Friday, April 22, 2011

Sparing the Rod? (Hammerman on Ethics)

Sparing the Rod?

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman

Friday, April 22, 2011

Q - I was shocked to read recently that corporal punishment is still legal in 20 states. I also know the famous quote from Proverbs, “Spare the rod, spoil the child.” But on Passover we are taught to answer a child’s questions with patience. Is it ever acceptable for a parent or teacher to hit a child?

A - It is never appropriate to hit a child, at school or at home. Period.

As a youth, I was spanked from time to time. I learned nothing about being a better person from it, and certainly nothing about being a better parent. Effective punishment can be meted out in other ways and the line separating discipline from abuse has gotten too easy to cross. I’ve long felt, in fact, that responsibility to circumcise is placed on the father precisely so that he will inflict upon his child a ritualized blow so intense as to make him recoil, yet so controlled that no damage is really done, to signify that this will be the worst the child will ever know from his parent's hand.

This month, New Mexico became the 31st state to ban corporal punishment in schools , though it is still allowed in American homes . Dozens of other nations, including Israel, have abolished corporal punishment in the family. U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently said: "We want (children) to learn every day in school, but to do that, they must feel safe first. You cannot do your best or concentrate academically if you are scared."

OK, so let’s begin by banning hitting American children, anytime, anywhere.

Even the author of Proverbs itself seems somewhat uncomfortable with that infamous “spare the rod” quote. Elsewhere in the book he says, “Train a child according to his way.”

Did you notice as you sat around the Seder table that nowhere does the Haggadah speak about whapping the Wicked Child into submission? On the contrary, the sages were supremely uneasy about hitting kids, and the Talmud counters “Spare the rod” with gems such as: “Anger in a home is like rottenness in fruit”; “Never threaten children. Either punish them or forgive them”; and,” If you must strike a child, do so only with a shoelace.”

Remember the notorious commandment in Deuteronomy to stone to death a stubborn and rebellious son? According to the Talmud, it was never carried out, as the rabbis went to almost absurd lengths to legislate it out of existence.

So we’ve evolved since biblical times, but we still have a long way to go. Rabbi Mark Dratch points out that many Jewish children, like children everywhere, are the victims of physical, sexual, and emotional abuse. Our chief problem is no longer in how we mete out punishment, but how we abuse children even when reprimand isn’t on the agenda. In the Abraham story, the Torah sent a strong moral message opposing the prevailing practice of child sacrifice. Now, parents have found far more subtle ways to humiliate and torture their kids.

Where there was once "the strap," now we have the college admissions process.

Last month my synagogue screened “Race to Nowhere,” a devastating indictment of our achievement culture that has spawned a movement to transform education and safeguard the health of young people. As I watched this sobering film, the troubling questions kept coming, and they’ve been gnawing at me for weeks.

What are we doing to our kids? Are we literally killing them by piling on the homework and constantly demanding more, forcing them to poison their bodies with stress, stimulants and sleep deprivation? Are we killing their souls by giving them no choice but to cheat in order to keep up and by viewing their accomplishments solely from the prism of a college resume or GPA? Are we denying them a real childhood or preparing them for the pressures of the real world? And is all this "teaching to the test" actually robbing them of the ability to think, to intuit and to explore? Are we robbing them of curiosity and creativity - and in doing so, are we robbing this nation of what it says it wants, a generation of young adults who know how to innovate and think for themselves?

We are grinding our children through numbers machines, turning them into little walking computers, squeezing the humanity out of them, willingly sacrificing quality at the altar of quantity, always asking them for more (or as one girl in the film said, she hates the word "and" because no matter how many accomplishments she can rattle off, the response is always "and???")

The Talmud suggests that parents are obligated to teach their children basic survival skills, like how to swim. Instead, too many of us are throwing them to the sharks. So, while your question is well taken, the problem is far deeper than corporal punishment. The moral issue of the moment is not about whether it’s OK to use the paddle on kids in classrooms. It’s that we are forcing them to row upstream without one.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, CT. Read more Hammerman on Ethics here. Read his blog here

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