I will confess that there are times my own son makes me so mad I could smack him. Experts will tell you that both responses come from the same ugly place.
According to the UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) South Africa, corporal and humiliating punishment in the home is widespread, with 58 percent of parents saying they smacked their children at some point and 33 percent reporting using a belt or object to hit their children.
Unicef believes social acceptance or tolerance of various forms of violence (such as intimate partner violence and corporal punishment) is a major factor in the perpetuation of violence.
The latest statistics from the South African Child Gauge state that more than half of children experience physical violence by a guardian, teacher or relative.
In a paper for the gauge, written by Shanaaz Mathews (Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town) and Patrizia Benvenuti (Unicef, South Africa), violence against children is multi-layered.
Apartheid’s migrant labour system created an environment in which large numbers of fathers were absent parents.
This served to accentuate gender inequalities. The psycho-social impact of cultural and traditional practices that undermine dignity, such as virginity testing, forced marriage and circumcision, were also contributing factors.
For many parents, the glib “I was raised that way” response still serves as reason enough for their actions.
Deevia Bhana, an associate professor in the faculty of education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said 41 countries had banned corporal punishment by parents.
“While South Africa upholds high political commitment towards children’s rights, it is surprising that there is relative silence about the scourge of corporal punishment against children in their homes by their parents and caregivers, when such violence has been banned in schools,” she said.
“When parents inflict corporal punishment it’s often based on rigid and outmoded views about the power of the parent to discipline and bring order. This is highly contradictory and children learn from their parents, as they do from other sectors, that violence is an acceptable means to address problems.”
Parents whose arguments are based on “how we were raised” can often remember a belting or a slap from their childhood, which in itself should be evidence of the mark it leaves.
Science Of Parenting author Margot Sunderland said children who were not helped to manage their feelings in childhood were often the ones who became adults that committed domestic violence.
“Most of us feel anger from time to time – for some people these feelings remain overwhelming and unmanageable throughout their lives and can trigger the most terrible episodes of family violence,” she wrote.
Lizanne du Plessis, a Cape Town-based occupational therapist who recently released her book Raising Happy Children, explained the human response behind an enraged smack.
The amygdala, an almond-sized area of the brain, is what causes us to act before we think – to lose control. It’s also what helps us jump out of the way of a car, but, when fear, stress and anxiety take over, it causes us to overreact or lose self-control.
Du Plessis writes that it is easy for parents to feel antagonistic and frustrated with a child who presents challenging behaviour such as tantrums, moodiness and hyperactivity. However, she encourages parents to make sense of the behaviour. Common reasons are tiredness, hunger or a young, not fully developed brain.
Du Plessis emphasises – and this is worth noting for the next time you’re about to spank your child – how fundamental the parent-child relationship is.
Strong bonds and connectedness provide a base for which a child is able to explore her environment and manage stress.
So be intentional about nurturing that connection – especially in challenging times.