What the new spanking legislation actually means

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Can you hit you from a place of love? In a society fraught with gender-based violence, is physically punishing your child teaching them how to learn the difference between abuse and discipline? On 18 September 2019, the Constitutional Court of South Africa ruled that corporal punishment in the home is illegal. This ruling outlaws any physical punishment a parent may use on their child such as hitting or spanking in the name of discipline.

The defence of “reasonable chastisement” which parents used when charged for physically harming their children no longer applies and is deemed unconstitutional. It was argued that this defence allowed parents to conduct themselves in a manner that would otherwise be considered assault if inflicted on an adult.

“The shift in mindset from the punishing parent to the authoritative parent will take time and you will not always get it right.”

As much as this ruling protects the interests and rights of the child, many parents still believe that it interferes with their parenting style of using force as punishment for misbehaviour. While this old-school method of smacking or hitting a child for misbehaviour may seem acceptable to the average parent, research shows that no child benefitted from being physically harmed by their parent. This form of punishment did not instil values and respect in a child and, instead of understanding the consequences of their behaviour, the child felt negative thoughts and plotted revenge.

Of course, there is the difference between using force to prevent your child from being harmed – for instance forcibly moving their hand away from fire and smacking your toddler on the nappy because you want them to stop crying. The reasoning behind your physical interaction with your child justifies whether you did so to prevent further harm to your child or to cause harm on to your child.

No matter how slight, your physical harm of your child might be seen as a form of punishment. If, as a parent, you decide that pain and violence is the answer to teaching your child how to respect you and behave appropriately, you need to understand that this comes with your child’s level of trust in you as a protector diminishing.

If you still believe that spanking your child is acceptable, please ask yourself the following questions:

  • Why, as a parent, do you feel it necessary to physically harm your child in reaction to their misbehaviour or frustrations instead of understanding what caused the misbehaviour?
  • How do you justify using physical harm on a toddler who is incapable of fully understanding their actions and the consequences?
  • Is hitting your child the only way to teach them conflict resolution?
  • Is hitting your child acceptable behind closed doors for misbehaviour because no one should tell you to respect your child’s rights?
  • Why do you think another adult’s right to bodily integrity and to be free from harm is more important than that of your child’s?
  • Why do you think that gaining your child’s respect through physical punishment is the only way to obtain such respect?

Parents who use force, fear and pain on their child in the name of love and authority do not give their children a chance to learn how to understand what type of negative behaviour amounts to abuse when the environment has changed.

For instance, a child who grows up believing that their parent loved them while causing physical harm to them will find it difficult to differentiate when they are being abused in a relationship by someone who claims to love them or has authority over them. This generational cycle of making pain and fear acceptable to command respect brings along the mindset that children must experience pain and fear as a normality in any future relationship. This thought process is destructive to creating a non-violent society.

During the presentations of argument for and against considering reasonable chastisement as a defence, Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng asked what the alternative to physical punishment is.

“As a parent, disciplining your child is the most important and challenging skill you need to develop and it shapes the way in which your child handles conflict and their own frustrations as they grow older.”

What is the alternative to spanking?

In my presentation at the African Child Trauma Conference in Cape Town in August this year, I discussed authoritative parenting as a method of instilling discipline. As a parent, disciplining your child is the most important and challenging skill you need to develop and it shapes the way in which your child handles conflict and their own frustrations as they grow older. Authoritative parenting takes effort. If you want to parent your child and raise them to respect you, you must make an effort to engage with your them in a respectful manner.

Most often, the criticism of authoritative parenting is that there isn’t enough time between the misbehaviour and the punishment for a parent to deal with the misbehaviour constructively. There is always enough time, because the time it takes to spank a child is the same amount of time it takes for you to make an intelligent, conscious choice to not react but rather to respond to the misbehaviour.

Authoritative parenting involves an emotionally intelligent parent who can make a split-second decision to engage with their child with authority and understanding rather than to react with physical harm. Choosing to respond to your child and engage with them will disrupt the cycle of reactions and high emotions that comes with physical punishment on your child.

Steps to engaging with your child in an authoritative way:

  1. Get down to your child’s level; for instance, if they are a toddler or they are seated.
  2. Ask your child what has caused the misbehaviour.
  3. Let them talk while you listen, with little interruption.
  4. Fully understand what has led to that behaviour with open-ended questions.
  5. Brainstorm together a mutually agreeable, realistic solution and any limitations that need to be put in place.

The shift in mindset from the punishing parent to the authoritative parent will take time and you will not always get it right. Your inevitable goal is not to win a battle with harm and declare your child the loser. When you discipline your child, you should never leave them feeling worthless, or feeling that you will only engage with them when they are good. Nothing can justify that a child should feel less human or have their rights violated by the people they love and trust the most, their parents.

This article is not legal advice. The information within this article are extracts from the writer’s presentation at the African Child Trauma Conference 2019. For more information, contact Fair Practice on info@fairpractice.co.za.