Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Spare the rod, but not the discipline

Corporal punishment is to be deplored, not regimentation.

By Kuldip Dhiman

Another child is beaten up, another teacher is penalised, and the debate is suddenly alive: whether we ought to spare the rod or not. And this debate, like most others, swings from one extreme to the other. While my parents often told my teachers, "If he misbehaves, don't tell us, just thrash him thoroughly"; most parents now would take the school authorities to court for 'touching' their little ones.

Those who propose to banish corporal punishment in schools, suggest as alternatives positive behaviour techniques like communication, reasoning, conferences with students for planning acceptable behaviour, parent-teacher conferences about student behaviour, use of staff such as school psychologists and counsellors and above all love and affection. Good suggestions, but hardly practicable in an over-populated country like ours where in many areas the schools are overcrowded, understaffed, teachers are poorly paid, and often there is no school building at all.

It is believed that corporal punishment leaves emotional scars on children's mind, and they grow up to be violent and unruly adults. Those who hold this line might be surprised to know that recent studies show that the percentage of people who had committed violent crimes has been almost identical among those who were spanked and those who were not. While I am not a supporter of corporal punishment, I argue that we must evaluate the problem rationally rather than jump to conclusions out of mere emotional responses. As is often the case, whenever we hear about a case of corporal punishment, we often blame the teacher without hearing her or his version of the story, just as in a case of a traffic accident involving a car and a cycle, the car driver is presumed guilty and beaten up even if the cyclist was at fault.

But what is corporal punishment in the first place? While it is recognisable in extreme forms like caning and whipping, what about milder forms? More and more forms of punishments are being defined as corporal punishment these days, so much so that one day even scolding a child for misbehaving might be classified as corporal punishment.

While love, communication and reasoning are to be preferred to the rod, we must not forget that in most cases, our classrooms are packed with about sixty to seventy children. The hapless teacher cannot be expected to reason with those who habitually not only misbehave, but also bully him and other children in the classroom. A patient teacher might try love and affection once, twice, or even thrice, but on the fourth occasion is likely to loose his cool. Don't parents themselves beat up their children after trying other milder methods? Why should it be any different with the teacher who does not have to deal with two or three, but over sixty children all day! Besides, it is often difficult and time-consuming to reason with a child of secondary school level. If the teacher tried to reason with every single errant child, he would have no time left to teach. And experience shows that children do like some degree of firmness on the part of the teacher, and they have scant regard for a teacher who is lenient.

In most cases of corporal punishment, it is often not clear who is to blame, the teacher or the child or the parents. Because adults and children influence each other, argues developmental psychopathologist Michael Rutter, it is not always clear whether an adult's hostility is the cause or the effect of a child's misbehaviour. Family disruption and conflict and ineffective parenting do contribute to and aggravate many childhood problems, but many of these problems are also rooted partially in genetic endowment and grow out of a complex transactional process in which children affect and are affected by their elders and their wider social environment. It is high time to move beyond the simple view that parents and teachers alone are to blame for children's behavioural problems.

While corporal punishment should certainly be deplored, regimentation and discipline must be enforced at all costs. After all why do we send children to school? So they could learn to work with others, learn social customs, learn to cooperate and compete with peer groups.

But discipline must not be confused with coercion, for discipline could be instilled in children without coercion. Experts like Robert E. Larzelere, suggest that disciplinary responses could begin with less severe tactics, such as reasoning, but proceed to firmer tactics when the initial methods achieve neither compliance nor an acceptable compromise. This is consistent with many studies showing that a combination of reasoning and punishment is more effective than either one alone and with new evidence that this sequence enhances the effectiveness of milder disciplinary tactics.

Every child is unique, some are naturally well-behaved by disposition, while others need to be disciplined, and there are those who only understand the language of the cane. It would be unwise to treat all of them with one method. In the case of children belonging to the third category, school authorities could have a long hard talk with the parents instead of beating the child black and blue themselves.

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