What is the point of punishment? What is it supposed to accomplish? We’ll look at types of punishment used by parents with children, but first let’s look at punishment as it relates to criminals.
The four most common theories of punishment of criminals are: retribution, deterrence, rehabilitation, and incapacitation. (The Oxford Handbook of Criminal Law, Edited by Markus D. Dubber and Tatjana Hörnle, Part III, Section D, p. 942)
Retribution is an act of vengeance by which society makes the offender suffer as much as the suffering caused by the crime.
The goal of deterrence is to persuade citizens and possible offenders or re-offenders to conform to the rules of law. The effectiveness of deterrence as a criminal punishment is difficult to assess because people may follow the law for other reasons that may be challenging to track such as religious or moral beliefs, physical incapacitation or lack of opportunity.
Rehabilitation focuses on helping criminals and prisoners overcome the barriers that led them to committing criminal acts.
Incapacitation seeks to prevent future crime by physically moving criminals away from society. It includes house arrest, incarceration, and the death penalty. Findings by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) have brought the effectiveness of this method into question. According to BJS data, about two-thirds (67.8 percent) of prisoners released back into society were arrested for a new crime within three years. And about three-quarters (76.6 percent) were arrested within five years.
Now, how does all of this relate to children? Let’s look at each of the types of punishment and see if it is appropriate for Jewish parents to punish children in this manner and, if so, how effective it is.
The goal of deterrence is to persuade citizens and possible offenders or re-offenders to conform to the rules of law. We noted above that the effectiveness of deterrence as a criminal punishment is difficult to assess because people may follow the law for other reasons that may be challenging to track such as religious or moral beliefs, physical incapacitation or lack of opportunity. As children mature, their religious beliefs may lead them to better behavior in conformance with halachic requirements. However, they also gain more freedom of choice in terms of environments and friends as it becomes unrealistic to restrict their movement or reduce their opportunities.
For young children whose movements and choices you can restrict, deterrence is an attempt to persuade children to conform to your rules by making them afraid of the punishment. You need to be aware that it often results in young children becoming better at not getting caught by becoming sneaky and devious and by lying.
Incapacitation when used as a punishment by parents does physically remove children from society. Whether it is time-out for young children or grounding for teens, it isolates them and places them in an environment in which they cannot repeat their offense. Obviously, it isn’t long before they return to their usual environment, and often repeat their offense, just like three-quarters of criminals.
Retribution, making the offender suffer as much as the suffering caused by the crime, is itself a crime, an aviera. It is classic nekama. The Torah says lo sikom; it is a lav mi’dioraisa. (Vayikra 19:18, Mishna Torah Daos 6:6) This is no less true for parents and children. Making a child suffer in return for displeasure he caused you is classic, forbidden, nikama. This applies to physical and emotional suffering, including humiliation.
Okay, that may be true in other circumstances, but isn’t it a mitzvah to be mechanaich children? And isn’t that a positive mitzvah which would override the negative mitzvah of nekamah, using the principle of aseh docheh lo sa’aseh?
No, there is no mitzvas aseh of chinuch ha’banim.
But what about the gemara that says, “gedolah nekama she’nasna bein shtei Shaimos?” (Great is nekama for it is mentioned between two names of HaShem in Tehilim 94:4, Kail nekamos HaShem)
You can see one explanation of this in the Kli Yakar on Vayikra 19:18. I would suggest another one based on the analysis of the Targum Onkelos on Shemos 21:20 in the sefer Parshegen on Shemos (pps. 411-413) by Rav Raphael Binyamin Posen, Z”L.
Rav Posen points out that on Vayikra 19:18, the Targum of seekom is seekom (the same as the Hebrew word, meaning revenge), but every time the word nekama is found in the Torah with reference to HaShem, the Targum renders it puranus which is related to the word perayon which means payment, not revenge. (In our pasuk and in Braishis 4:24 the Targum treats the term nekama differently based on the contexts.)
When HaShem expresses nekama after a misdeed there is no dimension of revenge. Rav Posen explains that the Targum avoids the word nekama in reference to HaShem because:
It would imply that HaShem gives evil (Ra) to one who did evil to Him, and this cannot be said for a person’s bad [behavior] has no effect on HaShem. Also, the term nekama implies hatred on the part of the one taking nekama, and this cannot be said with regard to HaShem.
In contrast, the term perayon implies paying something to someone, giving something of benefit as a form of punishment. This would be in the category of punishment that is termed “rehabilitation.” HaShem rehabilitates a person who has sinned against Him. There may be some discomfort in the process, but it is ultimately beneficial in that it enables the person to do better next time.
When parents realize that a child’s misbehavior need not have any effect on them, it is not a threat to their competence or image, parents can also rehabilitate the child, help the child learn to do better, rather than make him suffer for doing poorly the last time.
Dale Carnegie said to develop success from failures. Teshuva mai’ahavah changes sin to mitzvah, failure to success. Your expression of loving assistance to your child in a time of frustration is more likely to help him to improve.