I recently attended a psychoanalytic conference on corporal punishment and the new law that was brought in against it.
In 2017 the South Gauteng High Court ruled that the common law defence of reasonable chastisement is not in line with the constitution and no longer applies in our law.
The judgment came from an appeal by a father who had been found guilty of assault because he beat his 13-year-old son in a manner that exceeded the bounds of reasonable chastisement.
To hit any child was always regarded as a crime of assault, but it was less frowned upon when it was your own child. Previously, if the parent was charged and they had a special defence which said that the chastisement was reasonable they would not be found guilty. It is that special defence that this judgment has removed.
Parents and authority figures can no longer argue that they had good enough reason to beat a child.
Historically in South Africa, the corporal punishment practices that were entrenched in homes and schools for a significant period have their roots in colonialist practices of subjugation and punishment of slaves and workers.
These practices were further ingrained by oppressive political ideologies, more specifically apartheid, as well as religious ideas including the often (mis)quoted saying which states, “spare the rod, spoil the child”.
Parents and educators were encouraged to beat their children to inculcate a strong sense of discipline. However, most psychological research has shown more damaging effects of corporal punishment than the development of a healthy individual.
With the recent ruling against corporal punishment the court emphasised that the intention was not to charge parents with a crime, but rather to guide and support parents in finding more positive and effective ways of disciplining children.
Experiences of corporal punishment undermine trust between a parent and child and can instil aggression and a lack of empathy in the child.
This sets the child up for a pathway of emotional insecurity and increases the likelihood for them to abuse their own children and intimate partner. A child who is beaten is frightened into listening to the parent but this does not bode well for them to develop a sense of trust and openness in their relationship.
In the natural course of a child’s development they can be expected to challenge the boundaries and limits as reflected in this quote by English paediatrician and psychoanalyst, DW Winnicott: “A normal child, if he has confidence in his mother and father, pulls out all the stops. In the course of time, he tries out his power to disrupt, to destroy, to frighten, to wear down, to waste, to wangle, and to appropriate. Everything that takes people to courts (or to the asylums for that matter), has its normal equivalent in childhoodif the parents can stand up to (and tolerate) all the child can do to disrupt the parents’ world, things will settle down”
Many parents understandably may feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the demands of life, work and parenting and may feel there are no other options but to spank their child.
However, beating a child engenders fear of the parent and instills emotional insecurities within the child. Parents are encouraged to find more creative ways to engage their children, speak to them and discipline them in a manner which honours the integrity of the child’s mind and body.
Positive or conscious parenting can include helping the child to think about their behaviour. Clarify and discuss in advance the “rules of the house” and the consequences if these are not adhered to. The consequences can include removal of privileges or things they enjoy doing.
You can explain that they are making choices which have certain consequences. So for example, you can say, “If you refuse to clean your room, you will not be able to go to the party at the weekend. Which choice would you prefer?”
This leaves the responsibility for both the action and consequence up to the child. The parent needs to ensure the consequences are carried through consistently.
Children need to be given alternatives to unacceptable behaviour. For example, if you don’t want your child to run around in the house and knock things over, tell them where they can run around, such as outside.
Parents can also be examples to their children for appropriate behaviour. If there are regular arguments and fights at home, the chances are that your child will also follow suit and engage in aggressive behaviour towards others. Keeping calm in stressful moments is important, though very difficult. It is recommended that if a parent feels very upset, they need to remove themselves for a while or take a break and come back to the situation a short while later.
Children internalise what they see, hear, experience and learn on a regular basis and from their most significant others. Over this developmental life trajectory from infancy to early adulthood, their relational and family experiences become the foundation on which their sense of self is based and on which their relationships to others and the world are emulated.
It is my belief that all cultural and family practices need to be reflected on, challenged, and shifted by throwing out the dead wood. Through reflecting and being open to new ways of parenting and being-in-the-world, perhaps we can take in and use practices that are more socially and emotionally supportive.
There are many other more pro-social ways of parenting available if we are willing to make the effort to explore more thoughtful ways of engaging with our children, ways which in all likelihood had been available and practiced in non-western communities before the onslaught of colonialism and oppressive systems.
At the conference I attended, a presenter quoted a Zulu proverb regarding parenting which seems more fitting to positive parenting “A stick does not make a home”, in addition to another African quote, “Honour a child and it will honour you”. These could be alternative proverbs that are more helpful towards building a healthy child and family.
Carin-Lee Masters is a clinical psychologist. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org Send a WhatsApp message or SMS to 082 264 7774.