IT IS pertinent to have a public debate about corporal punishment following the high-profile court case of a Windhoek high school teachers on charges of spanking a learner.
A retired teacher testified in favour of physical punishment and unfortunately implied that certain public figures became successful despite or even as a consequence of this mode of punishment. This justification of corporal punishment was widely reported in the Namibian mass media and undoubtedly impacted on what occurs within the home setting as well.
The most popular myth about spanking in Namibia is that victims turned out fine and some, even better, due to being punished. Implied in all this, is the message that physical punishment is not only effective, but very necessary in raising young people. This reasoning, however, is highly contentious and certainly remains unsupported by any research findings. On the contrary, what is so remarkable about scientific evidence in this area of corporal punishment is that the conclusions are almost unanimous.
The only purported benefit of corporal punishment is the compliance, on a short-term basis, of the young person. Yet, one should hasten to add, even this should be contextualised. Appropriate questions should be: What is the purpose of disciplining a child? Should we not differentiate between discipline and punishment? How does one distinguish between punishment and abuse? Not all children become compliant after spanking, while the long-term adherence to rules is not assured amongst such youngsters. Indeed, when the punitive adult is absent, the child easily misbehaves. On top of this, the same short-term compliance could be achieved with non-violent methods of disciplining such as time-out or withdrawal of privileges. So, there is simply not a single benefit to spanking.
At the same time, of course, the list of drawbacks is very long. The most disturbing result from recent research has been that children exposed to corporal punishment exhibit lower intelligence levels! Their higher cognitive functions are limited. And the more they are physically punished the lower their intelligence. Such children tend to be anxious, fearful and unable to concentrate. It goes without saying that schooling is a tremendous challenge to them.
Another disconcerting conclusion from the research is that spanked children tend to tell lies frequently and effectively. Obviously these children wish to escape the pain inflicted on them. But this lays the foundation for anti-social behaviour. It is therefore unsurprising that children raised with corporal punishment tend to be aggressive. For, they quickly learn that differences are resolved through violent means and that no reasoning is necessary. Spanking does not teach them how to behave, how to manage anger well, how to solve problems or how to internalise rule. If anything, physical punishment simply continues the awful cycle of violence that we are burdened with in this country.
With regards to the wide-spread fallacy about people turning out better due to corporal punishment, the scientific research indicates that as adults they are more likely to have mental health concerns (e.g. alcoholism) and to abuse others. There is really absolutely nothing in the social sciences to point at anything constructive about spanking.
So, corporal punishment in households is a pivotal contributor to the gratuitous violence in Namibia. Our youth need to be positively disciplined and to be nurtured, not to receive physical pain. Caregivers should guide young people towards non-violent values. Corporal punishment is not a method of discipline, but a mode of abuse. End the reign of terror against the youth. Declare corporal punishment illegal in Namibian households.
Shaun Whittaker is a mental health worker based in Windhoek