There has been considerable debate in the media about the proposed banning of physical punishment of children in the home.
Many people question government's right to interfere in their private lives and how they raise their children.
Some have expressed fears that the prohibition of corporal punishment will criminalise parents who smack and hit their children in the name of discipline, but who really love their children and are trying to do what they think is best for them. Others wonder how government can contemplate such a step in our violent society – surely, they reason, we need to increase physical punishment of children to reduce this violence?
How we discipline our children – whether we hit them or not – goes to the core of our parenting style. Naturally, this is a sensitive issue. But perhaps we should take a step back and consider it more objectively.
There are many reasons to prohibit physical punishment of children. Children are physically smaller and emotionally more vulnerable than adults. Children deserve at least the same protection as adults. Beating children violates their rights to physical integrity and to freedom from fear, humiliation and degradation.
But the most compelling argument against physical punishment must relate to our understanding of the kind of society we want to live in, and how we create that society.
South Africa is an extraordinarily violent society. Our levels of sexual, interpersonal, family and community violence are among the highest in the world. And most crimes of violence in South Africa are perpetrated by a person known to the victim.
Childline research has confirmed that many cases of severe abuse of children arise from parental efforts to discipline their children which go wrong.
To fully address the contextual factors which make children vulnerable to violence, we need better co-operation between and within spheres of government, and clearer and more effective responses to crime and violence in general. We need to address poverty and unemployment; and we need to ensure better implementation of law and policy.
But we have to do more than that. We need to take a long, hard look at child-rearing practices that feed and support the violence that affects all our lives, every day.
We need to ask: what kind of adults would we like our children to become? It seems to me we would want adults who are physically and emotionally healthy, intellectually capable, and self-disciplined – able to lead good and productive lives, to sustain themselves and help sustain our hard-won democracy.
The proposed amendment to the Children’s Act does not advocate that we abandon discipline of children – on the contrary, it recognises the importance of discipline in raising children. But it argues for a different approach to discipline that inculcates values of non-violence, self-discipline and a respect for the human rights of others.
The proposed amendment also recognises clearly that the prosecution and imprisonment of parents is seldom in the best interests of children.
Of course, where physical discipline becomes serious abuse, (too many children die at the hands of their parents), the law will and should take its course. But the issue of prohibition goes far beyond this.
What do we teach our children when we hit them? That it is okay to impose your will on someone else; that they have no say or rights or dignity; that bigger, stronger people are entitled to hurt those who are smaller and weaker; that loving and hurting are somehow linked. Are these not some of the very things that are wrong in our country?
When we defend the “right” of parents to beat their children, when we try to differentiate “reasonable physical punishment” from abuse, and when we insist we have a right to raise the next generation in the shadow of physical punishment, then we ignore the consequences of these methods of raising children.
Objectively, what do we know about the consequences of corporal punishment of children?
Studies on the effects of spanking and corporal punishment over the past 50 years have shown that spanking sometimes works in the short-term – but that non-violent methods of discipline work just as well.
Furthermore, the long-term consequences of corporal punishment are far from positive. Five studies conducted since 1997 provide evidence that:
l On average, the behaviour of the children of parents who spanked them got worse.
l There was a strong association between corporal punishment and children’s aggression and anti-social behaviour.
One study which analysed a number of others on the issue of parental corporal punishment found that it was associated with a range of negative consequences: lower self-discipline in the child; increased childhood aggression and aggression in adulthood; increased child delinquency and anti-social behaviour, and in adult criminality and adult anti-social behaviour; poorer relationships between parent and child; decreased mental health in the child and in adulthood; higher risk of the child being physically abused; and increased risk of the child becoming an abusive parent or spouse.
Corporal punishment was associated with just one desirable behaviour: increased immediate compliance.
The proposed amendment gives us an unprecedented opportunity to begin to build a non-violent future in our violence-torn country.
Let’s make sure that we – parents, families, teachers, communities, government and society – begin to create the kind of childhood that is the right of every child and that underpins our shared right to live in a peaceable, just society.
l Bower is a consultant specialising in child rights issues and preventing of abuse and an independent member of the Working Group on Positive Discipline.