Discipline is a symbol of caring to a child…if there is love, there is no such thing as being too tough with a child.—Bette Davis
There once was a little boy who was very intelligent but a kleptomaniac—he couldn’t help but steal things from other children. His mother never scolded him or told him that what he was doing was wrong, and the boy just carried on.
What started as a childhood proclivity soon graduated into a full-blown addiction, and he committed grander and more daring thefts until he got caught. The judge hearing his case decided that, to deter others from similar conduct, the young man should be punished severely: a public whipping.
On the appointed day, as he was being taken to the town square for punishment, the thief bumped into his mother, and shouted at her in a most vile and disrespectful manner.
“I know what I did is wrong,” he cried out. “But I want all mothers to take heart—my mother should have disciplined me as a child when I started down the wrong path. Had she disciplined me then, I would not be the thief who stands before you today.”
Hearing this, his mother realized the error of her ways, and she pleaded with the judges to reduce her son’s punishment since she was at least partly to blame.
After much deliberation, the judges agreed that the sentence could be commuted. “The purpose of this public punishment was to serve as a warning to would-be thieves. But what has transpired here today serves as a far better and more widely-applicable lesson—not to would-be thieves, but to all parents: Discipline your children!”
Hearing this, the thief’s mother hugged him and begged his forgiveness.
The potential to ruin one’s child by failing to discipline is not a new phenomenon. “Yitzchak loved Esav, for game was in his mouth, and Rivka loved Yaakov” (Bereishis 25:28)—Esav became a sinner because Yitzchak “loved” him and did not discipline him (Shemos Rabba 1:1; Tanchuma, Shemos 1; see Shmuel 2:23 and 3:13). Indeed, “trustworthy are the wounds of one who loves; numerous are the false kisses of one who hates” (Mishlei 27:6).
Genuine love is not about constant approval; it is about disciplining the child for a successful life. “Any love without discipline is not a genuine love” (Bereishis Rabba 54:3; Mishlei 3:12). “One who hears his son say silly things and downplays it—‘he is a child, let him play’—causes great harm” (Bamidbar Rabba 4). “One who spares his rod hates his child, but he who loves him disciplines him in his youth” (Mishlei 13:24; see also Mishlei 13:1; Mishlei 29:15-17; Mishlei 19:18). Even children who act properly require discipline (Makkos 8a).
We often conflate discipline and punishment, but they are not the same. Punishment is retrospective, aimed at admonishing past behavior; discipline is prospective, instructing on how to act in the future. Punishment focuses on the child’s self-worth; discipline focuses on the child’s acts. Punishment tells the child how bad he/she was; discipline tells the child how good he/she can be.
One can debate whether it is advisable to “potch” children. (“Potching” and “hitting” are poles apart, and one who fails to see the difference should administer neither.)
Some contemporary authorities are of the opinion that children generally should not be potched, although even those authorities admit certain exceptions. In this sense, the proverbial “rod” is whatever will be effective in disciplining the child (Z’riya U’binyan B’chinuch, pg. 24-25). Rav Pam is said to have regarded the obligation to potch as a “rule, but one that is not taught,” since the heightened sense of personal freedom and individual rights accorded to children nowadays might make potching counterproductive.
Others are more inclined to condone potching in appropriate situations (Michtav MeEliyahu, Vol. 3, pg. 360; Igros Moshe, Yoreh Dei’ah 4:30:4 and Yoreh Dei’ah 1:140; cf. Rambam, Geneiva 1:10). My grandfather, an educator of some renown, often would relate the joke that every child needs a good pat on the back—as long as it’s low enough, hard enough, and often enough. Potch once or twice, as a last resort, and you’ll never need to do it again; after that, the mere threat is enough.
But there can be no question that discipline should be dispensed only under the right circumstances—the right way, with the right child, at the right time, in the right setting, with the right goals. Anything short of this ideal scenario will accomplish nothing and may cause deep-seated emotional harm.
It is forbidden to potch a grown child, since it may cause the child to sin by striking, cursing, or otherwise rebelling against the parent (Mo’ed Katan 17a; see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei’ah 240:19-20; see also Responsa Seridei Esh 3:95). These days, that prohibition may even extend to younger children of more volatile temperament (Ritva, Mo’ed Katan 17a; Pele Yo’etz, Hitting; Z’riya U’binyan B’chinuch, pg. 24-25).
Discipline also must be dispensed calmly and without anger—as one reluctantly carrying out a duty for the sake of another (see e.g. Gittin 6b-7a [discussing the effects of anger on a household]; Rambam, Talmud Torah 2:2; Even Shleima of Vilna Gaon). R’ Boruch Ber Lebowitz’s son once turned off the lights before havdala. After calmly making havdala, R’ Boruch Ber told his son, “I love you dearly, but you turned off a light when there is a rabbinic prohibition against performing work. Therefore, I must give you a potch.” If one is to potch at all, that’s the way to do it.
Indeed, instilling in children a dreadful fear of discipline can have calamitous consequences, as with Georgias of Lod, whose son leaped to his death out of fear when his father threatened to punish him for cutting school (Semachos 2:4-5).
Discipline also must follow immediately on the heels of the undesirable conduct it is intended to correct (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 165:7; Semachos 2:6). The discipline is then linked to the misdeed, and the child learns to associate misconduct with real and immediate consequences. An immediate response also prevents the child from developing anxiety about looming discipline, and it reinforces to the child that the discipline is directed at the act, not the person.
But above all, discipline must be an act of love—instructive, not damaging—and it is to be done lightly (Bava Basra 21a and Rashi ad loc.; Rambam, Talmud Torah 2:2; see also On Being a Friend to Your Children, Selected Speeches [R’ Shimon Schwab], CIS Communications). It should convey the message clearly that the child’s welfare is the sole concern.
Are things different today than they were in bygone years? Perhaps. Though spoiled in the physical sense, today’s children are more emotionally needy, as the frantic pace of life does not permit parents to devote sufficient time (or quality time) with their children. But is that an excuse for parents to abdicate their responsibility to discipline? Absolutely not.
Misguided zeitgeist notwithstanding, child discipline is a principal parental responsibility, and sometimes it calls for tough love. On the one hand, it must be tough, drawing real red lines—not Obama red lines—about unacceptable conduct. And yet, it also must be love—not only emanating from love but conveying to the child that it does. There must be balance between firm discipline and loving nourishment—“push away with the left hand; draw close with the right hand”—with an emphasis on the latter (Sanhedrin 107b; Sota 47a). Discipline is successful only when the home is an atmosphere rich in love and warmth. It is only then that the child processes discipline as an act of love.
As a child, Elyah’s family lived in poverty. One day, he ran into the kitchen and accidentally knocked over and broke one of their more valuable utensils. His mother potched him and said, “Eliyahu, this is not okay. You need to be careful when you enter the kitchen!”
The young boy cried and apologized. “I’ll try not to do that ever again.”
Some days later, the front door of the house inadvertently had been left open. When Elyah’s mother heard clucking, she rushed to the kitchen to find a chicken jumping around and smashing things. She broke into laughter and called out to the rest of the household for help in chasing away the intruder.
Little Elyah stood at the kitchen door, in tears.
“What’s wrong?” his mother asked. “Are you hurt?”
“No. But when I broke one thing you potched me. When the chicken broke a bunch of things, you laughed and sent the chicken away without a potch.”
His mother tried unsuccessfully to explain that, unlike a human being, a chicken cannot gauge the impact of its actions or understand the damages they cause.
The years passed and little Elyah grew into R’ Elyah Lopian, a preeminent leader of the mussar movement. Recalling this story from his childhood, R’ Elyah would add, “It is worth a few potches to be considered a human being and not a chicken.”
That is what child discipline is all about. At its core, it is about reminding children of their potential as human beings. It is about building children up instead of tearing them down. And that requires tough and love.