|www.corpun.com : Archive : 2008 : XX Schools May 2008|
School and domestic CP - May 2008
The Economist, London, 29 May 2008
Spare the rod, say some
In rich countries at least, parents and teachers are steadily losing the right to discipline children by force
"AS PART of their daily lives, children across Europe and the world continue to be spanked, slapped, hit, smacked, shaken, kicked, pinched, punched, caned, flogged, belted, beaten and battered in the name of discipline, mainly by adults whom they depend on." But in some places, it happens less than before, and there is a chance to stop it altogether.
That is how the Council of Europe, a 47-country body that is supposed to promote civil liberties from Dublin to Vladivostok, explains its campaign to abolish physical punishment -- to be launched in Croatia in mid-June with a flurry of debates, puppet shows, television spots, pamphlets in many languages and stirring calls to "raise your hand against smacking".
As is often the case with such worthy efforts, the council's rhetoric seems torn between stressing the horrors of the present day and promising that things can easily improve if everybody tries a bit harder. And in a world where children face such horrors as forced labour, sex trafficking and military conscription, devoting energy to outlawing parental smacks may strike some people as the wrong emphasis. But a consensus against hitting children is clearly gathering momentum in the developed, law-governed parts of the world. Also growing is the belief that a light parental cuff and serious forms of child abuse are points, albeit quite far apart, on the same spectrum. Some parents may still insist that their right to dissuade a toddler from doing very dangerous things is also worth protecting; but they are losing the argument.
Only 23 countries (18 of them European) have banned corporal punishment completely. But there are 106 -- including many places where it was common only a generation ago -- which have put a stop to corporal punishment in schools.
Countries where teachers still use force include the United States, where a Supreme Court ruling in 1977 (concerning two pupils whose beatings with a wooden paddle caused medical harm) found that a constitutional ban on "cruel and unusual punishment" applied only to judicial proceedings. That left individual states to decide; in 22 of them, corporal correction in schools occurs in at least some districts.
Elizabeth Gershoff of the University of Michigan, an expert on (and opponent of) physical correction, says the practice remains common in American classrooms and homes. Most American children have been corporally punished at home by the time they reach adolescence, and in a recent year, nearly 300,000 were physically punished at school.
In Europe, by contrast, smacking has nearly vanished from schools (even in Britain and Ireland, where it was rife) and the movement to stop parents and other adults hitting children is gaining ground. In 1979 Sweden became the first country to outlaw all violence by adults on children. It was controversial at the time, but after a two-year drive to publicise the law and the thinking behind it, which included putting advice on milk cartons, smacking itself, and belief in its value, declined fast.
Just over a year ago New Zealand became the first English-speaking country to ban smacking. A lobby group, Family First, is agitating to reverse that change, saying at least half the population supports the right to smack. But few people expect the ban to be overturned. The police were reassured when they won the right to apply the law with discretion, and there have been no silly prosecutions. Some of New Zealand's pro-smackers lost support because their religious rhetoric -- talk of loving corrections, followed by prayers -- sounded weird.
A smack of desperation
In recent years, several European countries (Greece and Portugal, for example) have quietly abolished parental smacking after a Swiss-based lobby group challenged them for being in breach of the European social charter, a Council of Europe treaty. Three Latin American states (Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela) joined the non-smackers last year. Although nobody expects corporal punishment to vanish soon from traditional homes in Africa or the Middle East, the United States could soon stand out in the Americas, and among rich countries, as a refuge for the spanker.
Indeed, it is the only country, along with Somalia, which has failed to ratify a United Nations convention on children's rights, which since 1990 has protected children from "all forms of physical or mental violence". American officials helped draft the document, but it faces stiff opposition in some quarters of the United States.
Some Americans regret this. In a paper last year, Ms Gershoff and Susan Bitensky, of Michigan State University, said their country should bow to the combined pressure of a growing world consensus against smacking and scholarly evidence that it is useless or harmful. Summarising scores of studies, they conclude that smacking fails in one of its main aims: to make a child see that some things are wrong, and change its long-term behaviour.
Lots of studies, however, find a correlation between corporal punishment and aggressive, delinquent behaviour. It is hard to prove that the smacks cause the behaviour, rather than vice versa, but Ms Gershoff insists that by rigorously combing the data, one can show that parents are most to blame for this vicious circle.
Other scholars, such as Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State University, defend the role of smacking in disciplining younger children, though he agrees that it is counter-productive for older ones.
Still, for countries wanting a halfway house, defining the permissible is tricky. In Britain parents can strike, not bruise; in Canada children aged 2-12 can be struck, but not with objects or on the head: "minor corrective force of a transitory and trifling nature" is allowed. And regardless of the law, social changes seem to be making parents in rich countries cautious about smacking. Many Americans who oppose a ban on corporal punishment say they don't consider the practice desirable.
But diehard American spankers may take comfort from defying the latest piece of Utopian dottiness from the UN: a campaign to end the corporal punishment of children, all over the world, by 2009. Whatever the merits of a ban on smacking, this wildly unrealistic goal is hardly the top priority for an organisation that has failed to crack down on far worse forms of abuse by its own blue-helmeted soldiers.
Copyright © 2008 The Economist Newspaper and The Economist Group. All rights reserved
THE ARCHIVE index
About this website
www.corpun.com Main menu page