Corporal Punishment – A Major Mistake. Chris Shute

Corporal Punishment – A Major Mistake

We can always rely on Chris to get to the core  of an issue. Here Chris takes a look at corporal punishment – still a ‘hot potato’ in this country.

I have watched many documentaries in which adult animals taught their young the lessons of life with a combination of example and blows. The lioness, batting her cub away from danger with her paw, the female bear separating her baby from poisonous food with a heavy hand, all used physical force to communicate with their young. When I started teaching I used to treat my pupils in a similar fashion, belabouring them with a cane when no other method seemed to produce the obedience I felt I needed. After a couple of years I began to think better of my crude disciplinary methods and decided to use more humane methods.

Since then I have joined the campaign to withdraw from parents the right to punish their children by physical means. This seems to me to express a progressive sentiment in tune with the liberal spirit of our ties. We achieved success in the STOPP (Society of Teachers Opposed to Physical Punishment) campaign against the combined anger of the organised teacher unions. There was something primitive, almost religious, about the NAS-UWT’s,  opposition to what I should have expected to be recognised as basic good educational practice. I vividly remember being a delegate at that union’s annual Conference. A motion was up for debate expressing violent indignation at the Government’s proposal to forbid teachers to punish their pupils by hitting them. Naturally, I put up a card to speak against the motion. Four delegates spoke for the motion, supporting the view that corporal punishment was a ‘professional’ technique, essential for teachers’ control of their students. Then the Chairman called for a vote and next business. I called out that the contrary view existed and had not been put. A howl of indignation rose up from the assembled Schoolmasters and Women Teachers, and I was ordered to sit down.

I realised from that turn of events that the question of corporal punishment is, at least in the eyes of the average Brit, not subject the normal processes of analysis and moral consideration. I also found myself thinking that, unlike our cousins on the Continent, who tend to be dotty about their children, we only love our youngsters if they meet our emotional and social needs. If they behave in a way which disturbs or even inconveniences us we tend to look for some violent way of swatting them, as if they were a species of irritant insect.

I had a similar experience when I tried to put up a poster for the anti-smacking campaign on the notice-board of my church, a small, theologically conservative Baptist church in the West Midlands. It lasted about as long as it took me to turn round and disengage myself from the other congregants. It was cast into outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth…. I was told that the Scripture prescribed corporal punishment – in the book of Proverbs – and that was all that needed to be said. My protestations that spanking was cruel and unusual punishment fell on deaf ears. 

I began to ask myself why this prejudice existed against something which I should have expected any civilised person to recognise as a humane and progressive impulse. In an age which has produced an international movement against torture – the infliction of pain by way of punishment or to compel compliance – we still see parents clamouring for the right to use a well-tried torture-method on their own flesh and blood. Why is this?

I suspect one reason is that for many people corporal punishment is the Nuclear Option, the Unanswerable Argument. Unfortunately, this proves in many cases not to be true. Then what is the parent to do? Having fired their heaviest guns they can only strike harder, more often, and probably with an instrument if they had used their hand before. Also, many parents find it hard to inflict pain on their children, so the decision to do so seems to them to be, to a degree, ‘courageous’, almost virtuous because of its difficulty. This is, of course, an illusion. Punishment only ‘works’ if the victim feels guilty, and if he or she accepts the justice of the procedure. For small children the only response to the prospect of being hurt by one’s parent is likely to be panic, terror expressed through screaming, begging and crying piteously, which often adds to the anger and frustration of the parent. The result tends not to be reformative, and certainly not restorative. The storm of retribution produces only anger, indignation, confusion and resentment. That can only lead to a worsening of the relationship between the punisher and the punished. In any case, one major achievement of corporal punishment is to make the child think more carefully about their misbehaviour with a view to making it less easy to detect.

We can only change the fundamental outlook of the British people if we can change the influences which govern the natural responses which well up in the minds of adults when they see their children doing things which they interpret as ‘wrong’, ‘naughty’ or ‘sinful’. Those influences are deep-rooted and subtle. A strand of them may well be religious, not necessarily because any individual is particularly devoted to any version of the major Abrahamic faiths, but rather because the cultural world the British grow up with contains an instinctive respect for statements couched in biblical language. A common justification for corporal punishment takes the form, “The Bible says ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child’.” The speaker may be no sort of Christian, but by appealing to the Bible he or she may well feel that their argument is unanswerable.

Another influence is the general category of ‘common sense’. This tends to mean what ‘I should expect normal, sensible people, of whom I am a shining example, to think.’ We tend to assume that children are simple-minded, rather animal-like little creatures, who respond to the same general range of stimuli as domestic pets, dogs for instance. If your dog pees on the carpet you hit it ‘to teach it a lesson’: if a child makes a mess when you’ve clearly told him or her not to a spanking may be called for. Not in every case, obviously, but that line of argument would not be ruled out the average pub or street-corner debate, which is where most people discuss these matters.

This suggests that the real root of the resentment between the generations, the factor which most influences adults in their attitude towards children, is the refusal to see humanity as a whole, of which childhood is an essential integral, inescapable, and above all absolutely necessary stage in the life of each person. Since we tend to see children as ‘other’ we feel able to treat them in ways we would never use upon adults. This in its turn poisons the entire culture, leading to crime, disaffection, and a nihilistic approach to life in general.

Only by kindness and respect, tolerance and approval can we hope to raise a generation of young adults who will make life better, both morally and socially, for their contemporaries.

Chris Shute

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