Child Discipline – Hands are not for hitting
“Spare the rod and spoil the child”
This proverb has quite a long genesis. The coiner of the version that we use in everyday speech was Samuel Butler, the 17th century poet. In his satirical poem ‘Hudibras’ a love affair is likened to a child, and spanking is commended as a way to make the love grow stronger. The actual verse reads
"What medicine else can cure the fits
Of lovers when they lose their wits?
Love is a boy by poets styled
Then spare the rod and spoil the child."

In many cultures, parents have historically been regarded as having the duty of disciplining their children, and the right to spank them when appropriate. However, attitudes in many countries changed following the publication by pediatrician Benjamin McLane’s book Baby and Child Care in 1946, which advised parents to treat children as individuals, whereas the previous conventional wisdom had been that child rearing should focus on building discipline by physical methods. The change in attitude was followed by legislation. Now many countries around the world have outlawed domestic corporal punishment of children. And in many other places the practice is considered controversial. Let’s weigh the pros and cons of using the rod which unfortunately has been very traditional in our society.

Corporal punishment of children breaches their fundamental human rights to respect for human dignity and physical integrity. Causing physical pain to a child is itself a breach of children’s right to equal protection from assault. Adults often don’t appreciate the impact on the dignity of the child, and the emotional hurt that is also caused. Any form of punishment that causes pain and degradation does not contribute positively to the character or education of the child, but instead it harms his rights as a person. It harms his body, his emotions, his honour and his proper development. It also distances us from our aspiration to be a society free of violence.

Corporal punishment signals to the child that a way to settle interpersonal conflicts is to use physical force and inflict pain. Such children may in turn resort to similar behavior themselves in future. They may also fail to develop trusting, secure relationships with adults and fail to evolve the necessary skills to settle disputes or wield authority in less violent ways.

When parents hit their children in the name of discipline, children learn only to “behave” just to avoid punishment, and they learn that violence is an acceptable way to handle disputes. Good behaviour due to fear of being punished means that a child is avoiding punishment, not showing true good behavior. But when parents show respect for their children’s and others’ human dignity and integrity, children learn respect. Real discipline is not based on force. It grows from understanding, mutual respect and tolerance.

Parents often hit children because they are angry, or stressed. Hitting the child is an easy way of venting their anger. That is when parents hit ‘with whatever came into their hand‘. Many adults know, in their heart of hearts, that the hitting was an emotional response to what is happening rather than a rational decision to “discipline” the child.

Advocates of corporal punishment all over the world pose the same alibi: “As a child my parents hit me hard but it didn’t do me any harm. Would I be what I am today if my parents hadn’t disciplined my physically?
How do you know that you wouldn’t have done so well if your parents had never hit you? None of us knows how we would have turned out if our parents had never hit or humiliated us. And how many people, in saying it did them no harm, are denying the hurt they experienced when the adults closest to them thought they could only teach them by inflicting pain?

As adults we all believe that caning ‘was justice and for our own good’. This is because we all know that our parents loved us very much. None of us likes to think badly of our parents, or of our own parenting. And this makes it very challenging for us adults to think in contrary of beating our children.
Every human behavior can be put to scientific testing. So what does the scientific knowledge say about physical punishment of children? There are a number of studies done in this particular area and all studies have conclusively proved that physical punishment of children plays no useful role in their upbringing and poses only risks to their development. A meta-analysis of 88 such research studies published in Psychological Bulletin, vol. 128, no. 4, reveals a number of negative effects in children, including higher levels of aggression and anti-social behaviour, lower levels of moral values and lower mental health.

The most detailed review of research into the effects of parental corporal punishment has been published in the journal of the American Psychological Association. The author, Elizabeth Thompson Gershoff of Columbia University, presents the results of meta-analyses of the association between parental corporal punishment and 11 child behaviours and experiences. The research has highlighted the role of regular painful physical punishment in the evolution of personalities that are aggressive, violent and lacking in empathy for others, even their own offspring. But in a broader aspect these research findings are irrelevant. We would not look for research into the effects of hitting women or even animals before despising it.

Most countries worldwide have laws against physical punishment of children. In India too there are some specific laws against the use of corporal punishment. But in theory, corporal punishment is covered by all the provisions under Indian law that punishes perpetrators of physical harm. While these provisions make no distinction between adults and children, in practice, corporal punishment tends not to be prosecuted because it is widely accepted socially and quite wrongly regarded as legitimate. So the provisions in law have the potential to be used in situations of corporal punishment, but rarely are. There was a time beating your wife to ‘discipline’ her was perfectly legitimate and was even considered as an “article of faith”. It was only recently that law was established with a penalty for beating a spouse. In punishing children parents have acted in accordance with social expectations, but the time has come to move on to a positive, non-violent relationship with children.

Recently a vintage photo of bare chested Kerala women going round a temple was published in a newspaper.
Do we now consider it as derogatory and obsolete? Likewise, in a few years’ time we will look back in wonder – and with shame and anguish – at the time when it was regarded as lawful and acceptable to hit our dear children.

Dr. Saji Kumar .J

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