The Israel Anti-Spanking Model

white pigeon with olive branch

Why America should consider following Israel’s lead when it comes to establishing a law against corporal punishment.

by David Cooperson

“Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

This quote, attributed to Victor Hugo two hundred years ago, could describe Israel’s compassionate change in spanking policies. In 2000, Israel decided to protect children by legal means from child corporal-punishment, including spanking.

Here’s what many Americans don’t know: the U.S. refused to sign the United Nations Children’s Bill of Rights of 1996 that was opposed to any physical punishment of children. Nearly 200 countries ratified the treaty, and the only other country that refused to sign was Somalia – a virtually lawless country. The U.S. based its opposition in part on prioritizing states’ rights versus children’s rights. Perhaps it’s also true that Americans don’t want the United Nations telling them what to do. What we do know is that, in all 50 U.S. states, physical punishment in the home is legal; and in 19 states, corporal punishment is legal in schools, usually with paddles.

According to Margot Sunderland, British child psychologist and director of education and training at the Centre for Child Mental Health in London, in The Science of Parenting (2008): “Research on parental behavior in the U.S. shows that 71% of parents smack their one-year-olds; 91% of children are smacked; and 10% have been hit with an implement.” It is still ingrained in our tradition. Congress has rejected several bills over the last few years to make paddling in schools illegal, and, currently, the Ending Corporal Punishment in Schools Act of 2015 (H.R.2268) has so far gained no traction in Congress.

One of the main reasons parents still spank is that it can be difficult to model calm, nonphysical problem-solving in their parenting if they were not raised with these skills. Given that spanking is supported by our own nation, this certainly lessens the chance that parents will see spanking as a problem. The behavior is so deeply embedded for so many parents that trying to create new spanking policies is like swimming upstream.

So how did Israel get on board with a no-spanking law?

Israel, like most other countries, has also had a history of using physical punishment on children. One of Judaism’s most humane scholars of all time, Moses Maimonides, even deviated from his usual sensitive position by stating that, if a child was beaten and seriously injured or even killed by a teacher for refusing to do his religious studies, the educator would be innocent. This was only if he had no intention of hurting the child, but one can see how complicated this could be to decipher. Physical punishment at home and school was an accepted child-rearing practice by many Israeli scholars and much of the Orthodox Jewish community.

What turned it around for Israel was looking closely at the 30 years of research demonstrating the danger of physical punishment, including spanking, to children. Much of the research included studies on how physical punishment can drive children to become more aggressive, more likely to engage in domestic violence as adults, and more prone to being bullies. Elizabeth Gershoff, a developmental psychologist from the University of Texas at Austin and noted expert on child corporal punishment, found that in nearly 100 percent of cases, physical punishment did not teach the children corrective strategies for their behavior; worse, spanking could cause more damage than intended or spiral out of control.

Research on the Holocaust also played a significant role in Israel’s policy change, including that by Dr. Samuel P. Oliner, who received a doctorate in sociology from the University of California at Berkeley. Oliner, a rescued survivor himself, went searching to discover why only one half of one percent of the population in the Nazi occupied territories rescued the Jews, and found something interesting: those who rescued the Jews received almost no physical punishment as children, including spanking, as opposed to the bystanders. Social psychologist Dr. Eva Fogelman, born in a displaced person’s camp following the Holocaust, has devoted much of her career to learning more about the Holocaust and its survivors. She also found that physical punishment, such as spanking, rarely happened to rescuers; rather, they had parents who were gentle and taught their children to solve problems peacefully.

For Israel, this research on the Holocaust was in line with some of the already established laws on children’s rights, and it helped to institute an anti-spanking law. In 2000, the Knesset ruled that corporal punishment of children by their parents is never educational and always causes serious harm to the children. Israel’s time had come to protect children from physical punishment not only at school, but also in the home. Israel – and about 100 of the 200 countries that ratified the Children’s Bill of Rights from the United Nations – went on to make corporal punishment in schools illegal. Approximately 30 countries beside Israel made corporal punishment at home illegal, as well.

My own transformation with spanking

I have had my own personal evolution when it comes to spanking. I was not easily swayed at first to believe that physical punishment is ineffective and potentially dangerous. I believed from my family history of physical punishment that spanking was the only way to punish a child. However, as a social worker, an administrator for children in protective services, and family therapist, the repercussions of spanking became undeniable. I engaged in years of therapy to unravel my attitudes around spanking, and went on to study the massive amount of research on the subject of physical punishment. The time to accept a powerful idea of compassionate parenting came for me years ago. I hope others will follow.

About the Author

David A Cooperson, MSW, MA, LCSW, received a master’s in social work from Rutgers University, as well as an MA in psychology from the New School for Social Research. He was an administrator and social worker for 32 years at one of the largest public child protection agencies in the United States. He was a child therapist and family therapist for most of those years. Cooperson published articles on the effect of child maltreatment on the developing brain, and the ethics and values that demand people work toward ending the legal physical punishment of children. His book, The Holocaust Lessons on Compassionate Parenting and Child Corporal Punishment (2014), is available on Amazon.

One Comment

  1. Eileen Moroski September 30, 2015 Reply

    I was spanked as a child and it didn’t hurt me one bit. It was only if you where really bad and it was not often. Back then we did have respect for adults not like today.. My children where spanked as well and again not often they knew most times if I just gave them a look they knew enough to stop doing what they shouldn’t be doing..
    I realize not everyone can keep themselvs under control and I am not talking about a beating I am talking about a swat on the behind never hurt anyone. Mmost parents who are not educated seem to be the ones who can’t control themselves and end up beating their children. I guess we need to do something about educating everyone in this country and just maybe this would stop

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