Ethan Lowe | Corporal punishment – Should we spare the rod?
On July 18, Nashawn Brown, age four, died after he was beaten with a stick by his stepfather for eating too slowly. On June 28, seven-year-old Tianna Russell died from blunt force trauma allegedly inflicted by her father and stepmother.
“All children,” Diderot the French philosopher observed, “are essentially criminals, it is merely our good luck that their physical powers are still too limited to carry out their destructiveness.” Throughout history, children were regarded as innately depraved and must be socialised by force, hence the modern-day expression “spare the rod and spoil the child.” While this saying is not biblical, it probably paraphrased from Proverbs 13:24, “ whoever spares the rod, hates their children, but the one who loves their children is careful to discipline them”. To put it more bluntly, “better to beat your child when small, than to see him hanged when grown”, from a medieval French verse.
In a country where spousal abuse, homicides and other forms of violence are common, the above examples of horrific fatal abuses of two children are not surprising. It is noteworthy, but again hardly surprising, that step-parents were involved. Step-parents tend to care less profoundly for children under their care than natural parents. Studies have shown: a child living with one or more step-parents was more likely to be fatally abused than a child living with natural parents. Caring for a young stepchild, a stepfather almost surely won’t benefit, in his eyes (a Darwinian, natural selection obstacle in not having his genes); not only will he be less likely to love the child, but also caring for the child will put a strain on his resources.
MORE TO THE EXTREME
Good parents discipline their children to keep them out of danger and to prepare them to be responsible and effective members of their community. But the discipline may be a bit more to the extreme than would be in the interest of the children. I remember with amusement not too long ago, when young Jamaicans (including yours truly) were subjected to horribly tasting herb tea and ‘Brooklax’ to clean out all manner of ills, from grinding one’s teeth to picking one’s nose. Worms! exclaimed the experts. The treatment: a good washout. Clearly, our parents meant well, but is this a mild form of child abuse? Luckily, we survived.
Abuse frequently seems to result from poor parental management of conflicts — often, parents losing control and resorting to physical violence. Tension arises between what a parent wants and what a child wants. This parent-offspring conflict says nothing about how much investments an offspring should want, and how much a parent should be prepared to give ( in resources and time). However much a parent is willing to give, the child may want a bit more. Even parents who treat their children cruelly may believe they are acting in the child’s best interest. To resolve this impasse, the child may find it difficult to explain what he wants, or what is his problem, except by crying a bit longer or louder than his objective need calls for, and this only makes the problem worse. Child-rearing is frequently a battle of wills. What it does not explain, is why the battle should be fought with sticks and insults.
Of course, using corporal punishment to discipline a child can be defined in different ways — an open hand on a child’s buttocks, or a rap on his knuckles or hard spanking or slaps. Spanking has harmful side effects, including aggression, delinquency, substance abuse, depression and suicide. Spanking may teach children that violence is a way to solve problems. Innately violent parents have innately violent children. Spanking is not particularly effective in reducing misbehaviour, compared to explaining the infraction to the child and using non-violent measures, like scolding and time outs. It also damages the relationship between kids and their parents, eroding the trust, stability and security — skills needed to have a stable family.
The primary aim of discipline shouldn’t be to control kids. Instead, it should be a learning process – learning to control themselves. Aside from intelligence, no other trait augers as well for a healthy and successful life. People have struggled with self-control ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, and St Augustine prayed, “Lord, make me chaste—but not yet”. Self-control has been credited with reducing self-inflicted bad habits – smoking, drinking, gambling and violence.
Instead of corporal punishment, consider alternate strategies such as taking away certain privileges, like TV viewing. If your child breaks something, make him do chores to earn money to fix it (restitution). Use positive reinforcements to encourage good behaviour; for instance, establishing a reward system.
Other than in fundamentalist Christian groups, its rare to hear people say that sparing the rod will spoil the child. Scenes of father with belts, mothers with hair brushes, and teary-eyed children with bruised bottoms are no longer common in family entertainment.
Parents do have the right to raise their children the way they see fit. That’s the core of family values. At the same time, parents don’t literally own their children (like slave owners once owned slaves), but are more like their guardians, and ought to be held accountable by outsiders if they mistreat their children. Children have rights, too.
Ethon Lowe is a medical doctor. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.