Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Punishment or Teshuvah- Repentance by Allan Katz

Guest Post by Allan Katz: 

In one of the discussions on the DT blog about using extrinsic motivators like punishment , I was challenged  with the pasuk  וידעת עם לבבך כי כאשר ייסר איש את בנו יהוה אלהיך מיסרך

I said I would respond at a different time. The pasuk  Devarim 8:5  is in this week's parasha, so here is my response
Against 'punishing kids , doesn't the Torah - Devarim 8:5 say -You should know in your heart that just as a father will chastise his son, so Hashem-Your God, chastises you
וידעת עם לבבך כי כאשר ייסר איש את בנו יהוה אלהיך מיסרך

Rabbi Shimson R. Hirsch notes that the word מוסר - mussar =moral teaching has nothing to do with punishment or chastisement which focuses on making a kid suffer for past mistakes. It is about kids internalizing the education and guidance they receive from their fathers. Does God actually punish us or is it more about how we make meaning of what happens to us? Man has the freedom of choice to interpret and explain his misfortune. It could be simply the way of the world, bad luck or misfortune, (reward or) punishment for past behavior or God communicating to him to change his ways and do Te'shuvah. The Talmud-Kidushin 20, tells of a man who sins by doing business with fruit from the Sabbatical year -fruit that is deemed ownerless and free to be taken by all. There is a consequence for this sin - he has to sell his movable property , if he does not change – he has to sell his fields, then his home , his daughter , and if he has not yet changed, he will have to sell himself to an idolater. Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz asks – why did he not learn the first time or the second time? People find it so difficult to say they did wrong and change, especially when people are struggling and taking knocks, since they tend to feel sorry for themselves.

One might ask that when parents or teachers punish kids, the lesson and message is clear and it is in the interests of the child to change to avoid the punishment. We may think we are teaching him a lesson, but he is still free to make meaning of what is happening to him.Usually , he learns something completely different - you are unfair.[...]


  1. In the book about Reb Mayer Chodosh, considered the last of the musar greats, stories are brought about children caught doing wrong things and people were thrilled that they had discovered the perpetrator. The Mashgiach forbade any punishment in these cases, and considered only what would help the person. These students that he dealt with this way very often succeeded, and the students who got punished were broken. The Chazon Ish held that a Yeshiva that suspends a child has destroyed a Jew. Reb Elchohnon suspended when the child was a threat to the Yeshiva. But punishment must be meted by an expert. Reb Mayer Chodosh never even yelled at his own children until he calmed down completely. Somebody was caught stealing tephilin parshiyose. Reb Mayer Chodosh ruled that nobody should deal with this except him. He spoke with the father of the boy and the boy ended up a Ben Torah. He said that education is not about punishment, but about changing somebody.
    Today punishment can really backfire as we see that without punishment many students are lost. The Chofetz Chaim said that we don't fight evil by punching it, but by creating light.
    Yeyash Koach to Allan for his interest in this topic. Reb Moshe once complained that he is asked every kind of question but rarely about education.

  2. Thank you for your thought-out and thought-provoking article.

    I understand what you say about punishment. What about consequences? Lets say a child misbehaves in a store. The child didn't offer recognition of the inappropriate behavior etc. I would think that its reasonable and proper for a parent to lovingly notify the child that they see it's "too difficult" for the child to behave appropriately in the store, and will therefore not be able to come to the store until they are able to do so.

    Same if a child begins lying. Once a pattern develops, a parent can tell the child about almost anything they say "how can I be sure that what you're saying is true"?

    These things are natural outgrowths of the childs behavior rather than a punishment. It is a consequence that the child themselves created - similar to a child breaking their toy. They broke their toy, so they don't have that toy to play with until they tape the toy together or earn a new one.

  3. Thanks for your kind words and interesting
    questions. Care givers will use natural consequences and their inaction to try and motivate kids. Kids and even adults ' look bad' when the demands placed on them outstrip the skills they have to cope with these demands. So consequences are not going to teach lagging skills.

    I wrote a blog post on natural consequences

    Store - for sure going to the store might not
    be age appropriate or the kid does not have the skills , but I would try to do some cps – collaborative problem solving with the kid to find a solution which is realistic and doable, so that both the parent and kids concerns are being addressed. Otherwise I would try to compensate by going to the park or some other activity with a parent.

    – lying is a symptom , how the kid looks bad. One would have to look at the possible lagging skills and unmet concerns to try and define the problem and then brainstorm solutions. Skills are taught indirectly when we use the cps process with the kid.

    toy – as you said , helping the kid to think what he can do next and if needed help him to tape the toy. If it is beyond repair , we can suggest waiting for his birthday etc and if the toy is something beneficial or special to the kid, we could get a new one. When we
    make mistakes and brake things we tend to get something new straight away.


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