The recent video of a little girl struggling to say her numbers and getting slapped elicited horrified reactions across the board, from cricketer Virat Kohli to school WhatsApp groups. A week later, another video surfaced, this time, of a teacher in a school in Lucknow repeatedly slapping a boy, CCTVs in the classroom being no deterrent to her behaviour.
While both instances were criticised, for many of us, there was the guilty acknowledgement that the little girl’s frustration, anger and gritted teeth were discomfitingly familiar. As parents, we have all been there, to that brink of emotional explosion. And we have probably all nearly done that, misread a situation, lost control and made regrettable disciplinary choices.
Clinical psychologist Sonali Gupta works with young people and she says it’s understandable. “No one is trained for parenting. We are constantly learning to master our emotions but we need to know that the impact of physical punishment lasts into adulthood,” she says.
Multiple studies around the world have found that corporal punishment is rarely a lasting solution to a disciplinary issue. Children were seen to misbehave more and show more aggression when spanked. They were also more likely to be disruptive in school and have a hard time concentrating. In adulthood, not only did they experience mental health problems, there was also a greater chance they would smack their own children. And so the cycle goes on.
For two decades now, Harjit Kaur, centre development officer at Mumbai’s ChicaNiño Childcare, has run daycare and learning centres for children aged four-and-a-half months to six years. She says, “As a parent, we lack a deep understanding because one tends to take parenting roles for granted, as if they are a natural thing.” And so, we hark back to how we were raised.
Parenting styles around the world are informed by culture and social norms. It is most evident in how we were disciplined. Disciplinary violence against children can range from physical harm to verbal abuse to discrimination (on account of gender, caste, religion, skin colour etc) but smacking seems to be most pervasive and most justified.
Sweden banned corporal punishment in 1979. Today, New Zealand and over 30 countries across Europe, Africa and the Americas have instituted bans. There are specific laws prohibiting corporal punishment in schools in 70 more countries.
In India, most of us were routinely smacked with varying degrees of severity. A casual, open-ended question about childhood experiences will usually result in good-natured one-upmanship about how often we were smacked as children, the use of implements (clothes hangers, slippers, belts, canes, rulers, chalk dusters) depending on whether you were at home or at school. We rarely talk of the fear we felt, the humiliation, the impotent rage and the desire to hit back. The experiences have a superficial normalisation to them.
According to the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR), a 2007 study on child abuse in India by the Ministry of Women and Child Development found that 69 per cent of children reported physical abuse. On an average, 50 per cent of children reported being abused in family situations, 88.6 per cent of these by their parents. And two out of every three children attending school faced corporal punishment.
In its “guidelines for eliminating corporal punishment in schools”, the NCPCR states that the perception is that punishing children is normal, acceptable, even necessary, whether in the family or in an institution. It is so pervasive that children have no idea that their rights have been infringed upon. The guidelines clearly state that corporal punishment is “an abuse of authority that harms the child.” There is also a need to review the notion that institutions/people in loco parentis are always acting in the interests of the child, given how widespread and severe the violence visited upon children is.
You will find people who believe spanking has unfairly got a bad rap. Professor Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State University is one of the few paediatricians critical of absolute bans on corporal punishment. He cites a paediatric conference held in the US in 1996 on the effects of corporal punishment on children to define spanking: “physical, non-injurious; intended to modify behaviour and administered with an open hand to the extremities or buttocks.” In an online article, Dr Larzelere evangelises a balanced position that “differentiates between appropriate versus inappropriate ways to use disciplinary spanking,” especially in the ages between two and six.
But the lines are far too blurred for most of us. (In both the Indian videos, the children were hit on the face or head by a parent and a teacher who had clearly lost control of their emotions.) Gupta is unequivocal: “There is absolutely no situation that warrants hitting a child. It is never okay.”
As awareness increases, parents are more likely to be guarded about their use of corporal punishment. If they do resort to it, they are likely to hide it. But children who are regularly beaten (or even violently screamed at) will show symptoms of their trauma. Kaur says, “In a democratic household, children are confident, ready to explore. When a child is spanked at home, they are scared, they look like they don’t know what’s happening. It’s evident, no matter what the parents say.”
As the children get older and physically larger, relying on physical punishment is potentially disastrous. At an airport, that undeniable test of parenting, I watched a father and his teenage son’s argument descend quickly into aggressive, threatening behaviour. Both visibly restrained themselves. They were physically evenly matched for the moment. But the truth was the next year would change that equation.
The impact of physical punishment lasts into adulthood. Parents who justify corporal punishment claiming to show no signs of emotional damage themselves prove nothing. Gupta says, “the absence of clear-cut emotional symptoms doesn’t necessarily equate with good mental health.” While studies show low self-esteem and lack of trust can last into adulthood, Gupta reminds us that children who have been hit get used to the idea of pain in their lives and can “be emotionally abusive or may seek physically explosive relationships.”
But the most compelling reason to give up corporal punishment is because it is a clear indicator that parental/teacher accountability has been shrugged off. The inability to regulate your own mood and reactions shows poor emotional maturity. And emotional maturity should be requisite to raising a child.
There are always extenuating circumstances. Modern parenting is a high-pressure task. Parents are constantly bombarded with messages that they must do more. It is not enough to provide food, shelter and education. You must also broaden horizons culturally, socially and physically. The village it took to raise a child has moved to social media. Rather than being the traditional support system, it now causes a heightened sense of parental frustration and inadequacy. WhatsApp, Facebook and other social media are peopled with communities that pressurise each other via the posting of report cards, achievements, extra-curricular activities, holidays, parties etc.
Schools can also buckle under the pressure. “Many institutions want to enforce milestones but the problem is compounded by having too many children in the class at an age when children need individualised attention. If a good teacher-student ratio is not maintained, the teacher can lose control and react badly,” says Kaur.
Subject to the pressures of daily life and suffering the lack of a supportive social system, parents and guardians need to be extra careful that they don’t, in turn, displace their negative emotions on their own children.
Disruptive behaviour is best dealt with before it happens. But it takes patience, maturity and awareness to be able to pre-empt a tantrum. “You need to take the time to understand a child and think about the impact of your own responses on your child’s future,” Kaur says.
When children are referred to her for consultation in matters of discipline, Gupta says she now deals with the parents — because that is where the roots of any problem usually lie. In fact, she believes Indians en masse would benefit from social initiatives that help parents learn healthier ways of disciplining. “Whether they are documentaries or other mass media, we need to create conversations to change ways perpetuated over the years. We need to show there are more effective ways of discipline beyond punishments.”
As we grapple with the truths of our own inadequate upbringing and struggle to manage the pressures of being a parent in this modern environment, it’s worth remembering that we seek a better childhood for our children than the one we had ourselves. Teaching the next generation to handle anger without violence is a crucial life skill for individuals and the societies they will grow up to form.