/ 10 July 2013

Khaya Dlanga: Can disciplining your child be called physical abuse?

There are many people who look at corporal punishment as abuse.
There are many people who look at corporal punishment as abuse.

It seems I raised a few white eyebrows the other day when I asked people on Twitter: "Do you remember the last beating you got from one of your parents? What was it for?" To be clear, the vast majority of black parents who hit their children do it for discipline, not because they are abusive. Many of my white followers interpreted it as condoning abuse and violence. There is a difference between abuse and discipline. Democracy labelled physical discipline as abuse. Before I go any further about the stories other Twitter users shared, perhaps I should share my first and only beating.

When I was seven years old I went to visit my mother from the rural area with my six-year-old sister. We spent the day at my aunt's house where there were a lot of kids around our age to play with, and I spat on my sister's face for reasons I cannot remember. The incident must have happened at midday but my she cried until she forgot why she was crying, then she would remember and continue crying. My sister's mission was finally accomplished when my mother arrived home from work to find her still crying at 5pm.

When my mother asked what happened, she was obviously not shy about telling my mother I spat on her. I couldn't even deny it. The three of us took a taxi back home and once we got there, I was instructed to go outside to pick a stick of my choosing. I was also made to remember that if I chose a flimsy stick, I'd get a worse beating. It was in my interest to get a solid stick. 

I got the stick. My mother inspected it and seemed satisfied. She hit me. To tell you the truth I wasn't crying from being hit at all, it was the fact that I was being disciplined. My cries were certainly far louder than from any pain inflicted by the stick from my mother's hand. My mother felt pretty bad about hitting me, so much so that she rubbed me and then wrapped me in a blanket and made my sister make me Milo. In between deep in-takes of air, I drank it. I suddenly got more attention from my mother than my sister. That was the only time my mother ever hit me. I also never did anything that would lead to a beating after that.

Now back to the responses I received on Twitter from people about beatings they got from their parents. I will not mention names.

"Locked my mom in the house, hid parts of her phone randomly in my room so she can't get hold of me as I grooved the night away"

"was sent to the tuckshop @ nyt, took so long mom followed me & found me kissin my bf by some shady corner. The beating I got!!" 

"5 years ago lying about going to church"

"stole a little bit of money everyday from my gran until she noticed. She beat me until she felt sorry for me and cuddled me"

"refused to make tea cos I was watching DaysOfOurLives…my Mama whipped me with a wet dishcloth"

"Mom asked me to fetch the remote [which was closer to her]. Literally threw it at her. Dad slapped me into next week."

Many black children were disciplined with a beating and don't see it as abuse. Because we were not abused – we were disciplined. Looking back, many feel it was necessary. 

There is no doubt there may have been excessive use in some cases, which can and should be called abuse. But another necessary question is what about those parents who never hit their children but subjected them to extreme forms of psychological and verbal abuse? There are many who look at corporal punishment as abuse but won't hesitate to unleash the worst verbal abuse on their children, which affects their self-confidence for years to come. There is a lot of hypocrisy in deciding for others which form of punishment is more acceptable. 

Many black children did not have the luxury of being told to go to their room because most of us simply didn't have our own rooms. One probably shared a room with various siblings or cousins. Nor could they be grounded because they still needed to be sent out of the house to go to the shops, or made to ask for one thing or another from the neighbours. So the best form of discipline was the immediacy of spanking the child. 

I suspect that some people look at how we were disciplined as barbaric and backward, but the context in which that discipline took place was very different. To call it violence is extreme and lacks understanding the society from which many people come. 

Having said that, I just know I wouldn't be able to hit my kids, if God blesses me with some. What I do know though is that sending them to their room isn't punishment. An article appeared on Parent24.com based on the responses I received, saying: "What was curious is that the general tone of the responses was one of mirth, as if sharing these memories of violence was amusing and cathartic. Some people remarked that seeing that others had experienced violence made them feel relief that it hadn't only been them." 

It is interesting that the writer described it all as violence. 

I think the line is crossed when one beats a child with the intention to harm and not just discipline them. I know I don't have the heart to hit a child. I will probably make my children write a 3 000-word essay telling me why what they did was wrong, then they must conclude with what they believe is an appropriate punishment. And oh, no access to iPhones and computers for a week.