Your poor parenting skills don’t justify corporal punishment

  • Wessel Van Den Berg

The judgment in the High Court on 19 October that has declared the defence of reasonable chastisement unconstitutional, and thereby effectively making corporal punishment unlawful, has left many parents at a loss.

On social media and in conversations they often raise the question: “But what should I do instead of giving hidings? If I knew that, then I could stop!”

As parents, we often put the cart in front of the horse when it comes to ending corporal punishment. Parenting without corporal punishment requires a decision, as much as it requires the skills necessary to guide a child, but the skills are not a condition for the decision.

There is a host of resources available online and in bookshops. Most are grouped under the terms ‘positive parenting’ and ‘positive discipline’. The main element that these have in common is that they do not depend on the use of corporal or physical punishment.

Since positive discipline techniques do not include punishment, it’s useful to note this distinction between the terms ‘punishment’ and ‘discipline.’ Punishment in essence means: ‘to cause pain’. Discipline in essence means ‘to guide’.

In some of the buzz going on now parents complain that they are no longer allowed to discipline their children. In fact, if one looks at the language, the law now requires parents to do a better job at discipline, since the use of corporal punishment does not guide the child, but only ensures immediate compliance.

Compliance is in fact the only consistent outcome of corporal punishment that parents may value. It does not improve children’s ability to learn, it does not direct them to act in more responsible ways. In fact children only learn to act unruly when out of your sight. Many studies have shown that positive discipline approaches achieve much better learning and child development outcomes than hidings.

There are many strategies to draw on within the field of positive discipline. Emphasising what a child does right, rather than what they do wrong, is one such strategy. It entails ignoring bad behaviour (when safe to do so) and giving good behaviour lots of encouragement and acknowledgement.

Another is to abide by the same rules as an adult that you have set for the child. The child will then copy what you do. Another strategy is to allow the natural consequence of bad behaviour to play out. For example if a child refuses to eat their food to allow them to get a bit hungry, to learn the consequence of not eating.

One of the more contentious strategies is ‘time-out’ where a child is moved to a different space than where the conflict is happening in order to calm down. It’s often misinterpreted as isolation or even imprisonment, where children are sent outside, or to their room as punishment. This misses the real intent of a time-out, which is a moment of peace and quiet for the child and adult to calm down. One useful variation is to do a ‘time-in’ where the adult joins the child in the quiet space.

In South Africa people often say that positive discipline is not feasible since many people live in shacks and cannot implement time-outs. While it is of course true that small living spaces may indeed increase the potential for stress or conflict, there are many other aspects of positive discipline that do not only depend on time-outs.

Also, a time-out can be done on a bed, or a chair, instead of outside a room or in a corner.

These are just a few ideas of things parents can do to guide their children. I would suggest that parents go for strategies or books that have good evidence in support of their efficacy. The book published by Save the Children called Positive Discipline in Everyday Life by Joan Durrant documents one such approach. The academic work by Elizabeth Gershoff also provides a good underpinning in understanding the nature of corporal punishment.

An important reason positive discipline strategies fail however does not lie in how evidence based, clever or useful they are, but in what the motivation is in using them.

If parents are looking for ‘an alternative to corporal punishment’ they will not succeed. The reason is that the interpretation that corporal punishment should be replaced, legitimates the use of corporal punishment.

Corporal punishment is a form of violence that has to end; in the same way that intimate partner violence is a form of violence that has to end. This does not require training in any set of skills, but simply the decision to stop.

It would be ridiculous for a person to say they cannot stop their use of violence against an adult, because they have not yet learnt the skills of relationship management.

The same applies to parenting – the acquisition of parenting skills should not be a prerequisite for the ending of corporal punishment. The decision to stop hurting children is what will end the use of corporal punishment, and then towards this, parents would need to learn how to guide their children safely towards adulthood.