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Spare the "Potch" - Protect the Child
The Unintended Consequences of Corporal Punishment
by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz
This article orignally appeared in Chicago Community Kollel

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Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

I would appreciate hearing your thoughts on "potching" (hitting) children. I am a regular reader of yours and I don’t remember you ever writing about this subject.

Judging from your columns and parenting tapes, I assume that you would not be in favor of hitting children. If that is the case, how do you respond to people who quote Shlomo Hamelech’s words in Mishlei (13:24), “Chosech shivto sonei b’noi – that one who withholds his stick (does not hit his child) is his child’s enemy,” (since the child will grow up without proper guidance).

Thank you.


Rabbi Horowitz Responds

Dear Chaim:

You are most certainly correct when you wrote that I am not in favor of potching children. In fact, as time goes on, I am becoming more and more opposed to corporal punishment of any shape or form.

As for the quote from the wisest of all men, Shlomo Hamelech; throughout out Torah we find countless examples of phrases and words that are allegorical in nature and never intended to be taken literally. And while the phrase “chosech shivto” could certainly be interpreted to condone and even praise physical punishment (Ralbag concurs with that opinion), it can equally be understood allegorically with the words “shevet” (lit. stick) denoting discipline (Metzudos Dovid). In that context, “Chosech shivto sonei b’noi” would inform us that one who allows his child to grow up without parental guidance, discipline, and constructive criticism is doing him a terrible disservice. (Click here for links to 8 columns I’ve written on the subject of giving constructive criticism.)

I would like to suggest that this pasuk itself is proof positive that the Torah often uses metaphors; for it is difficult to translate sonei to mean that the father quite literally ‘hates’ his son. Rather, it means that the father is causing his son material harm (and it is as if he hates him) by withholding guidance from him.

Additionally, I think there is compelling proof from the second half of the pasuk that the word shivto is translated allegorically and not literally. As is the case with many of the pesukim in Mishlei, the first part of the pasuk is presented in contrast with the second in order to highlight the point Shlomo Hamelech is making. The full text of the pasuk is “Chosech shivto sonei b’noi; v’ohavo shecharo mussar" – one who withholds his stick hates his son; but one who loves [his son] disciplines him in his youth.” I suggest that if “shivto” translates as physically hitting his son; then the second part of the pasuk should say that “One who loves his son strikes him with a stick!” The fact that the pasuk uses the word “mussar” (verbal discipline) seems to indicate that the first half is also noting that the father withholds verbal discipline.

For the record, there are other quotes from our chazal (sages) that support potching children, and many contemporary poskim concur with that approach. But our great rebbi, Rav Avrohom Pam, z’tl would often comment that this is an instance of “Halacha v’ain morin cain" – [even though] halacha may support potching, we do not ‘paskin or apply this method nowadays. Our rebbi explained, that due to the enhanced sense of personal freedom and individual rights nowadays (and this was a generation ago), hitting children is unwise and counterproductive.

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe, z’tl as well, was known to advise parents, that if they are considering hitting their children, they should be aware that their children will ‘hit them back’ for each and every potch when they grow older, by rebelling against their authority and teachings. (See Peleh Yoetz – under ‘Hakoah’.)

There is a timeless Ritva commenting on the gemara (Moed Koton 17a; see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 240:19-20) which says that it is forbidden to hit a grown child, since it violates the prohibition of lifnei iveir lo setain michshol (causing another individual to sin), as is entirely possible that the adult child will sin, by striking or cursing his father in response to being hit.

More than 650 years ago, the Ritva (1250-1330) noted that the gemara prohibits hitting a grown child [only] since it is more likely that an adult would strike back. However, he says, that if even a young child (yeled) is of the temperament to lash out verbally or physically when hit, the prohibition is extended to him as well. I would suggest that in our current society and culture, where corporal punishment is frowned upon and often viewed as abuse, it would stand to reason that the practice of potching children be categorically suspended across the board.

Aside from the halachic ramifications, there are quite a few reasons why I thing hitting children nowadays is wrong, counterproductive, and harmful to your children, and I may address them in a future column. But for now, please allow me to leave you with a sobering thought that may not make me popular in certain circles but needs to be said nonetheless. Here goes:

It is my strong and growing feeling that hitting your children and/or placing them in settings where they can be hit with impunity, dramatically increases the risk that they will be abused or molested.

Think about it. The very foundation of abuse prevention (See Safe and Secure , a column I wrote on this subject) is predicated on the notion that children need to be taught that they have the right to privacy and security, and no one has the right to invade that space. With that in mind; if you hit your own children or allow them to be hit by others, how can you possibly teach them that they have the sacred right to privacy and security? Isn’t it a huge invasion of their space when you hit them? Worded differently, how can you try and protect them from having other people invade their private space if you do so yourself?

I have been saying for years now that the greatest danger your children face is not the Internet, cell phones, or bad friends. It is by far and away molestation that is the #1 cause of drug abuse and kids leaving the derech(see The Monster Inside) . With that in mind, I feel that it is of paramount importance that we learn to parent and educate our children, without resorting to the corporal punishment that damages their self-esteem and makes them far more vulnerable to the ravages of abuse and molestation.

© 2008 Rabbi Yakov Horowitz, all rights reserved

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