Spare the rod, save the child

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

Almost every parent wants what is best for their children. It’s also common for parents to believe that they know what is best for their children. Sometimes that confidence comes from how we were raised – whether it’s because we want to emulate our parents or want to avoid their mistakes – and other times it comes from our own experiences and our own research.

This kind of certainty, however, can easily lead us astray as neither we nor our parents are infallible. We owe it to our children to ensure that we are supplementing our methods with the advice of present-day experts, backed by rigorous research. The fact that, to this day, corporal (physical) punishment remains a common parenting practice throughout the world is a sure sign that many parents are failing to do just that… and our children are suffering for it.

According to the World Health Organization, around 60 percent of children aged 2-14 years regularly suffer physical punishment by their parents or other caregivers, and in some nations this is also common in schools. The risk is also one which is similar for all children – neither wealth, nor sex, was much of a defense against the risk of corporal punishment.

The reasons parents resort to corporal punishment are myriad. For some, this is how they themselves were raised, and how they expect parents to behave. After all, in many communities through much of history, children were not accorded many rights and there was a long-standing practice of corporal punishment. For some it became even a matter of principle – ‘spare the rod, spoil the child’ – and a means of establishing the power hierarchy of the family, of imposing their authority. For others, it’s a product of emotion – frustration with the child, desperation to keep them safe, anger at the violation of a rule. The intentions can vary as well, from the desire to protect, or to correct, or to punish.

But whatever the reason and whatever the intention of the parent, the consequences for the children are the same.

Studies have shown that corporal punishment, understood to be the use of physical force to cause pain as a form of discipline, has predominantly resulted in worse relationships with parents, more mental health problems, greater aggression, greater antisocial behaviors, a greater externalizing and internalizing of problems, lower cognitive ability and lower self-esteem. Moreover, any resort to physical force also carries with it the risk of escalation, especially if heightened emotions are involved and if the child seeks to resist or fight back. It’s all too easy for an angry parent to cross the line and irrevocably harm a child, or the relationship.

But some would argue that improving the behavior of their child in the short term would justify the resort to corporal punishment. Yet even in the short term, there is evidence that corporal punishment such as spanking does not result in more compliance than other methods, such as the use of a barrier/time-out room. Most parents only compare corporal punishment with the alternative of no punishment at all, and of course that would make it seem effective. But while corporal punishment is thus better than doing nothing, it is not better than alternative means of discipline that do not carry the risks of physical injury to the child or of increasing child aggression.

As far as long-term compliance goes, particularly the internalization of “proper” behavior when the parents are not around, corporal punishment actually makes things worse – in 2010, a meta-analysis showed that in 13 of 15 studies, corporal punishment correlated with less long-term compliance.

In fact, in the long term, the use of force in the household – the one place where a child should feel absolutely secure – serves only to normalize violence. It makes the child more likely to accept violence, whether as its perpetrator or as its victim, and it makes it more likely they will continue the vicious cycle with their own children.

The cycle needs to end.

We live in a world where violence is too often and too easily seen as a viable response. It’s a world where the lives of so many children are being cut short – their laughter, their dreams, their innocence lost forever – because adults chose violence as a solution to the problems of the present without caring for the salvation of the future. It remains one of the most tragic mysteries of humankind that the children who are so essential to the future, to a better world, are so often marginalized and cast aside by those who claim to be acting for the common good, whether it be the leaders of nations or their own parents.

If we truly want to build a better world, a better future, that work must start at home. It must start in the way we raise our children, in the way we commit to removing violence as an option from our relationship with them. This will not come easily to many, particularly those who were raised, so to speak, by the rod. But it is a commitment we must all nonetheless make.

We must do this because it is their internationally recognized right as children to be protected from harm. We must do this because the research has decisively shown that even for the well-intentioned, corporal punishment does little to correct behavior in the long-term and in fact has a plethora of negative effects that will actively harm the prospects and health of the children whose good we claim to seek.

But most of all, if we claim to love our children, we must end corporal punishment to dispel the notion that violence can be love. Love can be tough love, it is true, it may mean making decisions they will not agree with, it may mean asking them to endure what is for their own good… but love can never be expressed through violence, and violence can never be excused by love.

Spare the rod, save the child – and save the parent, too.

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