To spare the rod or not

Home Away from Home with Abi Adeboyejo

Email: Twitter: @abihafh

HAFH2Most children of African descent living abroad struggle to speak their parents’ mother tongue. However, there are some words that kids understand in any language. Phrases like “behave properly” or “you will get a smack if….” are some of the first that kids recognise in their parent’s native language.  It seems that majority of black African parents agree that children should be disciplined when they are naughty, even if this includes giving them the odd smack.

Smacking is a commonly accepted term for the (light) hitting of children in the name of discipline. Many parents smack their children with the belief that it will deter them from bad behaviour and that they themselves were smacked as children and are no worse for wear.

I had my fair share of smacks when I was little, although the champion ‘smackee’ in my family was my brother. He bore the brunt of all the pranks done by his four sisters as my dad always held him responsible. We (his sisters) became less mischievous after he started giving us kicks and blows too. But we all grew up much better people because of the discipline our parents instilled in us. There are no scars emotional or physical, just (now) very funny memories of different pranks, accidents and mischief and the inevitable punishments that followed.

My mum had a series of eye/face movements that spoke to us when we are young. A raised brow would normally mean “don’t even think about it” and a frown and nod would mean “you are in deep trouble when we get home”. The best one was her ‘two blinks’ which meant “don’t accept the offer of food” when we visited friends. I remember this one quite well because it usually took all my willpower to grin and refuse an offer a chilled bottle of Coca Cola and some chin chin/puff-puff or even rice and stew at some family friend’s house. Well, the thought of two ruler smacks across my bum usually deterred me anyway!

I also remember how careless I was as a child of 7or 8. I always came back from school with one item or the other missing from my school bag. My mum usually replaced these items but my dad eventually lost patience and warned that the next time I lost my pencil, maths set or ruler I would get a good beating. The very next day I came back from school with all items intact. I settled down to do my homework and scattered the contents of my school bag around the table and living room. I finished my work, ate lunch and settled down to watch Skippy, the Zoo Kangaroo on our black and white TV.

When my dad came home from work, he checked our homework and asked to see our bags. I quickly gathered all my stuff but could not find my ruler. I searched and searched and told my dad I really did bring home the ruler. Of course he thought I wanted to get out of trouble and I got four strokes of the cane. As I cried my lungs out and ran to my mum for comfort, I saw the ruler, stuck under a chair! I cried even harder but the lesson was learned. Take care of your things or else…. To testify to this, I used the same maths set for the whole of my secondary education and not one compass or eraser ever got lost. Well done, me! And well done to dad too!

It then becomes very difficult not to treat my own children with the same measure of love and firm discipline. Young as they are, my other half and I recognise the need to bring them up the way we know how, instead of copying hook, line and sinker other people’s ways and culture. I find it incredible that a few years ago the UK Parliament actually considered creating a law to ban all forms of smacking, thereby taking away a parent’s right to smack a child. I know some parents view smacking as child abuse and refuse to engage in the practice. Others have suggested other methods of discipline like giving children ‘Time Out’ which involves removing a child from a situation causing the naughty/unruly behaviour for a set number of minutes until they apologise; getting children to sit on the ‘The Naughty Step’ while they reflect on their naughty behaviour until they apologise and ‘Grounding’ which is prohibiting a child from attending particular social events or from taking part in particular activities.

I know I speak for a lot of parents when I say that parents should not spare the rod. I know a couple of mums who have had to answer questions from their children’s school teachers when the kids have come to school with tales of being smacked. In most cases parents know what they are doing and smacking is done in moderation and without causing any lasting negative effects on the children, but it is right for the schools to check that all is well. Any parent who acts reasonably should not be afraid to answer such questions.

However, perhaps it is not so bad for parents to consider other methods of disciplining their children, especially where the parents find it difficult to control their temper or if they need an outlet to vent pent-up frustrations. Smacking should be about correcting children and should be used sparingly. It should not be an avenue to abuse or ill-treat children.

I suppose my message here is that discipline can be carried out successfully through a variety of ways, smacking included. But parents, especially African parents, should not get carried away with the overly firm hand. Too much of everything is bad and instead of correcting behaviour, we may end up creating emotional and psychological problems that will haunt the children all through their lives.