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Time we let go of flogging

Mark Boyce

Time we let go of flogging

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AS FAR AS I CAN TELL, nobody arguing against abolishing corporal punishment of children in Barbados has offered anything to support their views aside from anecdote. It might be useful to look at better evidence.

That evidence points almost uniformly in one direction. Virtually all the research of the past 30 years suggests that children who receive physical punishment like spanking are more at risk for aggressive and antisocial behaviour, psychological disorders and drug abuse, both as children and later in life.

Not a single peer-reviewed study in the two decades to 2012 found that corporal punishment is good for children’s mental development. Research shows that it isn’t even more effective than non-physical discipline as a short-term way to get children to comply. Basically all the available information tells us that hitting children to get them to do what we want is a bad idea.

Even so, many Barbadians are worried about getting rid of flogging. They point to the United States and the United Kingdom as examples of the moral decay that comes from sparing the rod.

One obvious problem with this kind of thinking is that the Americans and British don’t, in fact, spare the rod. Although corporal punishment is illegal in all British and some American schools, it isn’t illegal in the home, and is common in both countries. At least half of British and more than 80 per cent of American parents still report hitting their children. Attitudes to spanking in the southern US states especially are very similar to those in Barbados, and corporal punishment in schools is legal in most of the south.

In any case, even if it were true that no American child ever received a lash, it wouldn’t follow that that was to blame for high rates of US gun violence or serial killers like Ted Bundy. The people who try to draw a straight line linking lower levels of corporal punishment to higher levels of crime in some country or other, never cite any reputable research. And for good reason: there isn’t any. It’s worth pointing out that in 2010, the gun-related murder rate in the southern US states, where corporal punishment is more prevalent, was 30 per cent higher than in the rest of the country.

But the biggest problem with the argument is the inconvenient existence of countries like Sweden. In 1979, it became the first country in the world to abolish corporal punishment of children entirely (both at home and in schools), and Swedish children don’t seem to be running amok. In fact, rates of theft, narcotics trafficking, rape, murder, suicide, alcohol consumption and drug use among Swedish youths all declined or remained steady in the 20 years following the ban, according to a study. Sweden is also consistently among the world leaders in human development. So clearly, it’s possible to stop hitting children without the sky falling.

That doesn’t mean that getting rid of corporal punishment will be easy. Even with a change of law, understanding, teaching, implementing and enforcing non-physical discipline throughout Barbadian schools and homes will take time and money. There will be many teachers and parents who will remain stuck in their old ways. Without counselling, there may well be some teenagers that, after years of indiscipline (and blows), are beyond the reach of reason. These children are probably beyond the reach of the strap too.

But the proof that it can be done is that it has been done. Of the 37 economies that the International Monetary Fund describes as “advanced”, 32 have abolished corporal punishment in schools, and more than half have banned it altogether. All of these countries learned to rely solely on other methods.

It’s time we reject the idea that we have to beat our children, as a last resort or otherwise.

Mark Boyce