14 minute read

In 2014, Carte Blanche did a segment on the potential ban of corporal punishment in the home and one of the people they interviewed on the topic was child rights advocate, Carol Bower. Unfortunately, Carte Blanche were not as thorough as parents would have liked in their reporting and it has left people afraid and angry about the potential ramifications of their chosen methods of parenting. Religious groups, such as the Joshua Generation Church, have been causing hysteria and panic with their famous ‘Christian persecution’ line that has everyone up in arms and carrying around some very serious misconceptions, concerns and worries.

So Amanda Glover, editor of Conscious Parenting Magazine, decided to put an end to all the hype and contact Carol for the real story, and you’ll probably find what she has to say very surprising.

[2017 Edit:  There has been little progress in banning corporal punishment in its totality in South Africa.  However, in January 2016, the South African Human Rights Commission instructed Cabinet to require the Department of Social Development (DSD) to, as soon as possible, bring South African law into line with various international human rights treaties which is has ratified and its own Constitution by prohibiting corporal punishment in the home. They haven’t yet.]

AG: Could you tell us a little bit about what you do?

CB: What I do now, and have been doing since 2006, is that I consult on children’s rights issues to government and NGO’s in various ways and I focus particularly on non-violent parenting and positive discipline. My interests in preventing violence against children focuses on both the physical and sexual aspects of child violence. Before 2006, I was the director of an NGO called RAPCAN [Resources Aimed at Preventing Child Abuse and Neglect (RAPCAN) is a child rights NGO based in Cape Town which focuses on preventing and responding to child abuse and neglect.

AG:: Please could you explain the commitment SA has on banning corporal punishment?

CB: South Africa’s commitment to it is questionable, but that’s not how it should be. We have ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, we have ratified the African Charter, we have ratified the convention to end all forms of discrimination against women, we have ratified the charter on disabilities. We’ve also participated in a universal periodic review reporting process and submitted our first report to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child in 1998 which is when it was due. We haven’t submitted anything since – though the 2nd, 3rd and 4th reports are now ready to go to Geneva, and our Initial Complimentary Report to the African Union has just gone to Addis Ababa.
The recommendations from the UPR and the recommendations from the country report to the UN Committee of the Rights of the Child, both strongly recommended the prohibition of corporal punishment [in all settings , including the home]. The Department of Social Development, under whose management the Children’s Act and therefore the proposed amendment falls, have said on many public occasions at a very high level, that they are committed to prohibiting it. However, there are a number of people in the middle management of Social Development who are very, very opposed to prohibition and they are, unfortunately, among the decision makers.

AG: Carte Blanche did a segment on the spanking issue in SA in October last year – I think every parent’s concern is that they will get thrown in jail if they happen to lose control and hit their children, could you shed some light on this wide spread assumption and fear?

CB: The chances of a parent being thrown into jail, or having their children removed, are very slim – unless of course they are actually assaulting their children so badly that their lives are in danger which is an entirely different issue. But for every little smack, they are certainly not going to go to jail and their children are not going to be taken away from them. In fact, it is not in the best interests of the child for the parent to be taken to jail or for them to be removed from their parents. The Children’s Act is very clear, in that parents who are unable to care for their children non-violently and discipline positively, should not be incarcerated but should be diverted to a parent training program. The idea would be to divert parents away from the criminal justice system and into resources and support which help them in their parenting – and improve the quality of their parenting. It is unlikely that there would even be a court case – the likeliest scenario is that it would be treated as any other common assault case where they would pay an admission of guilt fine. In 2007, that fine was R300. If I were to walk up to you and physically attack you for no apparent reason, you could then lay charges against me and I would have to pay an admission of guilt fine, following which my life would continue quite merrily without a criminal record. So a parent would definitely not be given a criminal record [despite what evangelists are claiming widely in an effort to spread hysteria and fear on the basis of religious freedom]. Having said that though, I’m only talking about those parents who are not assaulting their children so severely that their lives are in danger, those parents that do assault their children so severely will continue to be prosecuted in the criminal justice system.
People seem to have this idea that there will be hoards of children rocking up at police stations and banging down their doors to report every smack on the hand that they’ve been given, but children rarely even report when they’re being severely physically or sexually assaulted, they’re certainly not going to bombard police stations with reports of being corporally punished so that assumption and fear is no cause for concern, besides the aforementioned points.

AG: How will the government tackle the issue of corporal punishment if the law passes and corporal punishment is banned in the home?

CB: What I am going to be working on this year is the kind of thing they would have to do – and that is basically a great deal of awareness raising and publicity campaigns, we need to send positive discipline messages out there all the time, we need parenting knitted into the plots of soap operas, we need parenting columns in newspapers and tabloids that respond to questions from parents about parenting using positive discipline and non-violent parenting; we need parenting messages and parenting support at clinics, at libraries, at police stations, in schools who should have a section on parenting in their life orientation skills curriculum in high schools, there are a gazillion things they could, and should do. What they should stop doing is pouring a lot of money into the 16 Days of Non-Violence Against Women and Children which is a big PR number every year that costs an arm and 75 legs and achieves absolutely nothing. Rather use that money to mount the kind of public awareness raising campaign that filter out over the whole of society so that we can slowly start changing how children think about children. Once people change how they think, they will change their behavior. But that’s not going to happen unless we take serious and committed action towards it.

AG: What could potentially happen to repeat offenders?

CB: They would continue to be diverted into parenting programs, into family conferencing situations – they can be sentenced in a children’s court to do certain things. So for example they can be sentenced to community service but again, it’s not a criminal record or a jail sentence. If the physical punishment of the child is very serious, that child may be found in need of care and protection and in that case the child may be removed. The court can have the child put in temporary alternative care until the parent agrees to implement what he or she has been taught in parent education. However, even children in the most serious of abuse crises do not get enough attention from the social department and social workers, so a child who is complaining of being corporally punished all the time is not going to get a lot of attention. But this is very similar to the anti-smoking laws that were passed – people were asking how it could possibly be monitored or implemented, how the government would police the implementation of this law – but when the law was passed the number of smokers dropped dramatically and people now know that it is not at all okay to just light up wherever they want to and this did not happen because of criminal sentencing for those who broke the law, it happened because the law was passed. Simply passing a law is enough to engender change without having to police it or implement it in other more forceful ways. And this is what we hope will be achieved here – that when the law is changed, people will change. It’s not going to be an instant overnight thing, it will take time – we did prove with the Swedish experience that it only takes a generation to change parental attitude, and I firmly believe we can do the same here but only if we have a proper program in the background that supports parents in parenting and provides constant access to information that will help them learn better ways.

AG: One of the common arguments during this raging debate by those who practice corporal punishment is that Sweden’s abuse rates rose by 500% once the law passed abolishing corporal punishment, could you shed some light on that?

CB: The abuse rates did not rise by 500%, what actually happened was that along with the prohibition on corporal punishment, the definition of child abuse was widened to include a whole range of things that had never been included before. It’s like when in South Africa we widened the definition of rape beyond penal/vaginal penetration to include sexual penetration of any bodily orifice with any other body part or object – the rates of reported rape went up, not because rape in itself had increased but because the kinds of things you could call rape had gone up – and that’s exactly what happened in Sweden. Abuse rates didn’t go up, the definition of abuse widened and the increase was due to the reporting of those things that were no defined as abuse.
Joan Durrant and Elizabeth Gershoff, personal heroes of mine, have gone over a lot of the so-called ‘scientific’ pieces of research on the ‘good’ effects of corporal punishment or that Sweden got it all wrong or whatever, and the paper that the Joshua Generation Church, in particular, are using to promote the findings in Sweden of abuse cases going up, has been shown to be an absolutely appalling piece of research. Joan Durrant, who wrote the critique of it, said that it seemed to her that after reading his paper that he actually knew nothing whatsoever of the situation in Sweden and she provided excellent reliable and valid statistics to completely refute that particular paper. They also tend to focus on a paper by Marjory Gunnoe – the most important thing to remember about these papers by Gunnoe and others like her, are that if they have been published at all, the Gunnoe paper was only published 2 years ago – 15 years after she did the work, and even then it was published in a journal that is not very reputable – in other words it has not been peer-reviewed, it was not valid and reliable information. Just because there is a paper on it, doesn’t mean it’s so. The quality of the research needs to be considered, and the quality of Gunnoe’s work and that of the other chap, is riddled with problems and was very bad quality research.

AG: A common argument by those who utilize spanking is that the US and UK have a terrible track record with their youth, believing the result to be because of a ban on spanking. Is the assumption that the US and UK have banned spanking true or false?

CB: Spanking has not been banned in either the US or the UK – it’s the Netherlands and Sweden and New Zealand, not countries known for rampant aggression in quite the same way as the US is, and to some extent the UK. So that’s not true, they haven’t banned corporal punishment in the UK, it is prohibited in all other settings except the home, as in South Africa, but that’s not enough and it’s a huge bone of contention at the moment. Some parts of the UK, such as Scotland, Ireland and Wales, want to prohibit corporal punishment in the home, but because of the situation in England, they can’t.
The American’s reasons for not ratifying the Convention on the Rights of the Child are because they would then have to commit to not giving juveniles, young offenders, the death penalty. They don’t mind killing under 18’s.
We, on the other hand, don’t even need international treaties to convince us to change – our own constitution is stronger in many respects than all of these treaties and our own constitution compels us to eradicate corporal punishment. A school survey that was done by the Centre for Justice and Crime Prevention in 2012 showed that those schools that have adhered to the law and do not use corporal punishment have much lower rates of violence than those schools that are breaking the law by continuing to use corporal punishment. So the argument that violence in schools has increased since the banning of corporal punishment is a fallacy, because even though it’s down on paper and is actually illegal, on average more than half of school children still experience corporal punishment on a regular and routine basis.

AG: What is your take on the increase of spanking or abuse at home if parents reserve themselves when in view of others?

CB: It’s very unlikely that there will be an increase just because they have to reserve themselves in public. Hopefully, with the flood of parenting information and positive discipline techniques, people won’t feel the need to hit their children in public at all. We have some amazing resources that we’ll be rolling out such as comics that will be translated into all the different languages that are very accessible and will hopefully give people the idea that there is a better way to parent.
One of the things we say to people who claim that hitting children is part of their culture, is that there is very little evidence in African history pre-slavery and pre-colonialism, that corporal punishment was used at all – let alone to the scale that it’s used today. Before slavery and colonists and missionaries came along, corporal punishment was unheard of among African tribes and communities. Indeed, there are many indigenous proverbs that indicate the attitudes of people towards violence, and that is that violence in any form is wrong. And from a women’s rights perspective, we’ve found that where women’s rights are not valued, children’s are even less so – so there’s a clear link between gender violence and the corporal punishment of children.
We really want parents to understand that we know how hard parenting really is, that it’s not easy and is actually very hard. And we’re not talking about not disciplining children, we are simply saying that you don’t have to hit them to discipline them. The kind of discipline that is taught with corporal punishment is in any event the wrong kind. It does not teach self-discipline, it doesn’t teach patience because we hit for instant gratification, it does not teach children to be respectful of the rights of others – on the contrary it teaches them that if they are bigger and better and stronger than someone, or more powerful for some reason – you are the teacher, you are the parent, you’re the husband, you’re the Andrew Selley [Joshua Generation Church leader who’s parenting manual advocated using actual rods on children], whatever it might be – that you have the right to hurt other people just because you don’t like what they’re doing or saying. And in a country that is as diverse as South Africa, and where the default option when we don’t like something is always violence. We should be teaching children skills to negotiate their way through different situations, to appreciate diversity, to respect the rights of others who don’t agree with them and when we hit children we teach them completely the wrong lessons.

AG: What do you recommend someone does if they witness corporal punishment being practiced?

CB: It should be reported to the police who would then report it to a social worker. The difficulty with our situation is that the police don’t know what they’re supposed to do. If this actually did happen, the best place to report it would either be to Childline or to the Department of Social Development and a social worker, but that’s no guarantee that anything will get done. Confronting someone about hitting their child is highly unlikely to yield any results, and will only put the parent on the defense and possibly turn them even more aggressive.
I don’t believe people deliberately set out to harm their children. I don’t think that there’s anyone in the world who pushes a baby out of their body and then looks at it and thinks ‘My God, I’m going to make your life hell on earth.’ That isn’t how it works. Something happens between that magical moment when you first see your child and the difficulties of dealing with a baby that won’t settle or a child that won’t listen or whatever – we need to remind parents that they should be enjoying their children and play with them and so on. People need to realize that the best way to teach children is to set the example by which the parent expects them to behave and the kind of adult the parent wants them to be. So you can’t tell your child not to lie and then they hear their parent lying to a friend on the phone, or ‘don’t hit your baby brother otherwise I’ll smack you’ – that one really blows my mind. Rather help the child understand firstly that the brother is smaller and weaker and therefore should be protected and that there are other ways to avoid tension and conflict – if your little brother wants to play with your toy, little brothers are notoriously easy to distract, find something else for him to play with and the tension will be gone in a minute!
We also need people to understand more about how children’s minds and cognition develop, never mind their physical development. The number of people who are mothers or parents of children who are crawling for example – so they are 6, 7, 8, 9 months old – who tell me they have to hit their babies because they’re ‘naughty’ because they insist on sticking their fingers in plug sockets; ladies cover the plug! It’s so simple! Make your environment, your environment, safe for your child so that you don’t have to be worried about these things. When you hit a child for trying to put its fingers in the plug, you do not teach it that putting fingers in plugs is dangerous – you teach it that it’s wrong to be curious, that it’s wrong to ask questions, that it’s wrong to try and find out how things work, that is the last thing you want to teach your child. When you think about it, it makes sense, but I suppose in the heat of the moment it’s hard to remember, and parenting is tough! Parents need to know that we understand that, we’re not saying that it’s a doddle and that they’re awful people – we’re saying it’s difficult and they need support and help, and that’s what we’re trying to provide them with.

AG: Last question Carol, could you please tell me what role the media plays in corporal punishment and how we at Conscious Parenting Magazine [Edit – Anybody reading this here at Growing Minds] can help?

CB: I do think that one of the problems is that there is not enough information out there on what positive parenting and positive discipline are, so getting that sort of information out there would be very helpful. As for the media, it plays a dual role and one of the things we try to do and are trying to do even as we speak, is that we need the media to have a better understanding of the issues. I’m busy cultivating journalists and there are quite a few of them who will write on the issue, who will publish my op ed’s and so on, to give a different view on things and try and give a different perspective. But they also tend to sensationalise things – one of the reasons we lost the corporal punishment clause in 2007 was because the National Prosecution Authority was asked to come to a meeting of the Portfolio Committee and the National Assembly to explain to them what would happen if a parent was charged with hitting their child, and the guy who came from the NPA – who actually supports the ban – said what I said earlier; that you would be liable to pay an admission of guilt fine of R300. The next morning, in the Sowetan, a third of the front page was taken up by a massive headline that said “R300 for smacking your kids” and the country went ballistic. Five days later they took the clause out of the law – and that was a very good example of how the media gets it incredibly wrong, and it was just sensationalist tabloid reporting – there was no reference to that meeting in the report, it was put out to make out like it was a really terrible thing – R300 fine for smacking your kids . There was no other side to the story, there was no reference to the fact that parents would NOT be criminalized – no no, it was just all tabloid junk and it had a very strong effect.
One thing that could be done by the way, is that parents who use positive discipline should phone into their local radio stations, write to the editors of their newspapers and to go to regional consultations and tell them about their experiences, that they use positive discipline and that it really works, and then list their children’s achievements or whatever your own standards are of successful parenting – and let people know that there are real life parents who do this, that it works and that there is nothing to be afraid of – because in the end it’s going to be that that makes the difference. I don’t have the power, I’m no one, I can only do so much – others have to take a stand too. Parents need to understand that by hitting their children they are telling them that it’s not ok to make mistakes – but we should be teaching our kids that it is ok to make mistakes, that even adults and parents make mistakes, what matters is how you put it right. That’s what counts. If you hit them you achieve none of that.

This article first appeared on the website of Conscious Parenting Magazine.  Republished here with permission.

Further Reading:

Corporal punishment: let’s learn from history – Terry Bell
Ending violence against children: A key component of ending violence against women
When Media Personalities Advocate for Child Based Violence:  Open Letter to Eusebius Mckaiser
Sonke Gender Justice: Child Rights and Positive Parenting Culture
Countries that have banned corporal punishment
Global Initiative to Ban All Corporal Punishment of Children

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