Punishment is not discipline

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New studies show that spanking has been shown to be ineffective and potentially dangerous. File picture.

The recent concourt ruling, outlawing corporal punishment in the home has raised the ire of many people and has became a highly controversial topic for discussion on the radio and social media.

Unfortunately, people vehemently opposed to the ruling, have painted some unrealistic and implausible scenarios that might ensue as a result of this ruling. Some went 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. None of the the things, like a huge number of parents being locked up, suggested by those opposed to the ruling, is really going to happen, because it would be impractical to do so.

The law,now, makes it possible to deal with parents, who resort to corporal punishment as the only means of discipline, and to  prevent such punishment from  causing serious physical and emotional harm to children. Outlawing corporal punishment, as a way of discipline 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 corporal 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 total parental neglect.

In my many years of counselling children, I have come across several instances, where parents bully their defenceless  young 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, who were subjected to the same type of fear from their teachers, who used rulers on their learners fingers, hands and heads because, it seems, this was the only way these teachers could exercise their authority on small fearful boys and girls.

Most children came to see me for symptoms like bed wetting, nightmares, school refusal and a range of unexplainable symptoms, like headaches, stomach cramps, anxiety and even depression. When corporal punishment was the norm, hundreds of years ago, little was understood about child behaviour and the many causes for 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 that corporal punishment, does more harm than good to children afflicted with conditions beyond their control.

Some of the reasons for disruptive behaviour are strongly linked to conditions like attention deficit hyperactive disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, separation anxiety, severe depression, learning disorders – dyslexia-, malnourishment 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: proper identification of these problems and appropriate treatment with proper counselling, and, if necessary, with medication, many of these children can do remarkably well.

Some of the causes for aberrant social behaviour in children is often the result of family violence and substance abuse, mothers consuming alcohol during pregnancy; being bullied in school by other pupils and teachers; children constantly being picked upon and being labelled as stupid; parental neglect; waking up with nightmares after witnessing gruesome violence by gangs in their streets; or after being sexually abused by a family member and being forced into silence.

The following case should illustrate my point. A fifteen year lad, in a youth centre was referred to me for assessment for 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 sad little boy. I asked him about where he stayed and about his parents and I was totally shocked to hear his sad story. At the age of eight he witnessed his father maim and kill his mother with a knife and stabbed his grandmother in a total state of drunken stupor and ran away in his car. The little boy screamed but could do nothing to stop his mad drunk father from killing his mother.

The little boy had to relive the experience when he had to testify in court. His dad was imprisoned for his crime. The young lad told me that he wants his dad to rot in jail for taking his mother’s life. I could understand the little boy’s anger, frustration and rebellious behaviour. He lived with his father’s family but they resented the little boy because they were upset with him for testifying against his dad for murdering his mom.

Clearly, the boy had no proper adult supervision and little proper caring. As is common with many children like this young boy, they turn to drugs, drop out of school, become rebellious and turn to crime to survive. Who can blame them? I counselled this little man as best as I could and was very pleased to hear him tell me that he wants to quit drugs, educate himself 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 from as young as five years old, I have managed to change  the behaviour of many of these children just by listening to them. What played a big role in bringing about the change was to educate parents as well as teachers, in a subtle way as possible, on how to deal with children that suffer from psychological and emotional trauma.

I remain quite vehement, 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. That does not mean that children must not be disciplined or 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.