Last month, UK politician David Lammy shocked many by blaming last summer’s UK riots on an anti-smacking law, which he said leaves parents “no longer sovereign in their own homes.” Lammy - the MP for the riot-hit Tottenham area – later backtracked by saying the riots could not be blamed on smacking alone, but maintained that working-class parents should be able to physically discipline their children to prevent them from joining gangs.
A UK law in place since 2004 does allow parents to smack their kids, but without causing a ‘reddening of the skin’. It’s usually social workers who decide if parents have gone overboard, but as Lammy pointed out, most social workers aren’t living in tough, violent areas. London mayor Boris Johnson backed Lammy up saying, “People do feel anxious about imposing discipline on their children, and whether the law will support them. When it comes to smacking children, parents should be given the benefit of the doubt.”
The message is echoed by Chinese father Xiao Baiyou — the self-styled ‘Wolf Dad’ — has written a book that makes the ferocious Tiger Mom Amy Chua look like Santa Claus. In his bestseller — originally titled Beat Them into Peking University and later changed to the less evocative Brothers and Sisters of Peking University – Xiao boasts about beating his four children constantly with a feather duster between the ages of 3 -12. Three kids are now in Beijing University, one of the most competitive universities in the world.
"I have more than a thousand rules: specific detailed rules about how to hold your chopsticks and your bowl, how to pick up food, how to hold a cup, how to sleep, how to cover yourself with a quilt," Xiao says. "If you don't follow the rules, then I must beat you."
Xiao dismisses his Western critics who charge child abuse, saying, "In China, beating kids is part of their upbringing."
The defence sounds familiar to many of us since beating children is also a part of the Indian upbringing. Personally, I think a small, gentle tap on the bottom is much less harmful than, say, putting your two-month baby to sleep in a separate room, as many do in the West. The truth is, as any mother will tell you, sometimes a small smack is the only way to discourage an unreasonable toddler from sticking his or her finger into electric sockets, or running amok in a supermarket.
The problem is this: where do we draw the line? Smacking a toddler gently on the bottom is one thing; what do you do when your cheeky pre-teen won’t listen? Or when your class of 60 children won’t obey you?
You hit them, and when it doesn’t work- as it mostly doesn’t- you hit them harder and harder until they break. As a Time survey showed, spanking is less and less effective as children get older, makes them more aggressive and eventually sets up a self-perpetuating loop. Contrary to Lammy's thesis, the London rioters, drawn from poor, working class families, most likely grew up with parental violence. If we think about it – and perhaps most of us don’t want to – what we are saying when we hit our child is: “I am right because I am stronger and angrier than you.”
Is that really the lesson we want them to learn?
Meanwhile, our schools are taking advantage of our national ambivalence over smacking to get away with canings, beatings and in some cases, murder. Two years ago, Rouvanjit Rawla, a student of the elite La Martiniere school in Kolkata, killed himself after being caned by his principal. While his death led to a national debate, the tradition of corporal punishment remains unchallenged from elementary school right through college. This week, a four-year-old Bihari child was blinded after being hit by his teacher, because he couldn’t count properly.
We all know that no amount of legislation will stop teachers from hitting children. There’s a lot of nonsense talked about how modern day parents are too soft on their kids. But the reality is that many – if not most — parents want their children to be disciplined. What we really mean is that we want them to pass exams. A Chennai high school teacher told The Hindu, “Parents themselves come and tell us ‘beat my son, make him study'. It is not easy; we need larger support systems and regular counselling in schools for students under pressure.”
Hitting our kids has become the easy option when we can’t get them to listen. By the time most of us get back from work, after a long day of battling traffic, we are often tired and cranky, and certainly not in the mood for battles over homework with our children. This is why we spank, and why many of us also want our teachers to spank.
As a long-term strategy, however, beating is bound to fail. We need to think of new ways to discipline our new age kids. This isn’t easy. It takes time and patience, which is something modern parents — and teachers — often don’t have.
But it is undoubtedly worth the effort. Xiao may be tomtoming his parenting achievements, but here's what his son had to say about his childhood in the book, “I remember one summer relatives came to visit and we children jumped and laughed on the bed. I was so happy. This only happened once in my childhood and it never happened again. I wish I had a few more such moments!”