Spare the rod and spoil the child… or not


Today, as I was going through The Hindu, I came upon the shocking news of the stabbing of a teacher in Chennai by a 15 yr old boy. Two pages in the paper were devoted to articles about it and reading them made feel very uncomfortable.

Every time something like this happens suddenly there is an outpouring of opinion against a perceived cause. There are reminiscences of a golden period when children used to be beaten up and abused and how they grew up to be such awesome people and all.

Then I came upon this passage,

NEW RULES FOR GENNEXT

Schools have also revised their rules to cater to GenNext. “Spare the rod and spoil the child” has now given way to “Strictly no corporal punishment!” No longer can a teacher scold a student, or lay a finger on him, for fear of damaging the sensitive psyche of the child. Of course, when we were growing up, there was no such thing as a sensitive psyche, which was actually a good thing. For, we grew up well able to handle ourselves and the tough world beyond!

Today psychologists talk about young plants needing protection to grow, and warn that negativity might maim a child’s mind! So words like ‘fail’ and ‘poor’ are taboo, and ranks have been replaced with grades to boost the child’s self-esteem. The latest principle: overprotect a child to the extent that he is scared to death by any challenge — exams, competitions, a strict word, a rebuke before his peers, any kind of failure!

The author lavishes condescension on the psychologists who think they know better and talks with resignation about the situation where a teacher cannot physically punish a child. He laments that this is the reason kids are not strong nowadays and has also in a small article discovered the reason for the murder. It is because, instead of physically punishing the kid in front of the class or verbally abusing him which would have been perfectly fine with him, she took to the “brutal” course of action of writing a comment in his diary. This is what caused the kid to do something so horrible. After reading it I was reeling from the shock delivered by this kind of reasoning to my mind.

Then I came across another article in which the words from the Bible,

“He who spareth the rod hateth his son: but he that loveth him correcteth him betimes,”

were quoted.

Apparently a 1600 yr old document of questionable sources and even more questionable ideas is somehow more authoritative than the findings of modern psychologists and insights gleaned from our experiences.

The essence of these articles

I was thinking about what really the articles were trying to say. It was really hard for me as obviously the topic is so serious and one has to be always careful about not coming off as insensitive or unsympathetic. Plus, the scorn for modernity, glorification of the past and the intensely emotional tone of the articles make it harder to discern the main idea.

I guess, it is OK to express one’s feelings about the incident and try and ask some questions about why this happened. But, that is not what these articles are trying to do. They have already discovered the reason for the murder. It is because of all these modern and fancy ideas on raising children and because the kid was not given the benefit of corporal punishment. The teacher, because of rules and regulations was prevented from doing the right thing, ie, beating up or humiliating the kid and instead decided to resort to writing home. That coupled with today’s “soft” way of raising children is the cause of the whole mess. The tone of all the articles is that somehow students are not being treated roughly enough and that teachers are being victimized by draconian and ill-thought-out rules which are lacking in practicality and clash with our tradition.

I personally think that the teacher at least, did the right thing and her death was in no way the result of her refusal to beat or humiliate anyone in front of others. That is one comfort that I think should not be denied to those close to her.

Corporal punishment

Before I go on any further I have to be very clear about my position on this topic. Almost all advances in the field of child and human psychology point to the dangers and high risk of futility of resorting to violence and humiliation to discipline children. The reasons for this are very similar to the ones given for banning ragging on college campuses.

I nor my closest friends have not had any bad experiences due to ragging. In fact making air dosas, proposing to unknown girls and forced dancing were actually great fun for me.

But, I know of many people who had to undergo brutal beatings and unspeakable humiliation as a result of the practice. When the law banning it was passed I could have written a poisonous and sugary article about the “fun” we had and how ragging strengthens our psyche and how it made me a better person and so on. I could have said that the reason college students commit suicide these days is because they haven’t been ragged or “broken-in” by their seniors who care about them. I could have…, but it would have been a rape of decency and disrespectful to those people who have been scarred by this inhuman practice and in some cases even lost their lives because of it.

Corporal punishment is an offense of gravity similar to ragging. Actually, in my opinion the former is worse than the latter because of the greater degree of asymmetry in power. Any situation in which you are in a position of weakness and are at the mercy of people who cannot be guaranteed to have your best interests at heart is not a desirable situation. But, sometimes such situations are unavoidable and even necessary. In such cases there is a need to absolutely restrain people in charge from using violence. The reasons for this are many.

One, when violence is given a free pass the discretion to exercise its power falls into the hands of people whose standards can never be guaranteed. Whatever small advantage may accrue from using physical punishment to enforce discipline is outweighed by the possibility of abuse resulting from frustration, runaway emotions, lack of training of the mentors or laziness to look for better solutions that such an easy way to silence children encourages.

Two, for every guy or girl who recounts such incidents and laughs at them, there is another who can never forget the fear, humiliation and violence. That feeling of having his/her spirit broken and subdued through force. That feeling of helplessness that comes from not being guaranteed safety of his person. I still now remember in vivid detail every single person who has laid a finger on me apart from my parents. While I may laugh at those incidents I can remember the intensity of my emotions then and would not wish them for any one else.

Three, and this is the one that I can’t believe all those “sensitive” authors missed, is the justification for discouraging violence and promoting discourse and reason through corporal punishment. How is it that a young  mind that is being abused and beaten up supposed to figure out that it is not OK to resort to violence even when we have the power to use it without injury to ourselves? How is the value of reason and logical persuasion supposed to be reinforced through shouting, abuse, humiliation or beatings? How are they going to realize that with power comes greater responsibility and expectation of restraint? How are they going to figure out that physical advantage is supposed to make you tolerant and secure and not vindictive and violent?

What can be expected from a child who has been brought up with the help of a “rod”? What can be expected of him once he marries a woman who is generally speaking going to be physically weaker than him? Is it okay if he is allowed to hand out “negative reinforcement” in physical form at his discretion to “improve” his wife? What can be expected from him once he has kids? What can be expected from him once his parents grow old and weak? Will the fear imprinted in him be enough to prevent him from paying back in the same currency? Will it be enough to create “respect” for others in him?

I know that a lot of people think that fear of something is necessary for good behavior. This is probably also the reason why a lot of people are afraid to let go of religion and notions of a Super-Spy-God. But, what will happen when someone realizes that no one is looking? What will happen when he gets an opportunity to take unfair advantage of something or someone without fear of consequence? Good character should be the result of the realization that it can bring lasting peace and happiness to everyone and not because of fear of anything.

What really drove the boy to commit this heinous crime?

Honestly speaking, I don’t know. But I do know that it is not because of the restraint shown by the teacher. It might have been possible that he was a disturbed kid and people around him failed to notice it and provide him with adequate professional support in the form of counselling, treatment, extra help etc.. Maybe he had not realized with sufficient force that violence is never an answer to anything. Maybe that is why a single movie motivated him to commit murder. I don’t know and I don’t think I am qualified enough to investigate the question.

What advocacy for corporal punishment really means?

Do we really believe in democracy and freedom of expression. Do we really believe in the foundations of our national character? Why don’t we think that a dictatorial leadership can help us? Why is that the world is wary of people being granted unchallenged power no matter how well intentioned or qualified they are? Why is it that the world has decided that a noisy, talkative and inefficient democracy is better than an efficient, decisive and fast-moving dictatorship? Why is it that people think it is important to convince people about what is good for them instead of just forcing them to do whatever it is that authorities think is right? Why is that torture has been banned by almost all the advanced countries despite its potential for providing sometimes life-saving information?

There is a pattern here. No matter what the potential for good is, if there is even a small possibility of irreparable harm or despotic and unchallenged power, that way is not acceptable to us. We have to trust ourselves to find a better way out of the situation.

The need to say no unconditionally to violence

A child is not something lesser than a man or a woman. They too have the same level of sensitivity and emotions. Maybe in a more natural and unpolluted form. The way to mold them is not by de-sensitizing them. But, by tuning them to be sensitive to other’s feelings as well.

Sometimes, I have seen mothers sit down and sob uncontrollably after beating their kids due to guilt and remorse. There is something terribly wrong about inflicting physical and emotional injury on a child and even people who have not studied human behavior in a scientific manner realize that. Sometimes, I wonder whether both children and parents can be saved a lot of emotional distress if physical violence was considered an absolute taboo no matter how grave the provocation…

It is important that this case is studied by experts and recommendations made to prevent re-occurrences. But, the initial emotional outbursts should not be allowed to undermine the painstakingly made gains in the field of child rights and scientific education and their social acceptance.

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4 thoughts on “Spare the rod and spoil the child… or not

  1. Well written. Quite a great deal of perceptions being presented with adequate critical analysis.

    It is not mostly the incident, rather the chain of events that finally resulted in the incident seems important to me. Such an outlook may saves the people around in future.

    Though most of us know some of these contents, a well written pointer like this initiates a thought process and reinforces what we conceive as right and just.

  2. very well written article. in fact most of the serial killers are usually physically/mentally abused during their childhood. so we must know the consequences of physical, mental torture on children as they only harm the society.

    children at least above the age of 10 have emotional thought processes/reasonings similar to adults, and thus most children must be treated as adults and be given similar kind of rights.

  3. Pingback: CHILD ABUSE | A Beautiful Rainy Day

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