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May 25 2011

Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child?

By at 9:08 am

The Torah commands us to “fear your mother and your father.”  When I came across this verse, I had to laugh. I don’t think it’s even entered my son’s head to fear us. And yet, it’s the foundation of all morality according to the Torah and the rabbinic tradition. If you don’t learn to fear and respect your parents, you don’t learn to fear and respect God. Or so they say.

But how to command respect? Turns out that it’s not won through amazing negotiation skills. Or kindness and understanding in the face of total preschooler meltdown. Nope, it’s all about the fear factor.

We don’t hit. My husband and I have long been in agreement about not using corporal punishment with our children. It’s not that I think that spanking is horrible, per se, I just find that the moments that I really WANT to hit my child are precisely the moments that I should not. Hitting a child out of anger is not about discipline—it’s about losing control. And I fear that once I gave myself permission to solve problems this way, it would be far too easy to lash out when the going got tough.

And yet it’s REALLY hard to keep a child in line without the element of fear. “Spare the rod, spoil the child?” Hell yeah. There’s only so many “natural consequences” you can come up with—on the spot, no less–for some of the crazy things that four-year-olds do.

We recently discussed this with close friends of ours and learned that their approach was surprisingly old-school. Like, wash your mouth out with soap for bad language old-school. And it made me realize that perhaps my belief that upper-middle-class parents “don’t do that” was completely delusional. I’d like to think that everyone’s as soft as we are—that we’re all stuck in this post-modern parenting trap together. But that might just be wishful thinking.

All of this talk of fear and respect has finally emboldened me to start demanding a little more from our 4-year-old. For now we’re focusing on the use of time out. Once reserved for clocking other children on the head type infractions, it’s now being used for things that were never time-out worthy before, like raising your voice at a parent. Things that are not about hurting someone, or breaking something, but simply a matter of respect.

More than anything, we want our son to be a mentsch, a good person. And we see so much good in him. But we also see so much 4-year-old boy selfishness and disobedience.  So it’s our job to show him how to love others, respect authority–human and divine–and be a positive force in the world. Rod or no rod, it’s messy work.

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