The main goal of any disciplinary strategy, be it in the home or school, is to teach children about allowable and unacceptable behaviour.
But due to differences in culture and other values, methods of disciplining children vary extensively across the board.
Both the Bible and the Qur’an mention the importance of disciplining children; nonetheless, interpretations of the words in the holy books also vary considerably.
But, at what point does beating or disciplining a child become abuse of their rights?
For Reverend Mac Lloyd Bondo of Lilongwe, this topic draws a wide range of interesting arguments apart from the religious ones.
“The [biblical] book of Proverbs cites the importance of disciplining or correcting children. For example, Proverbs 13:24 says: ‘He that spareth his rod hateth his son, but he that loveth him chasteneth him.’ Proverbs 23:14 also says: ‘Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell,’ and Proverbs 29:15 states: ‘The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame’,”.
“The Word should not be taken metaphorically. The proper interpretation of these verses is that if you love your children you will correct them; if you don’t love them, you won’t correct them. And so, children need to be spanked in order to be corrected and for them to become morally upright,” he says.
Bondo argues that corporal punishment is the disciplinary technique that can be meted out to a disobedient child.
He explains: “Parents need to be authoritative; we have to use warmth, firm control, and rational, issue-oriented discipline in which emphasis is placed on the development of self-direction. Parents must place a high value on the development of autonomy and self-direction but assume the ultimate responsibility for their child’s behaviour. If a child is living under your roof, it must be clearly stated to them that they should follow your rules.”
But socio-psychologist Andrew Nkhoma thinks there are many other effective disciplinary techniques that parents can employ than just corporal punishment.
“Parents can think of providing appropriate supervision to their children, for instance. The other workable technique is setting rules and enforcing boundaries for your kids. The other problem I have found with many parents is that they fail to firmly say “no” to children’s demands. As parents, we need to tell our children that such and such behaviour is unacceptable and explain why,” he stresses.
Nkhoma adds that withdrawing privileges from unruly children also does work in terms of disciplining them.
“An important component in all disciplinary strategies is to maintain parental consistency; parenting that is inconsistent can be confusing for children and lead to misbehaviour. As a parent, you can minimise the need for discipline or punishment by planning ahead to prevent problems from occurring.
“When parents are consistent in their disciplinary strategies, children learn what to expect from their parents if they misbehave. Children are less likely to test boundaries or push limits that are firmly set and when they know the consequences of poor behaviour,” he says.
Nkhoma further observes that children are four times more likely to have conduct problems and twice as likely to have hyperactivity problems when experiencing hostile parenting.
“Several studies have suggested that warmth and affection in parent-child relationships is linked with more positive outcomes for children. We should always bear in mind that children will persistently do things that may make their parents feel angry and irritated and that changing a child’s behaviour is an uphill task,” he says.
Child rights activist and early childhood specialist, Desmond Mhango, says disciplining children through physical harm is clearly a violation of the most basic human rights.
“Smacking is a contentious issue that often provokes serious debates and parents’ rights and its elimination is not easy. Corporal punishment of children often becomes inhumane or degrading, and it always violates their physical integrity, demonstrates disrespect for human dignity and undermines self-esteem.
“It’s counterproductive to the psychological and social well-being of children. Parents who are more punitive tend to have aggressive children; when parenting practices change, a child’s behaviour also changes,” he says.
Mhango argues that there is no scientific data showing physical punishment as more effective than other disciplinary techniques.
“Even though limited use of mild corporal punishment in very isolated and specific circumstances may have some benefit; it’s not always a better option. Its use as a strategy to improve overall behavior is laden with danger. Persistent use can lead to physical abuse, interfere with learning and increase hostility and may worsen behavior in the long run.
“[Medical experts] tell us that adrenalin output increases significantly during anger and physical punishment. When this is protracted or often repeated, the endocrine balance fails to go back to baseline. The victim becomes easily angered and prone to poor impulse management and unprompted aggressive eruptions,” he observes.