger. If you need better parenting techniques, drop us a line. In the meantime, step out of intense situations to calm yourself down, and come back when you’re ready to deal with things with composure. That is a behavior worth modeling to your kids.