National Football League star Adrien Peterson turned a lot of his devoted fans against him after news reports of him being charged with “reckless or negligent injury” to his two-year-old son emerged, in which defended himself by saying that he was merely “trying to ‘discipline’ the child”. However, while Peterson’s celebrity was the reason that this issue caught immense limelight, child abuse and maltreatment has been an age-old issue that continues to persist as one billion children aged between 2-17 experienced some form of physical, emotional or sexual violence globally. This essay shall try to explore into the depths of the formidable topic of child maltreatment, with a focus on disciplining and parenting. Caregivers often have to deal with the predicament of educating their children about good values without impeding on their child rights.
This can be especially tricky, as any parent or child caregiver will concur that children can prove to be notoriously difficult to deal with, at times. Children may seemingly misbehave or act out to seek attention if their needs are not being met, which can be a cause of distress, guilt and embarrassment for the caregiver. Thus, it can be challenging to teach young children about pertinent values if they are behaving in this way. If the pent-up frustration in response to the child’s misbehaviour is not skilfully dealt with, it can lead to the use of physical and emotional punishment by the caregiver. It is not uncommon to find anguished parents in public places, barely holding their anger back as the unaware child frolics. Sometimes they might even slap or spank the child to subdue them, as passers-by move on, unfazed. It is interesting to note that while one adult physically fighting with another draws a lot of attention in public spaces, no one interferes if it is a child being beaten up.
Why is it acceptable to hit a child, but not an adult? What could be the reason for this blatant discrimination? The answer, says American psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruel, lies in a phenomenon, which she has termed ‘childism’. Childism refers to the universal societal belief of a child’s subservience to adults, which has resulted in a largely unacknowledged prejudice against children. While there are several multidimensional factors that cause child abuse, it is this very belief which grants it legitimacy. The notion that children are vulnerable and need protection from their caregivers has corrupted into a patronising political idea that children are thereby inferior to grown-ups. While the intentions of the parents/ caregivers are to ensure that their children receive the best care and education so that they can lead fulfilling lives as conscientious and productive adults, it is important for them to realise that violent disciplinary measures can produce counter-intuitive, or even harmful results. Renowned author Alice Miller; who has been an outspoken figure against child maltreatment; insightfully writes, “Child abuse is still sanctioned — indeed, held in high regard — in our society as long as it is defined as child-rearing. It is a tragic fact that parents beat their children in order to escape the emotions from how they were treated by their own parents”.
The aforementioned Peterson case garnered severe negative publicity for the NFL, which has long been criticised for not providing its players; who often come from underprivileged backgrounds and have suffered poor parental interaction; with psychological mentorship programs to cope with the pressures of fame and life. This suggested remedy stems from the knowledge that a negative parental interaction in early childhood can have adverse impacts on inducing violent tendencies in one’s personality and parenting style. Before this argument is advanced, it is important to decipher what child maltreatment really means and what an infringement of child rights constitutes. While it is considerably debated concept, child maltreatment is agreed upon as an ‘umbrella term’ which encompasses a wide range of child abuse and child neglect, which roughly translates to an action or lack of action, usually by the parent or caregiver which results in actual or perceived physical, emotional, psychological harm to a child. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines physical abuse as, “Intentional use of physical force against the child that results in – or has a high likelihood of resulting in – harm for the child’s health, survival, development or dignity. This includes hitting, beating, kicking, shaking, biting, strangling, scalding, burning, poisoning and suffocating. Much physical violence against children in the home is inflicted with the object of punishing.
” Several countries have their own interpretations of this definition, such as in India, child labour and child marriage are very prominent with it being home to 40% of the world’s total number of child marriages, with 19% percent of the world’s children residing here. This has prodded India to devise special legislation and schemes to tackle the matter, including Article 24 of the Constitution of India which prohibits employment of children in factories or any kind of workplaces of hazardous employment, and Section 317 of the Indian Penal Code which states that if a mother or father expose or leave a child with the intention of abandonment such that it results in the child’s death, the parents shall be charged with culpable homicide or murder.In a relatedissue in a different part of the world, the newly-elected second female PrimeMinister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, is facing a rising amount ofpressure to ban ‘smacking’ of children, as Welsh politicians are beginning toadopt measures to criminalise corporal punishment of children. This news reportcomes against the backdrop of an underlying anxiety amongst parents- that oflosing “their rights over their children” after a recent case gained publicityin the British media, where parents described as ‘loving and caring’ lost theirchild to after being accused of the charges of smacking their children. Upuntil now, the U.K government had been functioning under Victorian laws thatallowed parents to discipline their children using ‘reasonable punishment’,thus the proposed revisions shall be refreshing and reflective of current ideasof rights and justice of the Western society. The existence of such a discoursein 2017 in one of the world’s most developed countries shows that the issue ofchild maltreatment is not an isolated phenomenon, meant only for less-developedcountries. Such ambiguouslaws and the dilemmas sustaining them are major challenges when it comes toissues of child abuse.
One striking issue is that of widely-spreadmisinformation about the perceived similarity between discipline andpunishment, which leads to a discourse in the favour of the use of physicalforce to reform a child’s bad behaviour. Punishment can be defined as ‘apenalty imposed on a person breaking a rule or showing improper conduct’, andit is identified by its negative means of administering education. There aretwo types of punishment in this sense of the word; one is through the use ofnegative verbal reprimands and disapproval (negative discipline), and the othertype involves severe physical or emotional pain (corporal punishment). Verbalpunishments may include obtuse forbidding statements, explosive angrystatements, harsh criticism, threats and belittling statements; some examplesof these include- “You are stupid, you will never learn”, “If you don’t eat, Iwill send to live with that madman”, and more. On the other hand, physicalpunishment is forms of violence against children, which violate their rights ashuman beings with respect, dignity, and equal protection from the law. Corporalpunishment occurs when a parent or caregiver intentionally cause pain ordiscomfort to the child to stop the misbehaviour, to penalise the child and toprevent it from recurring.
Some examples of corporal punishment are: hittingthe child, forcing them to sustain physically contorting positions forexcessive periods of time, pinching or hair pulling, forcing the child to eatfoul substances. While corporal punishment intends to harm the child, emotionalpunishment is meant to humiliate and cause psychological pain to her/him.Ridiculing the child in public, name calling, denying food or clothing to achild and making them repeat self-derogatory statements as a way to shame them,are some examples of this type of punishment. To make myargument more convincing, I shall now discuss the effectiveness andconsequences of corporal punishment. While successful in attaining temporarycompliance from her/him, these forms of caregiver-child interaction can have anexpansive range of deleterious effects on the child. Besides the immediatephysical injury, punishment as a means of discipline can induce chronicphysical and psychological impacts on the child even to the extent ofshortening her/his lifespan.
Maltreated children are prone to indulging inhigh-risk behaviours, criminal activity, experiencing psychiatric disorders,post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), chronically poor health and some studieson maltreated children shows that they are more inclined to become maltreatingparents themselves- as in the infamous Adrien Peterson. “It happened to me, andit did me no harm”, was one of the statements that Peterson gave in hisdefence. However, social scientists have proven that this is a popular mythwhich does not account for the treating behaviour in a parent as a negativeoutcome in itself, which is a perpetuating cycle. Another myth isthat children don’t respond well to other forms of reformatory methods thancorporal punishment, or that they “ask for it”.
This is a very dangeroussupposition as it forfeits all responsibility to teach from thecaregiver/parent, and puts the entire burden and blame on the child to learn.If corporal punishment is being used for a considerably long duration, thechild may sadly become conditioned to harsh forms of punishment to realise thatthe parent is attempting to reform a bad behaviour, thus making them seem likethey’re “asking” to be spanked. Culturaldifferences also define child abuse, as seen in a New Zealand news reportclaims that a woman was slammed for wanting to get her infant’s ears pierced,at the horror of other parents who stated that the decision was rightful of thechild when she was of a reasonable age. Piercing a baby girl’s ears forcosmetic reasons in a heavily patriarchal country like India would however notbe seen as a violation of child rights, only because the general culturalmandate is not opposed to it. Several Asian cultures see the invoking ofnon-violent disciplining techniques as a corroding interference of Westerninfluence on their cultures.
This prevents them from recognising the inherentvalue of developing positive parent-child relationships, which are based onmutual respect. This brings us tothe subject of alternative methods of imparting discipline, as children willneed some guidance from their loved ones to seek fulfilment and to becomeresponsible and morally conscious citizens of the global society. The idealmeans to achieve that is through ‘Positive Discipline’, which is in starkcontrast with the negative forms of discussed above, such as corporalpunishment.
Discipline essentially refers to the practice of teaching a personto respect rules or assigned codes of behaviour, both in the short and longterms, so they can adjust well in the society. The objective of discipline isfor children to internalise the process of thinking and behaving that enablesthem to live in harmony with themselves and with other people. It is anempowering mechanism and not a punitive one. By adopting positive disciplinarytechniques, a caregiver/parent enable his/her child to develop self-respect,healthy self-esteem, self-understanding, listening skills, empathy and teachthem to look at their mistakes as opportunities: all of which are essentiallife-skills. There are severalstrategies that caregivers can adopt to administer positive discipline. Onesuch technique is for parents/ caregivers to describe the appropriate behaviourto their children, with clear reasons for their expectations. For example, if achild has developed the vice of lying, parents could start by explaining thereasons for why lying is a bad habit, and the magnitude of consequences itcould have for the child.
They could describe the behaviours that constitute aslying and give examples from their experiences of how they landed in troublewhen they had lied, which adds legitimacy to their argument, and alsoinstigates empathy in the child. This may also result in the deepening of theparent-child relationship, where the child begins to trust her/ his parents forany future guidance. Sequentially, the parent may request acknowledgement ofthe child’s understanding of the desired behavior (“so, what did we learn aboutlying today?”) , and thereafter it is important to reward the child forpositive reinforcement of the expected moral behavioral outcome (an example ofverbal positive reinforcement could be of praising the child by saying, “welldone! You are so smart!”). However, it is important to enact any disciplinestrategy while being cognizant of the child’s dignity, motivation, life viewsand additionally having justiciable expectations.
A radicalapproach while imparting moral education to children is of letting them learnthrough the consequences of their actions. Children also learn from their ownexperiences, just like adults. This is the best way for children to learnresponsibility, while their parents act as mediators and guides in theirdevelopment. Two major types of consequences exist within this approach:natural and logical.
Natural consequences allow children to learn from thenatural order, in real-time. For example, a natural consequence of wasting ahome-cooked meal is feeling hungry. However, it is important for the parent toempathise with the child when they are being difficult, in order to determinethe legitimacy of the child’s concerns.
Another key idea to consider is thatnatural consequences cannot be adopted as a teaching tool for every situationif the safety or health of the child is at risk especially. The role of theparents become more dynamic with the employment of ‘logical consequences’. Withthis tool, the parent/caregiver can arrange a consequence, if it follows inorder with the child’s actions. For example, not disposing of worn clothes inthe laundry bag will result in the child’s favourite item of clothing not beingreadily available for spontaneous use. Such consequences need to be artfullyarranged for them to become learning experiences.
By letting the consequencesbecome the teachers, parents can develop a more amicable relationship withtheir children as well, something that punishment failed to achieve. Ifparents/caregivers are able to safeguard their approach to imparting valueeducation in this way and are able to adopt a calm and logical method whiledoing so, administering discipline would not involve any punishments leading tochild rights violations. I wish toconclude by acknowledging the immeasurable love that all parents have for theirchildren, with a sense of deep gratitude. I wouldn’t be here, penning thisessay about child rights and morality on a fancy computer if not for the twoamazing people whom I am lucky to call my parents, and who have empowered me todo so. There is no doubt that parents want the best of everything for theirchildren, however, even parents are immune to the fallibility of being humanwhich often leads us to commit mistakes that cannot be undone. One of thesemistakes is letting a bout of uncontrollable anger or a bad mood lend a scar ona child’s body or mind that will irredeemably alter her/his life.
Thus, we oweit to the love that we have for children to ensure that nothing injures them;especially not our good intentions of helping them become better human beings.Morality cannot be instilled by force, but only by example. Alternatively, asGerman theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it, “the test of a morality of asociety is what it does for its children”.