South Africa has just gone to the polls for the fifth time since 1994. In the build-up to what many have described as the most important election since, significant attention was paid to the kind of country South Africans want to live in. There was talk of better education, more focus on employment creation, better opportunities, less corruption. Not much attention was paid to party strategies for reducing sexual, interpersonal and community violence or for protecting and promoting the rights of children.
In our view, these are two of the most important issues that parties should have plans for addressing. Be that as it may, once the brouhaha around the election subsides, the fourth Amendment to the Children’s Act, which is ready and waiting, will commence its journey through the parliamentary process. In its current form, it contains a clause prohibiting corporal punishment in the home.
People in favour of hitting children often claim that “there is so much violence in our society; if corporal punishment in the home is prohibited, it will get even worse – look what’s happened in countries that have banned it, like the UK and the USA”.
It’s worth noting that neither the UK nor the USA has prohibited corporal punishment in the home, and the USA is certainly one of the most violent places in the world. So far, 37 countries have banned corporal punishment in all settings. These include countries like Sweden (the first to do so), the Netherlands, New Zealand and 5 African countries – hardly countries over-run by ill-disciplined adults.
There are many reasons to prohibit corporal punishment of children. Children are smaller and emotionally more vulnerable than adults. Children deserve at least the same protection as adults. Beating children violates their rights to physical integrity and to freedom from fear, humiliation and degradation.
But the most compelling argument against physical punishment must relate to our understanding of the kind of society we want to live in, and how we create that society.
South Africa is an extraordinarily violent society. Our levels of sexual, interpersonal, family and community violence are among the highest in the world. And most crimes of violence in South Africa are perpetrated by a person known to the victim.
The South African Police Service (SAPS), among others, has frequently pointed out the responsibility of all stake-holders for bringing down South Africa’s high violent crime rate. They have highlighted that better cooperation between and within spheres of government is needed, and emphasised the role of factors like forced removals, alcohol and substance abuse, and poverty as drivers of crime. All those things need attention if we are to become the kind of society we sensed was possible in the heady days after our first democratic elections.
But we have to do more than that as we move into our third decade of democracy and respect for the human rights of all. We need to take a long, hard look at child-rearing practices that feed and support the violence that affects all our lives, every day.
We need to ask: What kind of adults would we like our children to become? It seems to me we would want adults who are physically and emotionally healthy, intellectually capable, and self-disciplined – able to lead good and productive lives, to sustain themselves and help sustain our hard-won democracy.
The proposed Amendment to the Children’s Act does not advocate that we abandon discipline of children. It supports a different approach to discipline that inculcates values of non-violence, self-discipline and a respect for the human rights of others.
What do we teach our children when we hit them? That it is OK to impose your will on someone else; that they have no say or rights or dignity; that bigger, stronger people are entitled to hurt those who are smaller and weaker. Are these not some of the very things that are wrong in our country? When we defend the ‘right’ of parents to beat their children, when we try to differentiate ‘reasonable physical punishment’ from abuse, and when we insist we have a god-given right to raise the next generation in the shadow of physical punishment, then we ignore the consequences of these methods of raising children.
Objectively, what do we know about the consequences of corporal punishment of children?
Studies on the effects of spanking and corporal punishment over the last 50 years have shown that spanking sometimes works in the short-term –but that non-violent methods of discipline work just as well.
Furthermore, the long-term consequences of corporal punishment are far from positive. Five studies conducted since 1997 provide evidence that on average, the behaviour of the children of parents who spanked them got worse. There was a strong association between corporal punishment and children’s aggression and anti-social behaviour.
In a landmark study, Elizabeth Gershoff found that parental corporal punishment was associated with:
- Lower self-discipline in the child.
- Increased child aggression.
- Increased child delinquency and antisocial behaviour.
- Poorer relationship between parent and child.
- Decreased mental health in the child.
- Higher risk of the child being physically abused.
- Increased aggression in adulthood.
- Increased adult criminality and anti-social behaviour.
- Decreased adult mental health.
- Increased risk of the child becoming an abusive parent or spouse.
Corporal punishment was associated with just one desirable behaviour: increased immediate compliance.
The Children’s Amendment Bill gives us an unprecedented opportunity to begin to build a non-violent future in our violence-torn country. Let’s not blow it. Let us ensure this Bill is passed into law. Let us – as parents, families, teachers, communities, government and society at large – begin to create the kind of childhood that is the right of every child and that underpins our shared right to live in a peaceable, just society.
Carol Bower is a consultant at Sonke Gender Justice she is currently working on a project called MenCare: South Africa Promotion of Positive Discipline Campaign and Wessel van der Berg is a programme manager at Sonke Gender Justice.