Corporal Discipline for Children: Are We Taking It Too Far with a Full Ban?

disciplineI am crying my eyes out, my face creased in an ugly sob as I refuse to walk with my parents. In the crowded airport, I bawl out loud despite my father’s constant hushing and my mother’s attempts to find out why I would not quiet down. The reason was simple: I was not getting what I wanted, which was ice cream. I stamp my foot and cry even harder. Exasperated, my dad leans down and gives me light smack on my bottom for being a little brat.

It barely hurt. But it gave three-year-old me a slight shock. I stop crying and at the same moment my aunt chastises my father in horror. “Do you know they can arrest you out here for child abuse if someone reports you? Don’t do it, please!”

Nearly two decades later, I am grateful for my parents’ choice of disciplinary action. That was, in fact, the way they were raised, and the way they chose to raise all four of their children. Yet, the memory of that family vacation to Europe haunts them over the possibility that they could have been charged with abuse over a simple spanking. After all, were they not entitled to their rights as parents to discipline their daughter if she was misbehaving beyond control? The small smack made me realize that I could not always be getting my way—and that acting like a spoiled brat was not an option. Throughout the years, we learnt discipline, respect, and to know our place as daughters and sons of our parents. We could not be rude and say whatever we wanted to just anyone. A smack meant we did wrong, and reminded us we should not do it again.

The UN Human Rights Committee recently stoked the fire of one of the longest debates in Europe by urging Britain to implement laws banning all forms of corporal punishment on children. Backing studies and claims that physical punishment increases chances of children developing mental issues in the future, they also urged the UK to have parents who use corporal punishment jailed. Pro-ban supporters celebrated at the release of this report; opposing communities and organizations slammed it.

Britain is one of the few countries in Europe that has not made child corporal punishment illegal. Yet, similar debates have been ongoing elsewhere; earlier this year in France, the European Council criticized the country for refusing to implement the same ban when 27 out of the 47 member countries of the EC have already made child smacking illegal. Australia allows physical discipline in certain jurisdictions, and New Zealand was also pressurized to ban any form of smacking or spanking on the basis that it is considered child abuse.

Those pushing for a full ban insist it is in the name of child protection. A child, they say, should not be resorted to any kind of physical force. It encourages aggressive behavior and violence. It instills fear in them. It increases their chances of developing depression and anti-social behavior. After all, if any use of force against animals and adults is deemed as assault, should the same not apply to children?

However, here comes the catch.

Current British laws already allow for “reasonable chastising” of children which includes smacking and spanking at home. The conditions were that no items could be used, such as belts and canes, and that any physical discipline used could not result in more than a temporary reddening of the skin. In other words, corporal punishment was allowed as long as it did not leave lasting injuries such as bruises and open wounds.

As a child, my parents did much more than just the mild smacking outlined by British laws. After all, Malaysia does not deem physical discipline illegal, and my siblings and I were subjected to canings, slaps and spankings which sometimes resulted in a large scab across the back of my leg or a cut on my nose. I admit, those experiences were horrifying. As someone who wishes to raise a family one day, I would not want to subject my children to such an extent even in disciplining them. While I would not go to that degree of discipline, however, I still learnt much from the occasional spank I received when I was rude or misbehaving. I believe that children can learn and should be instilled with some respect and obedience, and that a little physical force could do a lot more benefit than harm. These current laws are reasonable and enough to protect children from those exploiting corporal punishment in the name of child discipline.

An American-based study stated that individuals who underwent corporal punishment in childhood turned out to be more successful, more optimistic, and a keener outlook on life compared to those who were not smacked. The same study quoted Marjorie Gunnoe, a psychology professor in Michigan, as saying that there was also insufficient evidence and data to prove that smacking children was entirely detrimental and had a high percentage of having negative effects. “I think of spanking as a dangerous tool, but there are times when there is a job big enough for a dangerous tool. You just don’t use it for all your jobs,” Gunnoe said. Some children, if not most, require some kind of smack to get them to behave and to allow them to differentiate between right and wrong. It also gives them the motivation to push for higher goals, and the discipline instilled within them as a kid would be essential to further success in the future. A friend of mine, Natalie, had her fingers rapped hard by her piano tutor if she made the slightest mistake during practice. Her mother would sit by her and knocked on her knuckles during sessions as well, to push her even farther. It hurt, she said. Her fingers were red and slightly swollen at times—but she brought this sense of discipline with her while studying in the UK. Today, she is a successful graduate and with a bright future as a lawyer. She bears no ill will against those who hurt her in the past; her appreciation for them is reflected in her joy as an adult. I have never seen her smile or laugh so much.

Another study found that children who were smacked did not suffer from any negative effects as long as these actions were “tempered with love and affection”, countering the studies that claimed physical discipline could have lasting damage on the condition of a child. I have seen parents who hug their child after they have been smacked, apologizing and explaining why they do so. My aunt would always hug my cousin and told her she loved her every time the latter was punished for being rude. The regret I saw in her eyes was that of a mother’s love, and of her reluctant but necessary actions. My cousin had had many warnings, but no amount of time-outs would make the little five-year-old stop, not till she was given a small whack to the back of her legs. As a 19-year-old today, her relationship with her mother has never been stronger, and she would never hesitate to smack any of her future children if they ever behaved badly in the future.

There is the question, however, of the risk of development of mental issues. Supporters imply through these studies that corporal punishment is the only cause of such problems.

It should also be noted that children resorted to non-smacking disciplinary action also suffered from lasting mental issues. There was the case of a teenager in Washington who was subjected to public humiliation by her father, who wanted to teach her a lesson. Shamed and embarrassed, Izabel Laxamana took her own life by jumping off an overpass. From a personal point of view, I once had a friend whose mother made her sit outside for hours under the blistering afternoon sun while practicing her violin, as punishment for not being able to get a note right. Children suffer emotionally through many methods of punishment, not just corporal discipline. Making all forms of corporal punishment illegal would not guarantee a full protection from child abuse, nor would it prevent emotional and verbal abuse.

Lastly, current British laws have outlined a fairly solid boundary between what would be considered discipline and what would be abuse. Even in adult situations, a slap does not necessarily conclude abuse, and even pets are known to be smacked when misbehaving. To consider all forms of corporal punishment is abuse would be biased and unfair. The laws also happen to protect parental rights—another community that such a change would drastically affect. As Child Education Minister for England Nicky Morgan put it, parents should not be criminalized for disciplining their children if there is no harm done in a tap on the hand, for example. To put it into perspective, how would my parents feel if they had a criminal record for “child abuse” when there was absolutely no harm done in mildly spanking their toddler? What would such a record do? In my parents’ case, it abides entirely by British laws. If a ban was implemented, it would be called abuse. Were my parents innocent? Absolutely. Would the law say so? No.

For the UN to push for a full ban on that same basis, when there has been no direct increase in child abuse or proof that it could reduce child abuse cases makes their urgings uncalled far. It would be unfair to claim that corporal punishment was the source of the majority of mental issues, when there have been no proof that non-corporal punishment methods did not result in similar circumstances. In some cases, like Izabel’s, the consequences of her father’s actions resulted in a pain that was enough to make her commit suicide.

Children can be affected by all kinds of disciplinary actions, including those that do not use corporal punishment. It is not necessary for Britain to implement such laws when there are already specific laws in place to prevent abuse to children. There is a fine line between physical punishment to instill discipline and direct abuse—and Britain’s current laws are able to distinguish that thin line without overstepping on parental rights. After all, there is a reason why the phrase “spares the rod and spoil the child” was coined—children require discipline in their lives to make them better adults. There are extremes in both methods of child discipline, so I ask this now: if the current laws protect kids from the extremism of corporal punishment, who protects children from the extremism of non-violent forms of discipline?

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2 Comments to “Corporal Discipline for Children: Are We Taking It Too Far with a Full Ban?”

  1. My parents also smacked me on the butt and made me sit in the corner when I misbehaved. The pain from the slap lasted all of 30 seconds, but it definitely worked to put me in my place. After my time in the corner, my parents and I would have a conversation about what I did that was wrong and how I could avoid being put in a similar situation. It’s terrifying to think that had I been smacked in public, my parents could have faced charges for abuse; my parents were far from abusive. I agree that there is definitely a fine line between physically chastising a child and abusing them and I am extremely lucky that my parents participated in the former and not the latter. However, I think that physical punishment is often subjective which creates a problem for many law-makers. Different cultures have different ideas of what counts as abuse or a simple chastisement. I also think that some people don’t realize how verbal abuse could be just as harmful as physical abuse. I remember one time growing up, I was upset with my father and he told me that he truly believed I hated him. I love my father so much and just hearing him say those words really affected me. I know it’s nothing close to the public humiliation you described, but it still goes to show that words can hurt just as much as belts.

  2. I was also subjected to spankings when I misbehaved as a child. Of course, this was not a pleasant experience, but I also didn’t hate my parents for it. There is definitely a line that parents shouldn’t cross when disciplining their children. However, I don’t think that corporal discipline shouldn’t be fully banned. As you mentioned with public humiliation, verbal abuse can be just as damaging to children. In that sense, will law-makers also ban scolding? That seems a bit too much, just like with this situation of fully banning corporal discipline.

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