The bane of the cane | Sunday Observer

The bane of the cane

11 November, 2018

Does hitting a child bring about any good? Some say yes, others say no. Hitting children happens in homes as well as schools. The end result adults expect from hitting children is ‘compliance.’ They expect that children would obey and comply, replacing one particular kind of ‘bad’ behaviour with another accepted as ‘good’ by adults. In schools, the most common reason children are hit is the failure to do homework. At home, it could be any sort of behaviour – fighting with siblings, talking back to adults, temper tantrums and more. Adults expect that by hitting children they would stop these displays of ‘bad’ behaviour and act according to their wishes.

Corporal or in other words physical punishment is defined as any punishment using physical force ‘intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light.’ Most of the time, this involves hitting, spanking, slapping either by hand or another implement such as a cane. Corporal Punishment (CP) usually comes to the lime light for a few weeks during the lineup to and soon after Children’s Day celebrations on October 1. ‘End Corporal Punishment 2020’ (ECP 2020) focusing on ending CP in Sri Lankan schools by the year 2020, is a recent campaign that is being supported by many professionals.

What are the advantages and or disadvantages of CP? Is there any good in ‘punishment’ at all? Why do we have to punish our children? Could there be other forms of disciplining that bring the same result? The Sunday Observer met veteran paediatrician and former Chair of National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), Emeritus Professor Harendra de Silva to explore CP and his involvement in the ECP 2020 campaign.

Corporal or physical punishment can do nothing about changing a child’s behaviour, says Prof. de Silva. Instead, what it actually does is to establish a vicious cycle of violence and abuse passed from one generation to another.

“In the late 80s, may be early 90s, I saw quite a lot of tragedies including physical abuse and sexual abuse. Physical child abuse is an extension of CP because the act is the same - you hit a child. How hard you hit and where you hit determines whether it is going to cause physical injury or not,” said Prof. de Silva. The physical injury could either be severe or light, visible or invisible. However, according to Prof. de Silva, it is the invisible injury caused in the mind of the child at the receiving end, which generates the vicious cycle of abuse.

Cycle of abuse

Something very often associated with CP is the anger of the parent or the teacher, which is uncontrollable at times. That uncontrollable anger is usually because of what that person has experienced in their own childhood. If somebody hits a person resulting in a bruise, cut or even a broken bone, all physical injuries will be healed. “But what is not going to heal is the mental abuse that you have faced. It gets embedded in your mind, the unconscious part of the brain which we call the subconscious. It can resurface at a different spot at any moment as an adult,” comments Prof. de Silva.

When faced with a situation similar to the one where he or she faced punishment or abuse as a child, usually the subonscious takes over and the person gets into a rage, ending in meting out punishment in a similar way to the child at hand, he explains. “That’s why today’s abused will become tomorrow’s abusers.”

A critical feature in today’s society is the rising youth violence, points out Prof. de Silva. Though there are manipulators of youth violence, and they most often being politicians with vested interests who get children and youth to go on strike or in processions or block roads and so on, “not everybody gets involved,” he reasons.

Youth violence

“Those who get involved in youth violence are more likely to have suffered violence during their childhood. Also as a youth if one gets beaten up in any of these processions, then the experience of violence gets strengthened, and then there is more likelihood of getting into the cycle of violence,” he said. One of the studies he had carried out with youth and adolescents in the 1990s had revealed a direct correlation between violent behaviour as an adolescent/youth and childhood experience of punishment/abuse.

A study conducted in 2017 around the country, by Prof. de Silva and others at the Colombo University had revealed that 80% of schoolchildren had experienced CP during the previous term and that 70% faced emotional or verbal abuse during the same period.

A survey of the teachers conducted at the same time had revealed that though the teachers knew they act wrongly, they tended to justify their actions. “There was a difference between teachers’ admission of CP and children’s opinion. But still, there were a lot of people who said yes we do that, we can’t help it.” This is a sad situation for a nation which had ratified the ‘Convention on the Rights of the Child, (CRC) nearly three decades ago (12th July 1991), according to Prof. de Silva.

Children voiceless

The society’s view of the child as an entity without rights is the main reason for such happenings, he said. Children are not considered on par with adults. If an adult is slapped or beaten by his or her superior at the workplace, there are many ways to bring about justice. When a child is hit or slapped or meted out another form of CP, though the situation is the same, nothing happens because children have no say. Child protection in the country has become politicised and this had made it unprofessional. Exacerbating the situation is the reluctance of parents to question CP or verbal/emotional abuse in a school fearing further abuse and the reluctance of Past Pupils’ Associations (PPAs) to bring such misconducts to light and initiate reform.

Though prosecuting the offenders by strengthening the rule of law was seen as a means to end CP some time ago, it had failed, says Prof. de Silva. The law was changed in 1995, bringing in a mandatory sentence of two to three years of rigorous imprisonment, for the offence of ‘child cruelty’ (Penal Code Amendment No. 22 of 1995 section 308 A). However, it had failed to define child cruelty. “Slapping a child is cruelty and stabbing a child is also cruelty. Those are two extremes. Also, the mandatory sentence makes it a draconian law,” says Prof. de Silva adding that so far, no one has been prosecuted under the law.

If so, how do we curb CP and instill discipline in our children? According to Prof. de Silva, accountability is the key. “There are two extremes. One extreme which can happen at home or in school is where the adult in charge allows children to do anything, role on the ground, have temper tantrums, he or she gives in and every time the baby cries pamper him. That is the permissive extreme.

Accountability for behaviour

The other extreme is the authoritative extreme. In this extreme they can’t say a word. No shouting or spitting, you can’t have anything it has to be given.” However, neither extreme helps children, he points out. Children have to be able to be accountable for their behaviour. Adults support children by setting boundaries with consequences for good as well as bad behaviour using non-violent means.

This had brought many successes in Sri Lanka as well as in countries around the globe, says Prof. de Silva citing an example where he had been asked the question of how to discipline children by a mother of five boys, just after one of his TV presentations. “She said that they like to watch TV. So, I asked her to stop them from watching TV if they misbehave. They get grounded as usual but in addition are not allowed to watch TV, instead of getting beaten. The next program I had to do there, she told me that my suggestion worked like magic. What she had not achieved through hitting for years, she had been able to achieve through this alternative.”

However, adults have to understand the normal behaviour patterns of children and make allowances for them when setting boundaries. “For example, if a child shouts and screams and laughs and jumps up and down at home, that is normal behaviour for a child. Can you expect a child to be quiet and still, behaving like an old man of 75?” he questions.

Another area adults have to be careful is the attention seeking behaviour of the children. “Sometimes children want to prove to their peers that they are heroes. You want to show that you are a tough guy and you can control the class.” What these children usually do is to get into fights with peers, and even if they get beaten by teachers bear it without flinching, or mock the person in authority while bearing the punishment.

Another aspect of this is playing pranks on adults. Through all these children want adults to react, says Prof. de Silva. The best way to quell such behaviour is “not to react. If somebody hits you and you say thank you that person would never try to hit. But if you react angrily that person will want to give you a second punch. That’s how the human mind works and the children’s minds also work the same.”

His involvement in ECP 2020, is because he believes that CP is not the solution to change children’s behaviour. “It is according to my conscience. I believe in certain things – values and attitudes and if anybody is trying to working on the same I don’t mind contributing without any agendas. I have no agendas at all,” says Prof. de Silva. ECP 2020 handed over a five point plan called a ‘Pentagon Proposal’ drawing in five key government offices namely the President and the Ministries of Education, Children’s Affairs, Law and Order and Justice towards child protection.

They proposed a six-point action plan, ensuring a total ban on CP is institutionalised and implemented; implementing the National Child Protection Policy; regulating international schools; establishing Child Protection Officers in all schools; creating awareness among teachers and principals of national schools through disseminating relevant information; and creating awareness among parents.