The Jerusalem Post, February 7, 2000
Spank no more
By Herb Keinon
(February 4) -- The Supreme Court recently upheld a child-abuse verdict, and in the process took a wide swipe at corporal punishment in the home.
A front-page headline in Yediot Aharonot last week - "Supreme Court: Parents are forbidden to even lightly smack their children" - looked as if it came from a Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory-style drama about childhood fantasies. One almost expected to turn the page and see an article announcing a new law banning Brussels sprouts, or a story about legislation mandating two scoops of ice cream after every meal.
For kids throughout the land, this court decision must have set off thoughts of "Free at last, free at last, thank God Almighty we are free at last."
For many parents, on the other hand, the decision probably left them wondering, "If I can't occasionally spank my child, how am I to discipline?"
What Supreme Court Justice Dorit Beinisch did, in writing the majority opinion that rejected an appeal in a child-abuse case, was to go way beyond the case at hand and set a societal norm. She also sparked agitated debate - political and around the dinner table - about the merits of physical punishment as a child-rearing tool.
What she didn't do is rule - in contrast to what could be gleaned from the Yediot headline - that every parent who spanks his/her child will be brought up on criminal charges.
"In the judicial, social and educational circumstances in which we live, we must not make compromises that can endanger the welfare and physical well-being of minors," Beinisch writes. "We must also take into account that we are living in a society where violence is spreading like a plague, and permission for light violence could deteriorate into more severe violence. There can be no endangering of the physical and emotional well-being of the child through any kind of physical violence.
"The norm has to be clear and unequivocal that physical punishment is not permissible. Children are not the property of the parent and it is forbidden to use them as punching bags," Beinisch continues.
"Punishment that causes pain or humiliation is completely forbidden and is a hold-over from an educational and social philosophy whose time has passed. It does not contribute to the character of children or to their education, and damages their bodies, feelings, honor and development. It [corporal punishment] distances us from our yearning to be a society free of violence."
THE COURT was ruling on the appeal of a mother convicted of brutal treatment and assault of a minor, for hitting and slapping her children and, in two specific cases, hitting her daughter with a vacuum cleaner and punching her son in the face, thereby breaking his tooth.
Beinisch and Supreme Court President Aharon Barak rejected the appeal, while Justice Izhak Englard ruled that the woman had not used brutality against her children.
While unequivocally frowning on physical punishment, Beinisch made it clear that the court's intent is not to press charges against everyone who spanks his child once in a while. Beinisch wrote that there are "filters" in the law that will ensure that in "light cases" parents will not be held criminally responsible. The court's decision also allows for use of physical force in situations where the child may be endangering himself or others.
If that is the case, then why the lengthy discussion on corporal punishment?
"Legislation and judicial decisions don't exist only to put offenders in jail," says Yitzhak Kadman, head of the National Council for the Child. "They also exist to create norms and tell the public what is forbidden and permitted, what is proper and improper behavior."
According to Kadman, the intention of the ruling "is not to turn parents into criminals, or put a policeman in front of every door and create a situation where parents who hit their kids in a fit of anger once every five years will be brought to trial."
Rather, he says, the ruling is significant for its declarative value, for setting norms, for saying that hitting or spanking one's child is wrong, period.
Although Kadman applauds such an effort - an effort which puts Israel on near par with several Scandinavian and European countries which have actually legislated against corporal punishment - not everyone is so thrilled.
Naomi Baum, a child psychologist and director of psychological services for the Gush Etzion Regional Council, says she has a problem with such a sweeping declaration.
"There are not a whole lot of situations where giving a spanking is acceptable, but I believe there are some," says Baum. "As a rule I think that it is important to punish kids without resorting to physical punishment, but to say that at all times it is absolutely forbidden, I have a hard time with that."
According to Baum, the court is basically telling the parents how to be parents. "There is no question that we have a long way to go in dealing with child abuse in this country, but I don't think the way to do it is by telling the parents you can never hit your kid," she says.
"I think there are lots of different ways of raising children. I don't think that what is right for me is necessarily right for you. People have to find the right way for them, and to tell parents at all times that they can't ever hit their child may be excessive."
Baum, a consultant for a family Web site called wholefamily.com, says she believes most parents know when their spanking is getting out of hand. "A good yardstick to use is to ask yourself whether you are hitting your child because you are angry, or because you think it is the best punishment you can give your kid.
"If you are doing it because you are angry, you are certainly not doing the right thing because there is always the risk that if you are angry you might lose control - and if you feel you might lose control, don't do it; separate yourself from your kid, move away."
Baum says there are many other more effective ways of discipline, but by ruling out spanking she says the court is not taking a "comprehensive approach" to the issue.
According to Baum, Beinisch should also have written in the same breath that "children have to remember that parents are their parents. What the court is doing is undermining to some degree the authority of the parents in the family. I know this is not their intent, but in practice that is what is happening."
AMOS Rolider, chairman of the Behavioral Sciences Department at the Jezreel Valley College, says that in recent years children, both at home and at school, have had their rights reinforced, while the ability of teachers and parents to enforce discipline and rules has been curtailed.
The end product, he says, is parents who don't know how to set limits for their children, and children who have little respect for the authority of parents and teachers - something that bears some responsibility for the worrisome increase in societal violence.
"In principle I agree that physical punishment is not good, and should be avoided. That is good common sense," Rolider says. "But at the same time, we need punishments for educational purposes."
According to Rolider, "there are some kids that if the father looks in their eyes and says, 'Son, I am disappointed in you, don't do it again, this type of behavior is inappropriate and will harm you,' then that will do the trick.And there are others for whom that is not enough, not effective."
In these cases, Rolider maintains that there may be no other choice than to apply some physical pressure, though he says the child should be restrained or held, not hit.
"To smack a child because the parent is frustrated, or to lift a hand because of something that happened to the parent at work, is obviously unacceptable behavior," Rolider says. "But I say that there are situations where parents need a suitable reaction to extreme behavior, and that is to hold the child and tell him - no.
"The trend that the children have all the rights, and the adults are losing theirs, is not necessarily a trend that is for the good of the child," he says.
"We have to look and see what is more dangerous - the fact that there are no parental limits, something which can lead to violent and antisocial behavior on the part of some kids, or the chance that the child will learn aggressive behavior because his parents use physical punishment."
Kadman, however, likens the argument of using physical pressure to set limits so children don't become violent, to someone who wants to put out a fire by throwing a pail of gasoline on it.
"This is absurd," he says. "Research done in the US shows that children punished physically were many times more violent to their classmates and siblings than those who were not hit. And it is clear why this is so.
"A child doesn't learn proper behavior from a civics class in school. Most of the learning is done from mimicking the behavior of the significant adults in his life. So why, if he gets a slap when he bothers someone, can't he react similarly when his brother takes his toy?
"Just as it is impossible to lecture against smoking while having a cigarette dangling from your mouth, so too is it impossible for a parent to educate against violence when it is used in the home. One thing contradicts the other."
KADMAN says that the ruling does not place the court against setting limits, or discipline. "We are in favor of limits, of parents and teachers teaching what is good and bad. But we are saying not to do that with blows because that humiliates and hurts the kid, but does nothing to help him internalize the message. The only thing that you learn from a smack is to be afraid of the person who hit you - you don't internalize anything that person is trying to teach."
Most parents who hit their children occasionally admit it was done when they lost control, and not after they sat down and thought out whether it was the best way to get a particular message across, Kadman says.
Shimon Kahn, who teaches 22 three-year-olds in a Jerusalem preschool, agrees that there is no justification for hitting. Yet, he says, if the court wants to take away one of what some parents consider a disciplinary or educational tool, it should provide the parents with something in its stead.
"If we are taking this right away," he says, "maybe we need to provide workshops for parents on how to discipline. Maybe every parent who registers their child in an Education Ministry preschool should, once or twice, be required to come to an hour-long workshop on discipline."
An interesting idea, especially considering that hitting is so easy, and that those who grew up being spanked may need guidelines on other ways to keep their children in line.
"A smack is easy and fast," says Kadman, "too easy. It is much more difficult to have to sit down with children and explain things to them.
"Many parents today don't have time for their kids, they can't sit with them and explain why something is good, and something else is bad; or what the ramifications of their actions are. It is much easier to give a slap. They don't have to talk or communicate. It is a shortcut, but in education there are no shortcuts."