Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Rethinking spanking from the land of kibokos

“Whap!” my friend sliced her arm across the air for emphasis. “Oh, my mom used to whip us all!  She could even do it without looking up from what she was doing. And it would hurt! She got softer on the younger ones, but us older kids used to get whipped.”  She spit out the word “whipped” while shaking her head but also smiling oddly at the memory.

You see, this friend has a lovely relationship with her mother, a woman I know as gentle soul who dotes on her grandchildren.  She’s a woman who raised 8 of the nicest people I’ve met in Kenya and who took in 5 of her relative’s kids when their parents died.  She’s a woman who visits my friend every week; they sit around a plate of ugali and fish and talk like old friends.  They hug goodbye. They have, by all accounts, a close and loving relationship.

But what about all that whipping?  From the American perspective it would have bordered on abuse.  The theory goes: all that physical punishment would breed resentment, psychological damage, and trust issues.  In some settings the parent would have been visited by Child Protective Services.  The children would grow up to learn that violence solves problems.  

So, what happens when an entire country “beats” (that's the word used here for physical discipline) their children?  The truth is corporal punishment is ubiquitous here.  I’ve yet to meet an adult here who was not physically disciplined by their parents and their teachers.  It’s expected; it's the norm.  In fact, when corporal punishment was officially outlawed in schools (a completely unenforced legal concession to the international community) parents generally thought this was a horrible idea.  The assumption was that without the threat of a whacking, children would become uncontrollable. Pretty much everyone you meet here has been “whacked.”

But it is not a country of cowering maladjusted adults prone to violence. Sure, there are pockets of crime and have been eruptions of political violence, as there are in many places in the world, but overall the people I’ve met have been overwhelmingly are peaceful, warm-hearted, community-minded and generous.

So, what’s going on here?  Well, I’ve delved into the spanking research and it’s a morass of spurious scientific conclusions and the debate is often clouded by emotion. Spanking has been attributed (often erroneously, it turns out) to everything from delinquency to mental illness to lower cognition.  But there’s nothing all that definitive because choosing to use corporal punishment correlates with a lot of stuff which is difficult to disentangle – for example, stressed out, depressed mothers or children with pre-existing behavior problems.  So, if the data show long-term negative impacts associated with spanking, it’s impossible to know if it was the spanking or the stressed out mom or the already present behavior problems which have caused the long-term outcome. 

You can’t very well divide parents randomly into 2 groups and ask one to spank their kids and the other not to and then look at what happens to the children. So, it’s hard to truly know what the true impact is.

But one study, looking at inter-ethnic views of spanking and its long-term effects shows that if a culture views spanking as normal – basically, if it’s what everyone does – kids aren’t damaged by it as much. In African American communities or in American Conservative Protestant communities spanking is the norm.  And for those children it does not lead to more aggressive behavior later in life. In fact, spanking correlates with lower levels of aggression in those communities even as it correlates with higher levels of aggression in other communities. The authors note in African American communities spanking has been a “legitimate expression of parental authority” and even an expression of love; whereas for whites, spanking is more taboo and often triggered by anger. 

Another study compared ethnic Norwegians with ethnic Sami, a people who view spanking as normal and acceptable. Among Norwegians, physical punishment was linked with anti-social behavior. Among the Sami, there was no such correlation.

I guess this is a way of saying: in parenting, culture matters.  It matters even in how we process, learn from and experience physical pain.  It matters down to our nerve endings and brain development. I find that astounding.

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None of this, I should mention, should be taken as an endorsement of spanking or hitting your children. Even if spanking is less likely to lead to aggressive or anti-social behavior in some contexts, there are plenty of reasons to choose not to spank your children: (1) Other methods are just as effective and probably more humane, (2) spanking can teach that violence solves problems and (3) once you start spanking it can be easier to escalate into hitting out of anger or frustration.

I should also point out that there is a range of physical punishment even in cultures in which it is socially sanctioned. Some physical punishment is clearly beyond the pale, and no one can condone that. But most of the world does some kind of spanking. This is changing slowly, but is still the case.  I suppose my point is, it’s nice to know that these children might not be experiencing quite the state terror those of us in the West often assume comes with childhood corporal punishment. And it’s also a good reminder that it takes more than a parent or two to raise a child. 

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8 comments:

  1. This is interesting because in our move to Morocco we've been adamant that our children are not to be touched - and not beaten. We don't hit them and never have. Now certainly it could be said that children adjust however in just gauging how other children here who are physically punished behave in comparison to our children who are not hit, it's day and night. The children who are hit use violence as an expression of anger to peers and the behavior that instigated the initial beating does not change. The assumption here is that children should be afraid of their parents - it's a power thing. But it's also a circular pattern. Parents hit kids to express anger/displeasure, kids do the same to their peers, this incites another punishment from parents, kids grow up and using violence to express displeasure to their spouse and children. But, maybe I'm viewing this just through my cultural lens?

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    1. I agree about the lesson that violence solves problems (that's one of the things I listed under "reasons you might not want to spank your child) is imparted and it definitely sets up a more rigid power dynamic. I have also read that societies that more readily accept corporal punishment for children have more violence against women. I'm certainly not advocating it as a practice for any particular family or even as a widespread practice. But, the fact remains, it exists. And this post was my attempt to understand how it works differently in different contexts. But I agree that it's a cycle and one that's difficult to break!

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  2. I observe this difference in upbringing every day. I see parents hitting their children in front of others because they use to do it in their cultures. I really don't know how far one can go with this and with interfering here in the western culture. Anyway, what Amanda says about the circular pattern: I see the effects of parental physical punishment in the behaviour of their children. They really sometimes have serious anger management problems becaus using violence to express displeasure towards their peers is not acceptable in our community. Does my child, that grows up with no experience of physical violence, really need to accept this other behaviour or should families of those countries adapt to our "western" way of parenting? I am very open minded towards all other cultures, but when it comes to violence and my kids are involved, I have to take action...

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    1. It's a tough situation and I certainly don't think you need to "accept" any form of violence against your children. The research is generally about *within* those cultures that have wide acceptance of physical punishment of children those children are (according to the research) generally LESS aggressive as a result. But maybe when cultures are mingle and clash there are a lot of other issues at play, which override any other effects. It's such a tough one! I see kids hit here all the time and it breaks my heart. I would never allow my own kids to be hit. It's just that talking to my Kenyan friends has made me rethink what kind of an effect this might have on them. Anyway, that all likely varies greatly too! (another layer of complication) Some kids might shrug it off others might be angry and resentful and they are all getting different degrees of physical punishment too. thanks so much for your comments! I imagine a lot of readers feel exactly as you do!

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  3. This is really interesting. When teaching in a school with predominantly African American population, I never knew how to react when the parents told me to go ahead and hit their kids if they got out of line - both the parents and the kids expected it as a viable discipline option. It's something I struggle with as far as cultural relativism because I cannot see how anger isn't associated with spanking or hitting. I have no good answer (or reaction).

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    1. Me neither! (having no good answer). I struggled to find a way to end this post because I'm not entirely sure what to draw from it. I'm leery of taking cultural relativism too far and using it to justify too much. But again, talking to adults who have lived through this upbringing and are a lot more sanguine about it than I had assumed has altered my thinking a bit. It's not changing how I personally am raising my own children, but it's something to think about anyway...

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  4. Let's see if I can recreate my disappeared comment!

    You know this story already, but I'll repeat it: I decided definitively not to spank my kids after the one time I smacked my daughter - to sting - on her leg. She drew back and said with shock and dismay, "Don't hit me!" I felt horrible. Never again.

    Nevertheless, I understand what you're saying. A friend used to recount, with glee, how her mother used to "pop" her. And, of course, in Senegal corporeal punishment is typical, particularly for boys.

    Here's the thing for me: While spanking might not affect all children negatively, it can't be said either that no child is harmed by it. Some kids are sensitive. Some kids find spanking a provocation to dig into their defiance. We know, too, that many kids reacted negatively to spanking because, after they grew up, they said so. (Part of why I swore off spanking was due to my memories of pain and humiliation.)

    To me, it's not worth the risk, not when there are other modes of enforcing discipline. The trouble is, if we try to impose a worldwide ban on spanking, we play into patterns of cultural imperialism. But what if people could see other modes of discipline? Perhaps parents would choose not to spank their children. It's hard to say, because nothing "works" with every kid each time - that's parenting. Certainly, spanking is faster, easier, and likely more effective in the short term than negotiation.

    I find it fascinating that a lot of Western parents are questioning whether it's "bad" to spank after spending time in countries where spanking is the norm. I'm not sure we'll ever resolve this question. But I'm clear in my conscience.

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    1. I think this is a big piece that is often missing from the debate. Each child reacts to spanking differently. I remember being spanked (it was rare) and I certainly didn't like it, but we outgrew it as a punishment and I don't feel all that scared from it. But obviously each child is going to interpret the experience differently.

      Also, so much depends on the manner in which its done - how often, how severe, how capricious, with how much malice, as a consequence for what etc... There's a HUGE range so it's hard to even make any blanket statements about it.

      But I do think that for those of us who have access to so many other methods of discipline it makes sense to avoid it for the reasons I mentioned above and for the reasons you expressed from personal experience of pain an humiliation. The problem is that those other methods (at least in teh short term) tend to be more difficult to implement and require consistency and patience of often a privilege to be revoked - those things are short supply in much of the world where mothers have little to take away from children and little time to focus on enforcing time outs or doing behavior charts etc... Still, I think if some of those moms were aware of other techniques they might try them. But until then I'm guessing the "it's what my mom did and I turned OK" will rule the day....

      BTW - I loved your post on this and your personal remembrances were truly touching!

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