…reflections on approaches to disciplining children
I recently watched a video online, and it got me thinking about what people do to correct bad behaviour in children.
in the vido, two small boys who looked like they were under ten years old were being punished by their father. Both boys were in a squat position with their hands stretched out in front of them. The father repeatedly said: “go down, go down”, probably implying that he wanted them to squat till they got down on their haunches. The boys were in tears, one was practically wailing, and he eventually started singing a praise song.
This isn’t the first time I have seen online videos of children being disciplined by either their parents or teachers, but for some reason, this one made me reflect on the practice. The first thing that came to my mind after I watched the clip was how unacceptable it was for the father to inflict that kind of punishment on his kids. I also found it distasteful that he chose to record and share this incident with at least one other person which is how it went viral.
Some people are probably thinking to themselves: “Isn’t this the way people have always punished their children? Our parents punished us this way, what is so strange about us punishing our children?” I have also asked myself the same question. I have no issues with punishments, rather it is the mode of punishment that I think should be the focus.
“Spare the rod and spoil the child” is an oft-repeated proverb that has its roots in a biblical verse, Proverbs 13: 24: “He who spares his rod hates his son, But he who loves him disciplines him promptly.” Many have interpreted this to mean that when children go against instructions or do bad/ inappropriate things, they must be disciplined through physical punishment, otherwise, they will end up without a moral compass and become useless to society. This could probably be an extreme possibility, but I am sure many will agree that while disciplining children has its merits, it’s the form of discipline that always remains in contention.
Over the years, what constitutes “discipline” has taken many forms; from the mild approaches to the extreme ones, and depending on the child’s age and the gravity of the offence. There was the scolding where you got “told off” so you wouldn’t repeat the nonsense that earned you the telling in the first place. If scolding didn’t work, smacking was expected to. A light tap on or behind the head, arms, back, or buttocks to gently nudge you in the direction of good behaviour even though your heart was set on misdoings.
And if you decided to persist in your evil ways, beating with a cane could hopefully reset your brain. For extra stubborn children (or the extra upset adult), a household instrument such as a turning stick (omorogun) could be used. Other items include electrical wires, the flat end of your mother’s court shoe, or whatever else either of your parents could lay their hands on at the exact moment that was sure to do the trick. In line with this, different body parts had been adjudged the best recipients of the beating. You either got flogged on your palms, lap or your buttocks. If the dispensing adult was upset, then any part of your body was fair game.
And finally, there was “rushing” which meant that you entered into a physical wrestling match with the adult who was dispensing the punishment. This was a call for a one-sided battle as you dare not think of attacking the person; defending yourself was the only option.
But why all these physical acts of discipline? The expectation was that the child would constantly remember the pains inflicted and by themselves, take “dressing” should they even imagine that they would like to repeat whatever action (or inaction) that had earned them the beating in the first place.
And what has been the outcome of physical punishment over the years? Some people found it easier to walk away from those memories. As far as they are concerned, those times have passed, never to re-occur. Others remember and have grown past the hurt, but many others still live with some form of childhood trauma.
I remember discussing this in a WhatsApp group. Some people recounted the things their parents and teachers had done, even school seniors. Some had been left with physical scars that mapped different parts of their body. Many others had been marked with emotional scars that had shaped their development into adulthood in many ways they could never understand.
One guy admitted that his relationship with his father had become fractured as a result of the various punishments he had undergone. This had made it very hard for him to have a proper father-son relationship. He had forgiven the man, but he could never forget the impact of the several physical punishments and beatings. As a result of his experience, he had purposed to be more intentional about raising and disciplining his sons more lovingly. He is certainly not in the minority.
When I think about some of the experiences people shared in the group on that day, I wonder if the parents/ adults were evil or they just acted in ignorance. I believe that they did not know any better, and they simply repeated what their parents had done to them and what everyone else was doing. This, however, does not absolve them from taking responsibility for their actions.
If our parents could claim that culture and practice influenced their actions, can we also lay hold to similar excuses? I think not. There’s been greater awareness in society about issues such as this. With increasing enlightenment, we can admit that some of those practices are emotionally and physically torturing.
So, what options do we have in disciplining children without causing them physical and emotional distress? My first thought is for us to model the kind of behaviours and attitudes we expect from them. A light smack could help correct naughtiness when children are at an age when they cannot reason for themselves or are just learning to differentiate right from wrong.
As children grow older, corrective disciplinary actions such as withholding privileges and assigning tasks can be introduced. Overall, encouraging discussions highlighting the consequences of bad behaviour is a better means of setting them straight.
We need to be more supportive in child development so we can build emotionally stable and confident children. We also need to reflect on how children process discipline and its effect on them in the long run. We need to treat each child as an individual and not adopt blanket disciplinary measures for all children. Overall, adults also need to ensure that they are not expressing their frustrations on children when meting out discipline. We certainly can do better, and this is the way I see things today.