If you are against the use of corporal punishment, sooner or later someone will ask you this question: what is wrong with beating children to teach them how to behave? Some will ask you in genuine bewilderment, while others simply because they can’t comprehend a relationship with children that does not involve the adult asserting power over children. Many of us have had years of experience in which we have learned that adults should control children around them and, in doing so, that beating them is necessary.
Most of us have witnessed children being slapped, shouted at and humiliated in the name of “discipline”. Perhaps you have had a childhood where being beaten, silenced and intimidated was normalised and made acceptable by the prevailing value system. If that was the reality you grew up in, why would you come to think otherwise? Why would you abandon everything you have known, to learn a new way of relating to children? Why would you give up the comfort of the familiar for the uncertainty of the unfamiliar? Why wouldn’t you ask, because you really don’t understand, what is wrong with beating children to teach them how to behave?
There are a considerable number of studies that lend weight to the view that you can’t help children grow or develop creatively by beating them. Just do a quick search on the Internet and you will find them. Perhaps you have already done that. If you are still looking for additional reasons, this piece is aimed at you.
What I am about to argue is not new. However, what I hope may be compelling is that it emerged from children and adults themselves. Ultimately, if you are interested in creating a better world for children, who better to ask how to do that, than the children themselves and the adults who care about them?
We did exactly that in Uganda. We went to five diverse districts, from east to west, north to south. We asked 1 400 children and 1 100 adults, in many different ways, about their thoughts, feelings and experience of violence against children. We asked boys and girls, younger and older children, children who were in school and those who weren’t. We sought out children who were living in rural and urban areas, orphans as well as those living with their parents. They said many things about, violence against children (see www.raising voices. org) but above all, unanimously they said two things: the violence against children was too much, and that it did not teach children anything except fear and shame.
Ninety eight percent of the children said they had experienced physical violence, a third of these children said they experience it at least once a week. Approximately one in eight said they experienced violence on a regular basis from people that are supposed to take care of them; their parents, teachers, neighbours, older siblings, relatives and community members. When children were asked how this violence made them feel, the response ranged from rage to resignation. In this confidential space, away from the watchful eyes of adults whose approval they needed, not a single child said being beaten filled them with pride or a sense of being loved or cared for.
That may surprise you. After all, have we not trained our children sufficiently to swallow what Alice Miller, the famous pro-child Swiss psychologist calls the “poisonous pedagogy", that being beaten is for your own good? It was not unusual for some children to begin that defence in focus group discussions and soon abandon it when they found that we were not there to change their minds. We were there to simply listen and learn from their views. Once the “defence” was deemed unnecessary, authentic feelings and thoughts emerged.
We learned many things about violence against children through this study.
The first thing we learned was that children think of violence against them in a very different way to adults. Adults focus on the act while children focus on the experience. What that means is, when an adult is beating a child, they think of it as an isolated incident that is over when the physical act is over. But children learn the fear and the shame of the incident and how the act makes them feel about the person who commits it against them. They learn that people bigger than them can treat them unfairly without there being consequences for the abuser. In an important way, they learn about the nature of power in intimate relationships and that whoever has more of it, prevails. Children learn that the best way to protect themselves from the abuse is to have power over people. We are all familiar with the consequences of that lesson when these children become adults and acquire power.
Secondly, when adults were asked why they beat children, a majority said to guide children and to teach them how to behave. Yet rarely did the adult take the time to talk with the child, discuss what they had done wrong or explain their error. If they did, they are more likely to use an alternative to a beating as a form of punishment. When children are beaten for reasons beyond their comprehension, they rarely learn what was wrong with their behaviour and they certainly don’t learn how to behave better.
Thirdly, adults severely underestimate the emotional response their violence provokes in children. When children feel humiliated, their reaction can range from fury to depression. Because most children do not have the option of expressing their feelings, these feelings end up being stored within them, wreaking terrible havoc. Children violated over a long period of time can victimise others, behave anti-socially or just withdraw from developing their identity. They may feel hopeless and some may become suicidal. It affects their performance at school, as well as their self-confidence. It affects who they are likely to become.
Fourthly, despite the fact that beating of children is common, more than half of the adults were not sure that beating was creating a desired change in behaviour. Many admitted that often they beat children out of frustration rather than a carefully thought-out strategy to teach children something. Many times children are beaten because they are children rather than because of their actions.
Finally, when children's dignity is routinely insulted, they lose trust in adults who make them feel that way. They outwardly learn to fear and internally resent the adult who inflicts violence on them. They develop ways to cope with the violence rather than spend that energy on developing their intelligence. They become much smaller individuals than what they could have been.
As we reflected on these things, it became clearer to us how diverse societies have come to legitimise violence against children. The only way we can sustain such patent injustice in our intimate relationship is by refusing to empathise with the child. How else could we live with another human being on a day-to-day basis, while deep in our hearts knowing that we regularly do them injustice? After all, that is the oldest trick in the book for dominating another group of people. We learned about other blatant ways in which adults ignore the evidence in front of their eyes. If beating taught anything to anyone, no one would need to be beaten twice or at least repeatedly, and yet that is what continues to happen to children.
Most importantly, we learned from children that beating children is not a harmless vice that parents succumb to and we can turn a blind eye to. The violence has powerful short-term, and profound long-term consequences, not only for the child, but also for the entire community (perhaps even entire countries). For these and many other reasons, beating a child is counter-productive. It does not achieve the aim of changing behaviour. It does not help the child learn what was wrong with their behaviour. It undermines their confidence and contributes towards the child learning to trust you less. If you are interested in helping children learn, beating them is the last thing you would want to do.
If you are still reading this, I presume that you are willing to ask the deeper questions. If I can be presumptuous, I would like to ask you the following: How might your possibilities as an adult be different, had you not been beaten and shamed as a child? I wonder what you might have been, had you not been humiliated as a child? Would you persist in believing that it has done you no harm or would you be honest enough to see the injury it might have caused you? Wait! Don’t answer just yet. Let it circle in your head and come back to it when you are about to fall asleep at night ... just when you are entering that intimate space and maybe are more deeply in touch with your heart. Then, and only then, answer to yourself as honestly as you can.
Six Key Recommendations
The UN Study on Violence Against Children was launched and presented to the UN General Assembly on 11 October 2006 in New York. In view of this Save the Children hopes that governments will make new commitments for ending all forms of violence against children in the 2006 UN Resolution on the Rights of the Child, to be debated by the UN General Assembly in October/November. In response to the UN study, Save the Children would like to emphasise the importance of the following six key recommendations to be included in the UN General Assembly resolution:
1. States should as a matter of urgency,
explicitly prohibit all forms of violence against children, including
sexual abuse and exploitation; corporal punishment and all other forms
of degrading punishment, in all settings, including the home.
2. States should develop a national child protection system and allocate sufficient funds to undertake a wide range of measures to prevent (and respond to) all forms of violence against children, including educational and media campaigns, the provision of childfriendly legal, medical and psychosocial services, and disaggregated data collection capable of monitoring the prevalence of violence against children.
3. States should establish mechanisms for listening to girls and boys with the aim of involving children directly in the design and implementation of policies (and programmes) that address the violence against them. Children's own actions to address violence should also be supported.
4. States should do their utmost to minimise the number of children coming into conflict with the law. They should establish comprehensive and child-friendly juvenile justice systems, complying with international standards, which aim to rehabilitate children and divert them away from criminalisation and detention.
5. States should make particular efforts to promote the active participation of boys and men in ending gender discrimination and violence against children.
6. States should support the appointment of a Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on the Elimination of Violence against Children, with the mandate and resources required to provide leadership and oversight on this issue
This feature: Naker, D. (2006). Article 19, 2 (2) pp. 1 “3.