Newspapers and social media today are replete with instances from across our country where children have been made targets of violence, pressure and other acts of horror. Over time, our perspective of the sanctity of the parent-child and guru-shishya has become corrupted with the rising number of such incidents. The Ministry of Child and Women Development had reported that every fourth child in India was a victim of violence in either their homes or at their schools, which is why the National Action Plan was adopted later in 2009. However, even as its five-year yardstick drew to an end recently, it was no closer to realize the goals of the Child Rights Charter 2003 which upheld the right to protection of children against all forms of violence. The sad reality is, no matter how much we know and learn about these acts, we will always fall short of understanding the true extent of the horrors that befall many of our young ones at their homes and schools.
The use of extreme physical force against a child is not only intolerable, but is substantially reprehensible. And yet, many of us find ourselves accustomed to such instances happening all around us. Whether it is the neighbor across the road ‘disciplining’ his son, or the teacher ‘conditioning’ his students by making them work in the heat, society has always been kind or silent to such acts if committed as a form of device to instigate proper behavior. Not surprisingly then, this is a view shared and supported by many including, as recent study suggests over sixty percent of men and women between the ages of 30 and 45. The fact that this has been a societal practice for centuries only stands to lend credence to such practice, however barbaric it may seem.
And yet, there are deeply inherent and albeit fatal flaws in the society’s perception of its historic practice. The fact that such ‘corrective’ behavior contributes towards a more socially-approved mind and body is a myth and is contradicted by studies which say that such physical punishment only internalizes a child’s fear, which he or she may later channelize in the use of violence against someone else. In other words, such physical behavior against a kid may only serve to make him a bully.
Today, fortunately there are stricter laws in place concerning the degree of physical behavior or ‘punishment’ that can be used against a child. It is, in the lofty literary standards of International law termed as Corporal punishment and is today simply understood as ‘Any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort, however light,’ by the UN Committee on the Rights of a Child. Europe especially, is a hotbed of raging debate with concern to corporal punishment with several countries prohibiting such punishment in varying degrees.
It is in this context that Pope Francis of the Roman Catholic Church finds himself currently in the eye of the storm. “There is nothing wrong with spanking children, as long as they are not demeaned and their dignity unhurt,” he said, in his charming, offhanded manner. “A parent who does so, knows the sense of dignity and punishes justly, and not to humiliate the child,” he added. Soon, and expectantly, Child Rights groups were up in arms, especially in light of the sexual abuse scandal that has hit the Church these past months.
Now, the question which stands is, are the Pope’s remarks so polarizing and controversial so as to warrant such a vitriolic reaction from such quarters? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Maybe His Holiness did advocate physical punishment against children. But, he also did markedly state that such child’s dignity must remain unhurt, which stipulates a physical act devoid of violence and a punishment without humiliation or discomfort. By bringing together seemingly disparate thoughts and ideas, what the Pope has actually advocated is that punishment, the traditional negative reinforcement against inappropriate behavior per se as a corrective measure is not wrong. In other words, mild forms of punishment are acceptable according to Papal decree, which, going by the society is also a generally accepted norm. What’s wrong however, is violence, when it turns into a habitual abuse, where the dignity of the child is foregone and forsaken. When such abuse claws and bites at the pride of such child, it is only then that such punishment has gone beyond the norm of ‘corrective’ or ‘deterrent’ behavior.
And perhaps, the Pope is right in this regard. Today, we don’t know of any parenting or schooling which goes without some form of disapproval. Here, such reprimands include mild forms of reproach like ear-twisting and scolding, reprimands which are said to work better on children as against physical forms of punishment. Now, the EU states that strong scolding, a form of disapproval we all are familiar with constitutes as corporal punishment. But, can parenting and schooling be done without any mode to dictate discipline to kids? Probably not, which brings the argument back to square one. Children don’t know better, which is why they make mistakes. It is important to devise ways with which these can be corrected and discipline inculcated, but without the extremity of physical force the relation between parent-child and teacher-student has been corrupted by.
There still remain many issues of debate with regard to Corporal Punishment against a child. Punishment at home, for instance is a heated discussion because for many, the only people who should, out of a right and a duty lay a finger on the children are their parents. However, it must be remembered that there is a fine line of habit that runs from mild punishment to violence to abuse. Discipline does sometimes take modest physical forms, but perhaps that is the small cost we have to pay for our children.
As far as punishment at school is concerned, although there is a greater unanimity in its opposition, it is as prevalent as the latter which makes it equally terrifying. Scolding, asking the student to leave the class and writing lines are perhaps safe and effective but, sweating them out in the sun out of sheer spite is not.
Some of us are parents, while most of us are not. Yet someday, when the day comes, we will be faced with the choice as to how best to ‘discipline’ our sons and daughters. It is up to us to make sure it isn’t a hard choice to make.
By- Jibin Mathew George