Corporal punishment deep rooted

The corporal punishment of children is so widespread and so deeply rooted in history that spanking might be called the slap heard round the world. It is practised from Alaska, where the Inupiaq people have believed for thousands of years that a quick slap is better than a harsh word, to schools in Botswana in Africa, where teachers argue the way to stop students from drinking is to whip them publicly.

The physical disciplining of children by parents is endorsed by most religions and has been found in scriptures since the Old Testament, which advises: “He that spareth his rod hateth his son.”

That sentiment found popular expression as early as the 1600s, when English poet Samuel Butler summed it up with the memorable line: “Then spare the rod and spoil the child.”

Despite its wide acceptance, spanking has long been debated and is coming under growing attack, with critics from child-behaviour experts to the United Nations questioning the practice.

Peter Dudding, director of the Child Welfare League of Canada, said yesterday that “the evidence is clear in terms of the use of physical punishment — it's harmful to children.”

Scholar George Holden of the University of Texas says in a recent paper, “Parental use of corporal punishment has been a contentious child-rearing topic for thousands of years.”

Prof. Holden notes that corporal punishment has been outlawed in 11 nations but says he doubts the United States is ready to follow suit. “Parents' belief in their entitlement to use corporal punishment is deeply embedded in American history, beliefs about the privacy of the family and personal freedoms, and attitudes about children and how to rear them.” He says the reasons underlying parental use of the practice are complex, including “an instrumental religious reason, an impulsive reaction, or a lack of knowledge of alternatives.”

Cultural practices are a large part of the reason parents spank their children. In Alaska, the Inupiaq philosophy includes the belief that a quiet form of correction is the best way to discipline a child. It might be summed up as: Speak softly, but be ready to slap. A historical Inupiaq cultural profile states. “Yelling at a child too much would make the child ‘deaf’ to talk or reasoning as time went on. “It was also disrespectful to the name and being of the child. A spanking when necessary was looked on more favourably. A spanking ‘hurt the skin’, but constant yelling hurt the spirit.”

In Botswana, the independent daily newspaper Mmegi recently reported on a debate over the appropriate way to deal with a student drinking problem. “Our culture is there and we have to be proud of it. Let the whip crack,” said Lesego Koketso, the head of Pastoral Theology at Mogoditshane Senior Secondary.

Nadine Block, writing in the Humanist, the magazine of the American Humanist Association, said corporal punishment is a divisive subject. It's one “that often pits generation against generation and family member against family member.”

Director of the Center for Effective Discipline in the U.S., Ms. Block is campaigning to have spanking outlawed around the world. “The strongest and most enduring support for the practice comes from the Bible, particularly the Old Testament. Many fundamentalist, evangelical and charismatic Protestants use Scripture to justify their use of corporal punishment to develop obedience and character in children. Their position is that God wills and requires it in order to obtain his blessing and approval; to not physically punish children for misbehaviour will incur God's wrath,” she writes.

On the website of the Antioch Baptist Church in Tennessee is the observation: “Spanking or whipping is biblical discipline. And, it is not necessarily the choice of last resort. It is the linchpin of all biblical child discipline.”

Many religions recognize the right of parents to discipline their children but urge them to find non-violent means. Buddhism teaches that it is counterproductive and the Hindu religion does not sanction spanking at any age. The United Nations is among the organizations that think corporal punishment should not be used against children under any circumstances.

The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors implementation of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, states that “legal and social acceptance of physical punishment of children, in the home and in institutions, is not compatible with the Convention.”

It is illegal for parents or anyone else to spank children in Austria, Germany, Croatia, Israel, Cyprus, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Norway and Sweden. But in most countries, it is acceptable.

Over the past two decades, surveys have found that in Britain 75 per cent of mothers admitted to smacking their babies before the age of 1; in Korea 97 per cent of children had been physically punished by parents; in India 91 per cent of male and 86 per cent of female university students said they'd been physically punished as children; in Chile 80 per cent of parents said they used physical punishment on their children.

By Mark Hume
5 February 2004