Corporal punishment: what the law says

By admin
02 May 2014

It remains a controversial issue: what is the role of corporal punishment when disciplining children? Times have changed and caning as a means of discipline at schools was abolished years ago. But at home whether to smack or not is still up to you.

It remains a controversial issue: what is the role of corporal punishment when disciplining children? Times have changed and caning as a means of discipline at schools was abolished years ago. But at home whether to smack or not is still up to you. Every mom has her own usually strong-held opinion on the matter. We look at what the law currently says about corporal punishment at home. We also suggest alternatives to corporal punishment.

What’s the legal position?

Corporal punishment is currently prohibited everywhere except at home. This includes the legal system (as a sentence or punishment for prisoners) and the education system.

The first amend to the Children’s Act didn’t succeed in prohibiting corporal punishment at home. “At the time the Amendment was passed in 2007 it was agreed that the issue of prohibiting corporal punishment in the home would be taken up again when the Children’s Act was amended. This is where we are now,” says Carol Bower, a Northern Cape children’s rights consultant who focuses specifically on physical abuse.

Carol says the new bill for the amendment of the Children’s Act was completed at the end of last year and submitted to the department of social development. This includes a clause stating the following in summary:

A person who has care of a child, including a person who has parental responsibilities and rights in respect of a child, must respect, promote and protect to the fullest extent possible. No child, including a child in a child and youth care centre, partial care facility, shelter or drop-in centre, may be subjected to corporal punishment or be punished in a cruel, inhuman or degrading way.

Although the bill could have been ready for the parliamentary process at the beginning of the year the election has prevented any work being done on it in the foreseeable future, Carol says. This means it will probably only be presented to parliament for approval in 2015, following further considerations and public hearing by various parliamentary committees.

Experts’ take on corporal punishment

Parenting is an extremely sensitive topic. Most parents were themselves subjected to corporal punishment when they were kids so don’t want to run their parents down or think badly of them. “There’s nothing wrong with me and I was smacked,” is a common response. But in that case, are you in a position to know what it would’ve been like to not be smacked?

Pretoria educational psychologist Alfred du Plessis regards corporal punishment as an absolute last resort. “It’s important to realise that corporal punishment and assault in some circles are closely related and in some families there’s hardly any distinction between the two. The most important difference is that corporal punishment occurs in a relationship of love and caring.”

This means the aim of corporal punishment is not to cause pain but to heal a relationship. “The consequences of abusing corporal punishment is that it creates another generation of ‘abusers’, a child and later an adult who suffers from poor self-esteem, anxiety, aggression and in many cases depression as a symptom of suppressed anger.”

“Corporal punishment teaches kids that violence is the only way to solve problems,” Carol says. “This is extremely problematic in a violent society such as ours. If I as an adult may not hit you, why may I do it to children? After all children need more protection than adults as they are more vulnerable.”

The only good corporal punishment does is that you get immediate compliance, she says. “Children know: if the person who punishes them can see them when they do something wrong they’ll be punished. But it doesn’t teach them long-term self-discipline. It doesn’t teach kids to make good decisions.”

Cape Town social worker and parenting expert Anne Cawood agrees. “Children who’re smacked learn how to avoid punishment but never learn how to make decisions themselves. As soon as they’re away from the adults who keep them in check they often run amok.

“You’re not being a good role model either. You’re teaching children that if you’re stronger than someone and want something you can use force to get it.

“The problem with corporal punishment often arises when a child is more challenging. With easy children one smack is enough to make them understand. But with more challenging children you may start with one smack and then have to go a step further because one smack is not effective. It escalates, which is when parents go too far. This happens more than you think.”

Many parents use corporal punishment because they’re at their wits’ end. “They’re at the end of their tether, life is difficult and full of challenges, financially and otherwise. But this is not your child’s fault,” Carol says.

“And parents shouldn’t say they do it to protect their child. An 18-month-old toddler is curious. When he puts his fingers in the wall plug it’s not because he’s being naughty. It’s no use smacking him. It’s your job to keep him safe and to ensure the wall plug is closed up.”

What are the alternatives?

“There’s usually an alternative to corporal punishment,” Alfred says. “Corporal punishment is not a creative way to maintain discipline as it’s reactive. For a tired parent it’s an option to get quick obedience but it can’t necessarily work long term.”

There’s a difference between disciplining and punishing, Anne says. Disciplining is about choices and consequences. For younger children it can be simply saying: If you carry on fighting with your friend you’ll have to sit here with me for a few minutes.

“In the case of older kids you can give them a warning: If you’re not waiting at the agreed place at the agreed time you’ll be grounded or the privilege will be removed.” But you should warn the child before taking action. “Parents complain, saying kids are always trying to shift the goalposts. But that’s because parents don’t carry out their threats!”

That’s why you have to be firm and consistent, early on in the process. “Children must know: if I make this choice this is what will happen – without fail.”

Communication is key, Alfred says. “Through effective communication you can improve your relationship with your child so you no longer need to resort to corporal punishment. Children’s unacceptable behaviour is often an attempt to be heard and a way to try to communicate with the parent.”

? Suzaan Hauman

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