Musings Of A Spiritual Atheist
Corporal Punishment

Throughout history children’s behaviour has been modified by violence. I am, of course, referring to spanking or caning, or something similar. Not many years ago this was still common, although likely not as frequent nor harsh as it had been in previous times, and it has become even less common as time has passed. It was usually reserved for boys who were seen as having committed some serious wrong, although what constituted a serious wrong often depended more on the hitter’s opinion than on any objective guide. The practice is still deeply ingrained in many cultures, particularly among god fearing people, who believe that the Bible actively recommends this as a means, even the primary means, of discipline and child correction. The usual references given are Proverbs, chapter 13, verse 24 and chapter 23, verse 13 which say:

For a discussion of these verses and how they are often misunderstood and misapplied, please see the chapter “If you beat him” which discusses them from a Bible perspective. In short, though, suffice it to say that those verses gave advice to parents in ancient Israel on how they could protect incorrigibly delinquent, older children and young adults from being executed, and is not general advice to parents on the recommended way of raising children. It is a last, desperate measure to be applied when everything else has failed.

Many jurisdictions now ban or, at least, limit the corporal punishment used to discipline children. Beating with a stick or willow branch is now often considered child abuse and could form the basis for charges of assault and battery in some places. It must be said, however, that not all forms of physical discipline involve that level of abuse and some may not be abusive at all. There are, of course, those who say that any hitting of children is battery and has the potential for causing damage so it should be banned completely and criminalised where necessary. At the other end of the spectrum are those who resort to physical discipline immediately there is a problem with a child’s behaviour and get the results they want through fear and intimidation, often confusing that with “good” behaviour.

Let me make it clear that I do not advocate physical discipline as the standard nor primary means of controlling children’s behaviour. Controlling through pain leads to a lot of resentment and suppressed anger since the suffering imposed very often outweighs the supposed crime that brought it about. It is, however, an easy response for a parent’s frustration and desire for control, requiring little thought and planning but getting a superficially satisfactory response. It is obviously often used for that reason rather than in the best interests of the child.

Surely, though, the purpose of discipline is to benefit the child. It is not to make the parent feel powerful and in charge, with the little ones under control, sitting obediently and remaining quiet. The purpose of discipline is to train the child to follow the norms of society, whatever they may be, and become a responsible citizen while at the same time encouraging them to develop their personalities and follow their interests so that, as adults, they may contribute to society and live a personally satisfied life. All too often, though, the effect of discipline is to constrain children by building walls around their behaviour and inhibiting their natural freedom and inquisitiveness. That is wrong. Such children may appear to be well behaved and “good” in the traditional Victorian sense of being seen but not heard, but they are often emotionally damaged to a degree and are unable to express their true feelings in any number of areas.

True discipline requires guidance rather than compulsion. Children must be trained over a long period of time to respond to situations in a certain way, what is appropriate being determined by the particular culture and local practices. It must begin early and continue consistently until the pattern is set. Some parents allow very young children a very free rein during their first year or two, or more, of life allowing them to do whatever they want without any restrictions at all on the basis that they are too young to be trained. While what can be expected from children that young may be limited, it is incorrect to say that there is no point beginning their training at such a tender age, and it is during this period of their lives that some of the most fundamental behaviour patterns may be set or modified. Young children want to please their parents and this may be used to instil some basic patterns of obedience and respect, patterns that will remain as a fundamental part of their personalities for the rest of their lives.

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