As a mandated reporter, someone who is by law required to report any suspected case of abuse to the proper authorities, I have had, on occasion, to interact with both Adult Protective Services and the Association for Children Services. There are times when these organizations find that there is a clear case of abuse but there are also times when they come back with no findings, that is, there is no clear sign of any abuse. In one situation referred to me by the courts, where I was under the impression that there was going to be a finding of abuse, the caseworker reported that while there was signs of parental aggressiveness against a child there was no clear finding. The child was spanked a lot, according to this caseworker but the parents had a cultural position that allowed this type of behavior. The worker told the parents not to physically discipline so much but that was the extent of the findings. The caseworker was very concerned that spanking would cause the child to become more aggressive as he got older because of the discipline but felt that nothing could be done. In other situations, that I have observed verbal abuse is also excused in certain families where cultural background is the context by which the determination is made.

Many parents believe that, as parents, they have the right to set the tone of discipline in their family, and they absolutely do. Government regulators are appropriately loathe to interfere in normal family functioning but increasing research collected over decades  indicates that some forms of discipline are simply dangerous to a child’s well-being.

In 2006, the United Nations Committee on the Right of the Child declared that, physical punishment is considered “legalized violence against children” that should be eliminated through educational methods. One hundred and ninety two countries ratified the document while only two countries, the United States and Somalia, failed to do so. Many professional organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Psychological Association and others have endorsed a report that strongly recommends that parents and educators eliminate physical punishment as a form of discipline. The reason is simple. It does not work for the long term. While spanking a child may work briefly in the short term, studies show that physical punishment inevitably has to be increased in order for it to have an effect. Other studies show that in families where spanking or other forms of physical punishment are used there develops a pattern of aggressiveness both within and outside of the family over generations. Grandparents who were spanked tended to spank their children who in turn spanked their children. These families tended to have a significantly more aggressive reaction to simple life events than those who were not raised with spanking. It may be hard to quantify exactly what constitutes verbal aggressiveness but there are many studies that indicate that parents who are calmer in their tone and choice of language when disciplining their children tend to raise children who have a stronger sense of self and better self esteem. They deal with stressors in a more balanced manner and have stronger social bonds.

The best way to discipline a child is in fact debated. Some suggest that it is ok to allow a child to have a temper tantrum and teaching the child via practice over time to control their tantrums. Others suggest a technique they call “conditional spanking” which allows parents to spank a young child who is openly defiant, but only with an open hand and no more than twice. All however agree that the very best methods of disciplining is for a parent to remain calm, and not yell unless it is absolutely necessary. I sometimes counsel parents that lowering your voice may have an even greater impact on your child’s behavior than yelling. Timeouts also work better than physical discipline techniques and simply speaking to your children on a regular basis has a greater impact on promoting good behavior than anything else.

April is National Child Abuse prevention month. It coincides in part with the holiday of Passover. This holiday is in many ways designed to keep the children engaged in the Seder rituals. The section on the Four Sons contains a note on the best technique for disciplining children. When speaking about the Wicked son the Haggadah tells us to respond forcefully. The Sefas Emes suggests that the Four Sons are a metaphor for every person. We all have a piece of the Four Sons in us. The goal then is to control the wicked component that we all have. If we can do that and keep ourselves calm, we can raise healthier children.