I don’t remember how old Lolly was when I first sent her howling to the bathroom to await her smack. She must have been 3 I guess – the same age I was when I hurled a soccer ball at my sister’s head whilst she was having a swimming race against my brother. In my juvenile mind, I was just helping my big brother to win his race! The ball hit its target perfectly, and I got a firm hand on my wet behind.
I don’t recall ever being beaten again at home as a child. I remember the odd beating with a cane at school, but again, few and far between. But I was brought up in a day and age when beating children at home and at school was the norm. In fact, it was justified and even encouraged mostly on the basis of the Biblical Proverb: “Spare the rod spoil the child.”
Now, Lolly is 6 and she has probably had an average of 1 smack for each year of life. But each one got harder for me to administer. We do not smack Lolly anymore and that is not because she doesn’t sometimes drive us completely demented. It is because every smack I gave Lolly was more and more terrifying to her. How could I hit a terrified and traumatised child? It went against everything I felt as her Dad.
During those early years of grappling with “to smack or not to smack”, I did some research into “spare the rod spoil the child” and found that like so much of scripture, we might just have got it wrong. Scholars tell us that a rod here refers to the stick a shepherd would carry. He would hurl this through the air with great accuracy when he could see a wild animal or a snake threatening his sheep. He would use it to count his flock as they re-entered their pen at night and he would use it to measure them. So, the rod referred to in this Proverb has everything to do with protection, guidance, safety and care.
The backlash against the new legislation banning smacking children at home completely misses the point. It claims that parents should have a right to discipline their children as they see fit; it claims that “it never did me any harm!” (a subjective and largely unprovable statement); it claims that it is God’s will that we discipline by beating; it uses research that ‘proves’ that children benefit from a beating.
But in a society so traumatized by violence, why are we even considering perpetrating more, of any kind? Why do we even entertain solving our problems through violent means? We have over 50 murders a day in our country now. It should be very clear from this horrifying figure that violence through a beating as a means of solving our problems, is out of control.
Now you could argue that the way you beat your child will not create a violent adult. But how do we measure (not to mention regulate) what is an “acceptable” level of violence against a child?
For me the more personal consideration has become, how can I justify inflicting physical and psychological pain on my child – or any child for that matter? It feels unnatural and pulls against every instinct I have as a father.
Justin Foxton is founder of The Peace Agency.
His writing is dedicated to the memory of Anene Booysens, Emmanuel Josias Sithole and Suna Venter.