Six years ago, Adriaan and Hannah Mostert were just another middle-class couple raising two children and using a smack here and there to do it.
Today, they are at the forefront of a national push to legally ban parents from hitting their kids, and have sparked a Human Rights Commission report that last week found laws permitting spanking of children to be unconstitutional.
What happened to change their minds?
The last time Adriaan hit his son, two things happened. The first was that it did not improve the five-year-old’s behaviour. The second was that from then on, the boy would flinch whenever his dad made a sudden movement. It made them realise the way they were raising their children was wrong, and they decided they would never again inflict a smack on them.
“I said: ‘I can’t do this again because this is horrible,'” said Adriaan. “The last time I hit him was systematic, like: ‘Aiden, you did something very incorrect and this is why I need to hit you now. So you need to go to your room and I’m going to look for something to hit you with and I’m going to hit you five times and then you’re going to apologise.’ That is how it worked and that is horrible.”
Hannah said that at the time they didn’t know their son had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and slight autism.
“It [smacking] could certainly exacerbate … that kind of neurological disorder,” she said.
She had grown up when corporal punishment was normal for high school boys. “I was hit as a child. I think it impacted on me. I would say it was abusive.”
Adriaan grew up in an Afrikaans home where smacking was normal, and attended high school in Oudtshoorn where boys were regularly spanked.
“There is a big colonial history about who imported corporal punishment into South Africa. The English did. In African cultures it was a foreign concept,” he said. “And then, corporal punishment was very much embedded in apartheid.”
Several years after their change of heart, the couple — who are “nonreligious” — began hearing about a nearby church with “odd views”.
Adriaan opened the Joshua Generation Church’s website and discovered a manual showing parents how to “train” their children by using a rod, and gave tips on how to hit a child so that it would not leave a mark.
Adriaan was shocked.
“I thought: ‘Bleddie hell, this isn’t right!’ And I showed it to Hannah and she called Childline, to ask if it was acceptable or normal and can we do this?”
Childline asked them to log a complaint with the HRC, which was trying to amend the Children’s Act.
They did, and were joined by the Sonke Gender Justice NGO.
Last week, the HRC said the church had 30 days to change its stance on corporal punishment in the home. It said the church’s manual “used four of its 39 pages to describe the length and thickness of the rod which parents should use in training up children as young as one year old”.
The report added: “The Department of Social Development has so far not acted on their commitment to prohibit corporal punishment in the home. Parents and caregivers still have the right to claim ‘reasonable chastisement’ as a defence against having assaulted their child.”
HRC spokesman Isaac Mangena said the commission’s recommendation had added fuel to a move by the cabinet to amend the Children’s Act to outlaw spanking.
Joshua Generation Church minister Andrew Selley refused to speak to the Sunday Times this week.
The church’s advocate, Nadene Badenhorst, denied the church promoted spanking. However, it could not ask parents not to hit their children because this “would violate the religious freedom of those members of the church whose moral or religious conviction is that they should lovingly spank their children”.
Mangena said the HRC would wait for the church’s appeal before deciding on the next course of action. The Mosterts said they were prepared to take the matter “all the way to the Constitutional Court”.
A Sunday Times Twitter poll this week revealed people do not want a law banning parents from smacking their children. Of the 578 people who voted, 79% said there should not be a law against corporal punishment in the home, and 13% said there should be. The remaining 8% were indifferent.
Smart approach spares the rod
Very few children respond positively to smacking, says child and family care specialist Stephanie Dawson-Cosser.
“Children will usually respond from a point of fear and become compliant,” she said.
“Eventually, when those children become more independent, they will typically rebel. Some children will be traumatised by smacking.”
Dawson-Cosser said all that spanking showed a child was “adults are stronger than children, that it is acceptable for big people to use their strength on smaller people”.
“A tap on a toddler’s nappied bottom is not abusive, but is it really effective? It might release the parent’s tension, but does it stop the child’s behaviour? Invariably not,” she said.
“For toddlers and young children, it is usually possible to distract children. And if there are tears, that is just them expressing their sense of loss and disappointment about having to stop the activity they were enjoying.
“If you reflect that emotion back to them, for example: ‘I can see you are really upset about coming inside now, but it is bath time and you have to come inside,’ and start involving the child in running the bath, choosing toys to go in the bath, et cetera, nine out of 10 times the tantrum will be diverted.”
Dawson-Cosser gave five tips for positive parenting:
- Explain why it is important for the child to be responsible, tidy up, be considerate to other family members or put their clothes in the laundry basket;
- Parents must model what they want the children to do consistently — if you leave a mess and expect your domestic worker to clear up, do not expect your children to do anything different;
- With small children, do the task together. Turn the task into a game and share in the fun of the essential tasks;
- Only expect your child to do what is age-appropriate; and
- Praise them for completing such tasks.