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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
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
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.
- Wessel van den Berg is a father of two toddlers, and Children's
Rights and Positive Parenting Unit Manager at Sonke Gender Justice.
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