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WORD VIEW: Which ‘rod’?


Esther Phillips

WORD VIEW: Which ‘rod’?

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I have been following the debate regarding corporal punishment with great interest, noting that it would have been impossible for this debate to have taken place up to 50 years ago. I agree with those who are of the view that the current topic, like several others, cannot be discussed sensibly without taking into consideration how different the times are in which we now live.

Some practices thrive because they are undergirded in every way by the very pillars on which the existing society is built. When I was growing up, for example, the church, the school, the law, parents, neighbours and the general community fully upheld the idea of corporal punishment. Naturally. Certainly, since The Bible advocated that the “rod” was the answer to discipline, then there was no question that corporal punishment would be administered as the norm.

Moreover, the shadow of the violence left over from slavery was still very much lingering in the psyche of both colonizer and colonised. Licks, beatings and blows in order to maintain control were still part of our embedded memory.

Today we live in a different world. A significant number of children and adults no longer attend church, and the school and the wider community can also no longer be depended on to uphold the old methods.

In any case, the evidence would seem to suggest, as Brass Tacks moderator Peter Wickham argues, that our prison is full of men who were subjected to corporal punishment (sometimes of the worst kind, no doubt) as part of their upbringing. It appears that there is indeed a kind of mindset nowadays for which corporal punishment will not work. The stays that bound this monolith in place are badly broken. And there are some truths we have to face in order to find solutions.

One truth is that, in many cases, corporal punishment is not about discipline but about rage – the parent’s rage. The child pays for every possible problem that happens to be bothering the parent at that time. The blows inflicted are often excessive and brutal, and herein lies the early lessons of bullying: the child learns from home how to inflict senseless hurt on others who are unable to defend themselves.

Another plank on which corporal punishment continues to stand is ignorance. We fail to see how we pass on patterns of violence to following generations. Stick around some groups who have children for a long enough period, and count the number of times you hear “I gine beat you!” “You want me beat you?!” Always spoken in anger, with no attempt whatsoever to come up with an alternative form of discipline.

Another point is that corporal punishment may well have changed its face. While there was once a clear delineation between the authority figure and the one to be disciplined – the punisher and the receiver of punishment – the lines may well have become very uncertain now.

For example, the average child nowadays is a daily witness to scenes of violence via the media, cartoons and video games. Blows received from a parent, especially when inflicted with no sensible explanation from the parent, may to the child’s mind be just another arm of the violence all around, with seemingly no moral or logical context.

The child, so conditioned, grows up and beats his or her children, men continue to beat their women and children, and we continue a syndrome that suggests we are incapable, as a people, of being disciplined by any means other than by blows.

As a parent myself, I did spank my daughter on very few occasions being very careful not to injure her. I had learnt certain lessons only too well from my own upbringing. But I would like to think that I can now take a different approach in dealing with my grandchildren or any other child.

I acknowledge that children can try the patience of parents beyond reasonable endurance, but we need not continue the same patterns that are not working in the ways we most need them to.

The “rod” need not be taken literally, but may be interpreted as the absolute need for discipline, which no one can deny.

Meanwhile, it should be more than interesting for us as a society to examine why we so fear the absence of corporal punishment. What would change require of us? It will cost something to develop a culture of love and respect rather than anger and fear. But what we have now is costing us far more.  

• Esther Phillips is an educator, poet and editor of BIM: Arts For The 21st Century.

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