Children Are Unbeatable (March/April 2002)

Friday, 01 April 2011 17:45

OpenMind - Journal of the mental health association MIND

March/April 2002


Dorothy Rowe

Why do the British want to beat their children? In 1979 Sweden prohibited all corporal punishment of children, and since then Norway, Latvia, Croatia, Cyprus, Finland, Denmark and Israel followed suit. In 2000 the German government passed a German Civil Law which stated, 'Children have the right to be brought up without the use of force. Physical punishment, the causing of psychological harm and other degrading measures are forbidden.'

German lawmakers were impressed by the body of research which shows a clear link between childhood experiences of physical punishment and violence and other forms of anti-social behaviour in adult life. In 2000 a study of the impact of Sweden's ban on physical punishment showed that over the preceding thirty years crime, drug use and alcoholism in young people declined significantly. Moreover, between 1980 and 1996 only four children died at the hands of an adult, and, of that four, only one at the hands of a parent. Each year in the UK some 68 children die at the hands of an adult, usually a close relative.

In the UK individuals and organisations concerned with the totally unacceptable effects of physical punishment formed an umbrella group called Children Are Unbeatable in order to press for children to be protected by the law from assault in the same way as adults are protected. Resistance to this change in the law, particularly at government level and amongst the more fundamentalist Christian churches, is very strong. Such people believe that parents have to right to inflict 'reasonable chastisement' on their children no matter what the consequences. Why is this so?

There are three basic reasons.

The first is the fear instilled in many people by the Fifth Commandment, which states, Honour thy father and mother, so that thy days be long in the land. Criticise your parents and you're dead. Choosing to bring up your children differently from the way your parents brought you up is an implicit criticism of your parents.

The second follows from the fact that an effective defence against physical pain is a way of thinking which separates yourself from your body. Many of us do this in order to keep calm in the dentist's chair. However, if we make a habit of separating our mind from our body we lose our ability to feel pain, and, if we cannot feel our own pain, we diminish our ability to empathise with anyone else's pain. Boys who are subjected to much physical abuse can easily become men who are indifferent to the pain they inflict on others. Such indifference is actually the harm suffered by people who claim, 'I was beaten as a child and it didn't do me any harm.'

Third, the easiest way to bring up children is to terrorise them into obedience, and the easiest way to terrorise children is to hit them. Research has shown that what parents call 'a tap' children experience as a hit which hurts and frightens them. The hardest way to bring up children is to listen to them, reason with them and take their point of view into account. If you do this you'll find that, when you're in a busy supermarket and your two-year-old, overwhelmed by it all, throws a wobbly, no one come to help you, but all around you'll hear people saying, 'If that was my kid I'd give him a good hiding.' Worse, your children will constantly criticise and argue with you.

However, everything we do has consequences. One of the consequences of physical punishment is that fear drives out love. As adults your children don't visit you, or do so grudgingly. Your children might think they love you, but what they call love is guilt and a wistful longing for what might have been. Some adult children ruin their lives by clinging to their parents anxiously, desperately hoping that one day their parents will show them unconditional love, something which the parents might be quite incapable of ever showing. Such adult children are constantly anxious and often depressed when they blame themselves for their parents inability to love them.

For parents who treat their children as their equals, and see them as individuals in their own right, the consequences follow from the fact that the children learn to see their parents as individuals in their own right. This perspective allows the children to understand, and thus forgive, their parents' mistakes and limitations. Such acceptance, understanding and forgiveness mean that parents and their adult children are the best of friends, and there is no greater reward for hard work than that.

Children Are Unbeatable Alliance, 77 Holloway Rd, London, N7 8JZ