/ 4 October 2019

You can’t beat discipline into a child

(John McCann/M&G)
(John McCann/M&G)




The recent Constitutional Court ruling outlawing corporal punishment in the home has raised the ire of many people, with some going so far as to suggest that up to five million parents could be jailed for spanking their children.

Such a scenario is really bordering on the terrain of hysteria.

The law now makes it possible to deal with parents who resort to beatings as the only way of disciplining their children, and prevents such punishment from causing physical and emotional harm to children.

Corporal punishment as a way of disciplining children has been shot down by overwhelming evidence that there are better and more humane ways of raising and disciplining children.

One of the main arguments against such punishment is that it incorrectly teaches children to resolve conflict with violence.

The ruling deals with spanking but there are many other forms of violence that children are subjected to by their parents, who often lack proper parenting skills and who are unwilling to learn these skills. These other forms of violence are emotional, psychological, financial and parental neglect.

In my many years of counselling children, I have come across several instances where parents bully their defenceless children by screaming at them and instilling the worst form of fear into them for the most insignificant and bizarre reasons.

I have had to deal with several children subjected to the same type of treatment by their teachers. They also used rulers to hit the children on their fingers, hands and heads because, it seems, this was the only way these teachers could exercise their authority over small boys and girls.

Most children came to see me for symptoms such as bed-wetting and nightmares as well as a range of unexplainable symptoms that included headaches, stomach cramps, anxiety and depression.

When corporal punishment was the norm a century ago little was understood about the many causes of erratic and disruptive behaviour in children.

Today, we have learnt so much about early childhood and adolescent behaviours, its causes and treatment, that there is overwhelming evidence to support the view that corporal punishment does more harm than good.

Some of the reasons for disruptive behaviour are strongly linked to conditions such as attention deficit hyperactive disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, separation anxiety, depression, learning disorders, dyslexia and other undiagnosed mental conditions.

We still do not know why children have many of the above conditions but what we do know is that with proper identification of these problems and appropriate treatment such as counselling and, if necessary, medication, many of these children can do remarkably well.

Some of the causes for aberrant social behaviour in children are often the result of family violence, substance abuse, mothers consuming alcohol during pregnancy, being bullied at school by learners and teachers, constantly being picked on and labelled as stupid, parental neglect, living in a violent neighbourhood such as the streets being ruled by gangs, or after being sexually abused by a family member and being forced into silence.

The following case illustrates my point. A 15-year-old boy in a youth centre was referred to me for assessment after an attempted suicide. He was in the centre for violent behaviour, house breaking and for being in possession of drugs.

He was diagnosed with disruptive and defiant behaviour.

When he sat in front of me, I saw a pleasant, but sad boy. I asked him about where he stayed and about his parents and I was shocked to hear his story.

At the age of eight he witnessed his father, in a drunken stupor, maim and kill his mother with a knife and stab his grandmother before leaving in his car.

The boy screamed but could do nothing to stop his father from killing his mother. He had to relive the experience when he had to testify in court. His father was imprisoned for his crime. The youngster told me that he wants his dad to rot in jail for taking his mother’s life. I could understand the boy’s anger, frustration and rebellious behaviour.

He lived with his father’s family but they resented him because they were upset with him for testifying against his father.

Clearly, the boy had no proper adult supervision and little proper caring. As is common with many children like this boy, they turn to drugs, drop out of school, become rebellious and turn to crime to survive. Who can blame them?

I counselled him as best as I could and was pleased to hear him tell me that he wants to quit drugs, get an education and make something of himself.

I could see that he felt a huge sense of relief when I empathised with him, ignored his past behaviour, and encouraged him to change his life.

I see him regularly and I am pleased that he is a much happier person ever since he was shown some understanding of his circumstances and encouraged to study.

In my many years of counselling children as young as five, I have managed to change the behaviour of many just by listening to them.

What played a big role in bringing about the change was to educate parents as well as teachers, in as subtle a way as possible, on how to deal with children who suffer from psychological and emotional trauma.

I remain quite convinced, based on years of experience, that no amount of corporal punishment will resolve defiant behaviour in children, if the underlying issues are not identified and addressed appropriately.

This does not mean that children must not be disciplined or not taught discipline. This can be done most effectively with love and sternness, without resorting to the barbaric cane-and-belt method.

Finally, to punish is to hurt, to discipline is to teach. Teach our children, don’t beat them.

Dr Ellapen Rapiti is a family physician, specialising in child and mental health and addiction counselling