Let’s not beat about the bush
A few years ago, waiting in transit at the Dubai airport, I met a Pakistani family residing in California.
In a casual conversation over coffee, the family affirmed the perks of living abroad, graciously inviting me to call them up and have dinner with them if I’m ever in San Diego (which I won’t). Soon, they began listing the mundane grievances of the conservative Muslim-Pakistani diaspora in the West: lack of halal food; rampant Islamophobia; language barrier; and the inability to “properly discipline their children”.
The family patriarch bemoaned the ‘oversensitivity’ of the American people, and the fact that hitting your child “even a little bit” can have agents from Child Protective Services pounding at your door. “Pakistani kids don’t respond to words alone!” he said laughingly, and his wife nodded.
I’m not nearly as irascible and combative as my online persona suggests. Of course, I ought not have sat there smiling awkwardly, sipping iced latter. Of course, I should’ve expressed my disgust at the couple’s twisted “parenting” strategies, as well as their internalized racism. Pakistani kids are, as we say in Urdu, “laaton ke bhoot”. Well, maybe your children; considering that you’ve “disciplined” them so frequently, they no longer respond to mere words.
When we have the misfortune of getting stuck in a plane or a restaurant with a bunch of noisy children darting about, we often curse the parents for being ‘too lenient’ with those kids. The truth may well be the opposite. The parents may be so harsh with the kids at home, where their parenting skills aren’t being monitored and judged by strangers, that a stern “Shhh!” ceases to have any impact on their punishment-resistant offspring. These parents, therefore, sit silently while their kids kick your chair and assault your eardrums, because they know their words would have no effect.
In the past, nearly every time that I have brought up child spanking, and a list of scientific studies decrying its use, my “opinion” has been brushed away with three magic arguments: one, that as a non-parent, I am in no position to inform people on how to raise their kids; two, beating is sometimes the only solution to uncontrollably aggressive behaviour; three, physically punishing a child isn’t “that bad”, depending on how hard you’re hitting them.
Clearly, if you crack a bone or two, you’ve gone too far. And as a doctor, I can state that that’s not rare at all. Adult “disciplinarians” frequently overestimate the stress a child’s body or mind may safely handle. This estimation is harder to make, when you’re angry about a broken phone or an abysmal report card, and not calculating the ‘appropriate’ amount of force to administer. These parents, when confronted for their brutality, offer the same explanation: “We didn’t want to hurt them that bad! It was an accident!” And that’s only in the rare circumstance where they don’t improvise a tale about the child falling hard on his buttock.
But a few temporary bruises here and there are signs of “brattiness” leaving the body. We shouldn’t feel guilty about those, right? Weren’t we raised, after all, on monstrously inane idioms like, “Whatever part of the body a teacher hits, is a part that’s going to heaven”.
The argument that one’s experience as a parent overrides psychological and medical research on the matter is far too haughty to be taken seriously. The latest analysis of roughly half a century worth of studies on the practice of spanking, has confirmed what experts have always maintained: spanking children makes them more aggressive and anti-social. So anyone who argues that children are sometimes so unruly that there’s no option but to physically hit them, should really think long and hard about why they’ve become so unruly in the first place.
Everything you do within the visual field of a child – from cleaning a table, to lighting a cigarette – is a learning experience for him. By physically attacking a child, however infrequent that may be, you send a resounding message that the ultimate and most effective response to a social misdemeanour, is physical violence. So the next time you receive a call from the principal about your well-disciplined son beating up an annoying classmate, guess where he learned that from? Television and video games, probably.
Finally, we have the greatest cliché among them all: “My father used to beat me, and I turned out fine!” Define ‘fine’. Children, who lived through the war of 1971, turned out ‘fine’. Victims of virtually any form of abuse have a good chance of coming out ‘fine’ at the end, especially with adequate counselling. Not ‘great’, not irreparably devastated, but ‘fine’. Perhaps it’s best if we leave such assessments to psychologists or psychiatrists, who’ve collected and compared data from thousands of children to draw their conclusions.
With morality and science weighing against the practice, why is apologia for child spanking so hair-raisingly common? Because we live in the present, and almost by nature, are terribly ill-equipped at planning out our distant futures. Spank the child now, and stop him from making a mess at the dinner table. Who cares if it’ll lead to anti-social behaviour and poor compliance in the long run?
Hitting a child isn’t ‘tough love’; it’s abuse. Doing so doesn’t make one a ‘strict disciplinarian’, it makes one an abuser. I wish there were a more polite way to put it.