UNICEF (United Nations International Children's Emergency Fund) defines corporal punishment as “... the use of physical force causing pain, but not wounds, as a means of discipline”.
Corporal punishment takes place within the family, in schools or as ordered by a court of law, and is usually administered by strikes across the hands or buttocks, using either an open hand or an instrument like a cane, paddle, shoe or strap.
Finding the 'middle way'
Few parents and educators have an issue with the need for discipline when it comes to raising children. What people disagree on, though, is how much discipline is required. At one end of the spectrum are the advocators of an “antiauthoritarian” style of education and on the other those who believe that “a tree must be bent while it is young”, based on the Christian notion that original sin needs to be expunged.
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We do need to take into account that not all children are the same and that some may need more guidance/punishment than others. Opinions also vary on whether a smack on the hand or bottom really constitutes corporal punishment.
“Beating the sin out of a child” is a horrifying idea, but giving children a free rein to do as they please with the idea that any kind of restriction “stifles their creativity” clearly isn’t the answer either. (We’ve all come across kids who leave ruins in their wake while their parents look on with doting smiles.)
“Balance in all things” and finding the “middle way” is clearly the best approach to disciplining your child, but should it include corporal punishment?
The phrase “spare the rod, spoil the child” comes from Proverbs 13:24, and is often used to justify the use of corporal punishment in the Judeo-Christian tradition, although nowadays not everyone takes this admonishment literally. The basic idea is that a child needs to learn that actions have consequences – something that doesn’t have to involve physical or psychological violence.
Read: US says - smack the children but not with implements
Corporal punishment in South Africa
Traditionally, in English-speaking countries, schools were regarded as acting in loco parentis (in the place of a parent) and had the same rights as parents. This led to the widespread and often exaggerated use of corporal punishment in schools, with South Africa being no exception.
Corporal punishment in schools is forbidden by the South African Schools Act, 1996. Section 10 of the act states:
(1) No person may administer corporal punishment at a school to a learner.
(2) Any person who contravenes subsection (1) is guilty of an offence and liable on conviction to a sentence which could be imposed for assault.
Not all schools abide by this law, and almost twenty years later there are still schools where corporal punishment is administered on a daily basis. The fact that the attitude towards corporal punishment has not changed at all in certain communities can be illustrated by the case of Christian Education South Africa v Minister of Education where the Constitutional Court rejected the claim that private Christian schools have a constitutional right to religious freedom, allowing them to impose corporal punishment.
Read: Spare the rod and develop the child
In South Africa corporal punishment is still legal in the home and there are regular newspaper reports on the horrific abuse suffered by children at the hands of parents and guardians.
Adding to the problem is the fact is that it is considerably more difficult to monitor what happens behind closed doors in private homes than in schools.
Policing the whole of society to monitor corporal punishment is clearly an impossible task and the only practical way of solving the problem of “violence toward children” is changing our collective attitude toward the role of violence in the modification of human behaviour.
A few reasons why not to hit a child:
- Corporal punishment can instil a cycle of violence. Most criminals were severely punished as children.
- What some people do to their children in the name of discipline would be regarded as assault if done to anyone else.
- Children are often regarded as “naughty” when they have a natural and legitimate need for attention.
- Fear of punishment doesn’t teach a child any problem-solving skills.
- Corporal punishment may not support a “bond of love” between parent and child.
- Fear of punishment can teach a child to “bottle up” emotions like anger and frustration.
- Corporal punishment can create an association between misbehaving and attention.
- If severe, corporal punishment can cause physical damage.
- Corporal punishment suggests that violence solves problems. (“Might makes right.”)
The corporal punishment debate continues
Image: Schoolmaster with cane from Shutterstock