Corporal punishment: Children gain when there is no pain

2014-11-27 15:00

Violence within societies is costly, and violence against women and children exacts a heavier price than war and civil unrest.

According to a recent report by KPMG, violence against women and children costs South Africa something in the order of R28?billion a year.

The Mail?&?Guardian recently reported even higher figures and allocated a large proportion of the total costs to violence against children.

These costs arise not only from the more obvious price linked to an increased need for child welfare and child protection interventions, but from the well-documented life-long negative consequences for an assaulted child.

While many parents discipline their children without corporal punishment, many do use corporal punishment.

Statistics are hard to come by but available information suggests the majority of South African parents smack their children, and that a large proportion of these parents use a belt, stick or other object.

Most worrying is that the age at which children are most at risk of being smacked is three, and the age of greatest risk for beating with an object is four. This is also the age that children are more vulnerable, physically and emotionally, to the negative effects of violence in general.

There are many reasons to prohibit corporal punishment in the home. These include children’s constitutional right to protection, and the fact that children are more physically and emotionally vulnerable than adults (who already enjoy legal protection from abuse and physical harm).

In addition, research findings over the past two decades suggest strongly that corporal punishment is in fact ineffective in teaching children self-discipline.

But it is the long-term cost to society – in terms of actual monetary value and in terms of the kind of society we perpetuate when we hit children – that should be getting much more attention.

The long-term consequences of the legal assault of children by their parents can be counted in a number of ways.

Firstly, there is the obvious burden on the fiscus of the increased need for social and medical services. Appalling as this is, it is a short-term cost.

The long-term consequences are arguably much more costly. One of these is the decrease in IQ, cognitive functioning and the capacity to reach their full potential, which research has shown results from even the so-called little smacks administered in early childhood.

The cost here is measured in increased dependency on the state as children become adults, and with fewer people truly able to rise to the challenges of life in the 21st century.

Also expensive are the long-term emotional consequences, with corporal punishment reliably linked to increased levels of depression and psychosomatic disorders, which often results in absenteeism in the workplace. This places further pressures on the state when the emotional consequences literally incapacitate people’s ability to “hold their own” in their private and professional lives.

Then there is the price of high and increasing levels of interpersonal and sexual violence in an already violent society. Evidence based on research is clear that corporal punishment in childhood results in increased aggression and an increased propensity for men to abuse their own spouses and children, and for the revictimisation of women in intimate relationships.

In a country with arguably the highest levels of interpersonal violence in the world, surely we need to ask what lessons we are teaching children when we hit them. These are not the lessons of learning to make good decisions and to respect the integrity and rights of others.

On the contrary, hitting children teaches that violence is an appropriate response to things that the more powerful in the situation does not like; that the feelings and concerns of the less powerful are not as important as those of the abusive adult; that stronger, more powerful people can hurt those who are smaller and less powerful; and that loving and hurting are somehow linked.

It’s time to take a new approach to raising the next generation. The current edition of the South African Child Gauge (2014) provides a number of good places to start, including the prohibition of corporal punishment in the home.

Bower is a member of the Positive Discipline Working Group and a contributor to the SA Child Gauge 2014 on preventing violence against children, which was released this week. The report is available at

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