A Pound of Flesh?

 

I’m retired now, and my kids have long since passed the age when, even if I were so disposed, I would dare lay a hand on either them or their children. But of course I wouldn’t -parenting wasn’t like that in my family.

I suspect I rarely hung out in the Goldilocks zone in childhood. I was prey to all of the usual temptations on offer in a 1950ies Winnipeg, but it’s unclear to me just what things I would have to have done to require corporal punishments. I realize that sounds naïve, even all these years later, but my father was not quick with the hand. In fact, on the one occasion he resorted to it, he seemed more upset by it than me, his recalcitrant offspring. And anyway, I think it was my mother’s idea that he wreak some stronger retribution than she could inflict on me with her voice.

My mother was into noise, actually. I imagine I was a frustrating child for her and she would resort to yelling fits when things didn’t go well. Clearly I have a limited, and no doubt statistically insignificant data set when it comes to the effects of corporal punishment, but I would venture to say that I feared my mother’s mouth far more than my father’s hand. My mother’s facial expression bespoke rage, my father’s, though, suggested sorrow -betrayal…

But I do not mean to disparage either of them, nor to suggest that they meted out cruel and unusual punishments under duress -I’m sure they were well-intentioned. And anyway, anecdotal evidence is a poor substitute for well-designed research, so I was pleased to see a more recent attempt to summarize what has been learned about the effects of, in this case, corporally disciplining children: https://theconversation.com/why-parents-should-never-spank-children-85962 The article was co-written by Tracie O. Afifi, Associate Professor, University of Manitoba, and Elisa Romano, Full Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Ottawa.

‘The use of spanking has been hotly debated over the last several decades. Supporters state that it is safe, necessary and effective; opponents argue that spanking is harmful to children and violates their human rights to protection.’ But despite how common and widespread its use, it has been banned in 53 countries and states throughout the world. ‘The research clearly shows that spanking is related to an increased likelihood of many poor health, social and developmental outcomes. These poor outcomes include mental health problems, substance use, suicide attempts and physical health conditions along with developmental, behavioural, social and cognitive problems. Equally important, there are no research studies showing that spanking is beneficial for children.’ And, indeed,  ‘An updated meta-analysis was most recently published in 2016. This reviewed and analyzed 75 studies from the previous 13 years, concluding that there was no evidence that spanking improved child behaviour and that spanking was associated with an increased risk of 13 detrimental outcomes. These include aggression, antisocial behaviour, mental health problems and negative relationships with parents.’ I suspect there were other things going on in both intent and degree that might have confounded these studies and led to the negative outcomes, though -apples are simply not oranges, and beating or assaulting someone is not the same as striking a buttock with an open hand as a way to deter an unwanted behaviour.

Of course, the researchers hasten to add that ‘this does not make parents who have used spanking bad parents. In the past, we simply did not know the risks.’ I think that lets my father off the hook; I’m not so sure about my mother, though. It seems to me that it is all too easy to condemn corporal punishments, while ignoring –or, perhaps, paying less attention to- the other forms of discipline that, intuitively at least, might be expected to result in equally detrimental  consequences for a developing child. One of these, of course, is verbal haranguing.

I don’t believe that I was ever subject to verbal abuse, however. I was never demeaned, or insulted by my mother –just confronted with my miscreant behaviour, and anointed with the requisite guilt- but I can understand how it could get out of hand under different circumstances and with different personalities. I find that worrisome –alarming, in fact. It is a behaviour that could all too easily slip under the radar. Be explained away.

I recognize that parenting is stressful, and that we all come to it with different temperaments, different abilities to tolerate stress, and different support structures that could be called upon in times of intolerable tension, but I suppose that is just the point. I wrote about this a while ago: https://musingsonwomenshealth.com/2017/05/17/time-out-eh/

But I fear that it sometimes requires the patience of Job to stand-down enough to be able to socially isolate the misbehaving child with a time-out. It is clearly preferable to spanking, to be sure, but I still wonder if what precedes it may be just that verbal abuse it seeks to avoid.

So, given our human propensity to react unpredictably and often adversely to stress, what am I advocating? Well, I have to admit that I have neither the background, nor the temerity to suggest that I have any productive answers. But although the Conversation article I quoted above was focused on spanking –physical punishment- it contains some suggestions that I think would be applicable to other punitive modalities like verbal abuse and insults.

‘Research already shows some evidence that parenting programs specifically aimed at preventing physical punishment can be successful. Some evidence for reducing harsh parenting and physical punishment has been found for Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT), the Incredible Years (IY) program and the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP). Other promising home visiting initiatives and interventions taking place in community and paediatric settings are also being examined for proven effectiveness.’

I know –education, education, education… But sometimes education is merely making people aware that alternatives exist. That there could be support out there of which they may not have been aware -both with friends and in the community. Remember that African proverb: It takes a village to raise a child

 

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Consequences: the Smacking Laws

Ahhh, spanking, the dreaded consequence of miscreance meted out in retrospective fairness by loving parents anxious to create an appropriate conscience in their child. Anxious to establish that there are consequences to behaviour that have not gone unnoticed. Will not go unnoticed. It is one end of a spectrum running between reward and dissuasion all in the name of, well, persuasion. Encouragement. Manipulation.

But words matter, don’t they? Depending on how I wished to portray it, I could easily have used more pejorative words, punitive, violent words such as, oh, coercion, intimidation, threats, or even assault. The devil is in the words. The message. The intent.

So it was with much curiosity that I was drawn to a BBC article on the Irish Smacking law that seems to have drawn the ire of the European Committee of Social Rights. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-32887584 Well, in truth, it was a complaint from the UK’s own Association for the Protection of All Children in 2013 that launched it all. As the article points out: ‘Corporal punishment was banned in Irish schools in 1982 and, by 1996, it was a criminal offence to hit schoolchildren.’ but it apparently still allowed ‘reasonable chastisement’. So in a recent decision, ‘the European Committee of Social Rights said none of the Irish legislation referred to it expressly banned “all forms of corporal punishment of children that is likely to affect their physical integrity, dignity, development or psychological well-being”.’ As a result, the ‘Irish Minister for Children James Reilly told the state broadcaster, RTÉ, that ‘his department has started talks with the Department of Justice and Equality on removing the defence of reasonable chastisement from Irish law.

Well, that’s that, I suppose -another spoke in the wheel of human rights; another barrier to violent punishment… But hold on a moment. What just happened here? The UK association maintained that ‘[…] the existence, under Irish Common Law, of the defence of reasonable chastisement “allows parents and some other adults to assault children with impunity“.’ Fair enough criticism, perhaps. But failing the ability to spank, what are the other options that remain? Well, said the Minister, ‘in recent years, most parents have used other ways of disciplining their children’, but ‘he said he wanted to see the options available on abolishing the reasonable chastisement defence before considering any new legislation to ban parental smacking. The minister added that he has instructed his officials to prepare regulations that would explicitly ban corporal punishment of children in foster homes or in the care of the state.

Uhmmm. I think he should be worried about the content of the European denunciation that proscribed –as quoted above- punishment of children (in this case corporal) likely to affect their physical integrity, dignity, development or psychological well-being. So, is verbal abuse acceptable as an alternative to physical punishment? How about withdrawal of love or affection… or proper care? Would none of these affect development or psychological well-being?

I suppose there is always the option of ignoring the misbehaviour. But if the behaviour was a cry for help –a cry for attention- then looking the other way doesn’t seem appropriate, nor likely to change the behaviour. Nor would it, either, if it is a naïve attempt to find boundaries –or for that matter to have them delineated more clearly. More forcefully.

Transgression is fraught with penalties; order is sewn together by laws and consequences. I would be the last one to condone violence to a child –or anyone else, for that matter- but I am honestly at a loss to know how to deal effectively with recalcitrance. I am, to be sure, of an other era when the mere threat of retribution –spanking, or the ‘strap’- was enough to deter behaviour. So was withdrawal of privileges, I suppose -but that engineered manipulation rather than change: either ransoming the privilege, or misbehaving anyway as in Macbeth’s ‘Lay on, Macduff, and damned be him who first cries, “Hold, enough!” as he defies Macduff when Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.

Anyway, I’m not sure how one would police spanking. Physical violence, yes: bruises, fractures -or worse- on visits to the doctor’s office or the emergency department. But it would certainly be even more difficult to uncover –let alone gather enough evidence to prosecute- non physical violence, though. So, I wonder whether it is a terrible thing to retain ‘reasonable chastisement’ as a more benign response than what is left: a letting off of steam to prevent the otherwise impending explosion.

I don’t know that it is punishment that I condone, however –I think it is rather the consequences that should follow the act that would otherwise be disciplined. I would prefer to let my own opinion lie fallow while the dust settles on the Irish thing, and merely quote George Bernard Shaw’s observation of the wages of deceit: ‘The liar’s punishment is not in the least that he is not believed, but that he cannot believe anyone else.’ Consequences!